Thursday, 4 June 2015

Reader Reply: Doesn't voting in the developing world matter?

In response to my recent voting piece, someone pointed out the experience of developing countries might be different. Since what we're dealing with here is the problem of humans, then it's hard to see this as possible. Humans are good at many things, but if a Western culture is this invested in a lie about voting and then goes out of its way to introduce the idea of democracy - fully-fledged - to a culture without any experience of it at all, then there's no way that culture is coming out unscathed.

His argument's are clear, so that's a good start. But he's wrong in a very specific way:

I agree to a point, at least in a first world system like NZ. Ultimately the general voter is educated enough that if the 'system' seems unbalanced, something is done to right it. 
And by and large, no matter who's in power the status quo is generally maintained (i.e. developed countries generally sustain themselves, give or take the odd misstep, because they have the resources and their citizens are "better off" than most of their developing and third world counterparts).  
How else would you explain a tool like Tony Abbott (who by the way is now the most hated public figure in Australia if you believe the latest polls) getting elected to power!? The scenario becomes more complex in developing and third world countries. In South Africa for example, the 'popular' vote is neither educated nor rational, but rather based on historical realities.  
It doesn't matter that the democratically elected party and president mainly looks after its own interests while the "masses" that voted it into power slide further into poverty. If anything this benefits the powers that be, because a more educated electorate would be a risk to the power base. In this case you could also argue your vote doesn't make a difference, except it does, because the more the educated minority votes, the more eroded the power base becomes for the liberation party (it's no coincidence that the Western Cape, which has the highest level of education in the country, is also the only province not governed by the ANC). 
South Africans, by and large, vote with their hearts not their heads. Until that changes true change and a 'mature' democracy can't prevail. Ironically enough, that would only bring the country closer to a point where voting counts less to shift the status quo.

It’s all a bit disheartening. On one side, and he's right to point this out, the maintenance of the status quo is extremely effective in keeping advanced Western systems going. But on the other, it’s hard to be sure that when a developing nation’s citizens start to vote they’re not being manipulated in exactly the same way for exactly the same reinforcement.

The question I keep in my mind when thinking about non-Western voting is that democracy isn’t their own idea. They didn’t invent this thing they've now adopted, and that’s crucial.

If the reason we vote in New Zealand isn’t a product of our own free will, as I argue, and yet we have the benefit of the legacy of hundreds of years of democracy, then how much less free will must a citizen of Malawi have in choosing whether to vote?

Note that I’m not critiquing how the Malawian votes. I’m only pointing out that every Malawi citizen believing he/she should take part in democracy via a ballot box is, when you think about it, an extraordinary achievement of manipulation.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not falling into the all-white-men-are-bad trap. But in order to see just how deeply people in the Western world have been convinced their votes will “give us power”, just look at Malawi or any other country with sub-50 years-worth of democratic experience. Every single time they vote, nothing changes.

The corruption remains, the votes are tipped and the people at the top stay in power. The entire process a sham, and it’s painfully obvious. But it’s only obvious because it’s extremely rough around the edges. A US or NZ election “appears” more democratic, but it’s not. There’s just different people and interests involved and we’ve got the benefit of 400 years of being balls-deep in the democratic status quo, so therefore we think ours is more legitimate.

But it should be clear no power is gained or retained by doing the very thing the system expects of us. Like I always say, unless you’re throwing rocks don’t expect a protest to change anything. I’m not suggesting you throw rocks, I’m only pointing out why your revolution won’t work.

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