"Neither current events nor history show that the majority rules or ever did rule. The contrary I think is true."
Jefferson Davis, reflecting on the American Civil War.
Months ago, I heard a Newsweek reporter refer to America as "the world's leading democracy" on my short-wave radio. I searched my complimentary election issue of Newsweek, but missing among the stories of political consultants, campaign analysis, and Beltway intrigue was the one fact that would have proven his statement: voter turnout. I assumed it was so low they were embarrassed to publish it. I've since heard it was the lowest since the 1920s.
Voter apathy is a serious problem in a democracy. Sure Americans have the right to vote, but the majority apparently consider that right worthless, or at least not worth the time and effort it takes to vote.
Who really has the power? These apathetic voters or the campaign contributors who can give hundreds of thousands of dollars to both parties?
While you're just recovering from the elections, in Papua New Guinea elections will be held in June. It's a parliamentary system that on paper is very egalitarian. Each region elects a member to Parliament, and he has influence in governmental appointments and has discretionary spending, rumored to be slush funds. It gets intense in some places, and there has already been violence in the Highlands. I hear ballot judges need to be airlifted in helicopters.
Locally, I've just seen grassroots campaigning: posters, handouts, marches, rallies with singing, hand shaking, etc. And promises. Lots of promises.
I listened to two minutes of a campaign speech, and it was enough for me. I was unhappy with the provincial governor from the start when his visit disrupted my classes. Sure he's indirectly responsible for running the school, but he came to campaign. We shouldn't give him a captive audience of students. In 90 seconds he referred to his university degree in economics three times. That was to convince us he wasn't full of it I guess. I'm insulted by the mere suggestion that his "maus wara" is more important than my math lectures.
I see two reactions in voters here. One is apathy: "All politicians are corrupt. They're liars. My vote doesn't matter." This was vented by some in the recent civil unrest in Port Moresby. On Australian television, I saw a correspondent report looters as saying they were just doing what politicians did.
Others support a candidate. In our area at least, it's very localized. If you know the candidate, if he or she is from your village, you might benefit. One teacher has a clan member running and his priority is to build a road through their village to Aitape. Of course, all the candidates promise new roads. Another teacher has a cousin-brother running up in the highlands of Sandaun. If he wins, my friend is hoping for a scholarship, maybe a visit to Minnesota.
Our system seems more sophisticated, but politics is crude. Candidates that tell the whole truth don't usually get elected. What does that tell you? As Raymond Chandler wrote about politics, "It asks for the highest type of men, and there's nothing in it to attract the highest type of men."
(Michael Jacobson was a reporter for the Paynesville Press before joining the Peace Corps.)
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