Thursday, 09 February 2017 14:09

Democracy only works when all citizens are engaged

Written by  Matthew Liebenberg
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One of the benefits of living in an open and democratic society is people have the freedom to decide where they want to live and work, how they want to spend their free time, who they want to associate with, and who they want to vote for in elections.

A free society should be cherished and protected as one will do with a rare, endangered plant or animal species. Freedom House, an independent watchdog organization in Washington, D.C. that monitors the status of freedom and democracy around the world, noted in its latest report that 2016 was the 11th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.
The Freedom in the World 2017 report indicates  only 39 per cent of the world’s population of 7.4 billion people are living in freedom, while 25 per cent are partially free and 36 per cent are not free.
Canada remains one of the most free countries in the world. The report gives Canada a score of 99 out of 100, with 100 being most free.
Only Finland, Norway and Sweden receive a freedom score of 100.
Countries that are electoral democracies tend to have a higher freedom score, but what will happen to a democratic society if the people with the responsibility to elect their leaders decide not to vote anymore? For how long can that country then remain free and democratic?
The issue of voter participation in Saskatchewan was raised by Dr. Michael Boda, the chief electoral officer in the province, after the publication of the first of four reports on last year’s provincial election.
Elections Saskatchewan released the report, Statement of Votes, on Jan. 23. A record number of 268 candidates were nominated and there were 2,945 polling stations on election day, April 4, 2016.
This was the first provincial election that took place since a 2014 legislative change created a permanent register of voters for Saskatchewan. There were 812,224 residents eligible to vote in the election and successful efforts by Elections Saskatchewan meant that 764,264 people or 94.1 per cent of eligible voters were registered to vote. This was the highest percentage of registered voters since the 1982 election, but it did not result into more visits to polling stations on election day.
A total of 434,244 ballots were cast in the election.
This represents a voter turnout of 56.8 per cent of registered voters or just 53.5 per cent of eligible voters.
Over 30,000 more people voted in the 2016 election than in 2011, but the number of eligible voters who participated in 2016 increased only with 2.4 per cent in comparison to five years ago.
There has been a steady decline in voter turnout in the province over the past three decades.
In the 1982 election the voter participation was still high at 83.9 per cent of registered voters and 79.8 per cent of eligible voters actually went to polling stations. In the 2016 and 2011 provincial elections the voter turnout as a percentage of the number of eligible voters in Saskatchewan was the lowest it has ever been since the 1982 election.
In an editorial written for media Feb. 1, Dr. Boda described the figures as “disturbing” and an issue that needs the attention of everyone.
“The numbers show a province increasingly taking for granted one of our country’s most precious commodities — democratic elections and the process by which we select those who lead our province,” he wrote.
Ironically, the public release of Dr. Boda’s op-ed happened on the same day the federal Liberal government announced it will abandon a 2015 election campaign promise of electoral reform.
The decision by the Liberals to abandon the idea of electoral reform probably was as much a political one as the original decision to make that election promise. In an interview with a Montreal newspaper in October 2016, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested the public demand for political reform has been less since the Liberal government came to power.
The political cynicism underlying the Liberal decision to turn away from electoral reform has a lot to do with how ordinary voters feel about politicians in general, both nationally and provincially, and the process of self-serving politics that has become the norm. What incentive do people have to vote if they feel their vote will make no difference after the election?
Prior to abandoning their electoral reform process, the Liberals launched an online digital consultation and engagement process called Online responses were received from 367,663 Canadians and many of the survey questions provide some insight into why people might not feel engaged with the democratic process.
While 50 per cent indicated they were somewhat satisfied with the way democracy works in Canada, another 23 per cent are not very satisfied, nine per cent are not at all satisfied and just 17 per cent are very satisfied.
Almost 44 per cent indicated the biggest barrier to voting was their frustration with politics.
The other significant reasons provided as barriers to voting were lack of time (28.3 per cent), do not like the voting system (19.6 per cent) and lack of information (17.7 per cent).
The three most important priorities identified by survey participants from a list of options were governments that consider all viewpoints before making a decision (62.7 per cent), governments that can be easily held to account by voters (58.6 per cent) and governments that collaborate with other parties in Parliament (55.68).
The current first past the post electoral system is not very conducive to achieving any of the above priorities. Is it any wonder that voters are turning their backs on the system and the only voices being heard are those loud partisan supporters of the different political parties?
In the 2015 federal election the Liberal Party won a majority by receiving 39.47 per cent of the vote and the same happened in 2011, when the Conservative Party won 39.62 per cent of the vote.
In the 2016 election the Saskatchewan Party won convincingly by receiving 62 per cent of support from the 53.5 per cent of eligible voters who decided to cast their ballots. In reality it means the provincial government was formed after the winning party received the vote of only 33.4 per cent of all eligible voters.
Democracy can only be enduring if all citizens are actively participating in the process.
Politicians need to focus on more than just their own success at the ballot box and consider the reasons for the disillusionment of voters, because a system that allows those elected by the few to rule over all is not democracy.
Matthew Liebenberg is a reporter with the Prairie Post.

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