Mohsin Zeb on the importance of exercising our democratic rights
I have just returned from the polling station, having cast my vote in the local elections. The act itself was nothing special, I placed a cross next to the candidate I deemed best suited to represent me and the people of my ward. However, such a small act represented the most monumental and magnificent of concepts, the empowering of the people – democracy.
I have penned articles before questioning universal suffrage, and I still feel there should be some sort of qualifier to be able to vote. A right earned will not be so wilfully neglected by so many people. I was quite literally one of two people at the polling station, and the mass of activists canvassing doors in the area suggested many have not exercised their vote. This wide spread apathy towards the political process bothers me a great deal. The simple right and act of voting is empowering. The political machine, the centre of local power, seeks the permission and support of the people. They ask for a mandate from the people to legitimize their rule.
Such a wonderful system affords us the right to choose who governs us, and if as is often the case, they disappoint, we can peacefully remove them from power a few years down the line.
I am of the belief that one can only appreciate a democratic system if one has seen a dictatorship in action. I was in Pakistan in 2007, during the Musharraf reign. Now Musharraf was relatively mild as far as dictators go, but none the less the dismissal of an elected Premier – however poor Nawaz Sharif was – represented a giant wave of indifference to the wishes of the Pakistani people. To see armed guards at banks, soldiers patrolling the street. It is not nice, yes there is a degree of security from such a set up, but the price paid is extremely steep. Pakistan has recovered to some sort of democracy, not a very effective one, but it’s a positive step to have an elected leader in PM Gilani see out his term in Office. The darkest days of dictatorship saw an unrelenting resistance from the judicial branch in Pakistan. The Supreme Court resisted Musharraf and ultimately was successful in having a degree of legal procedure restored to the political process. What we take for granted here in the UK, that our vote will be counted fairly, that our choice of leaders will be allowed to exercise their democratic mandate without interference from non-elected quarters, these are not to be taken lightly.
The people fought for centuries for us to enjoy such rights. Even today, across the world, in Syria or Egypt, or Libya or countless African states, people are giving their lives to have the right to free and fair elections. That brute Bashir Assad fears empowering his people, for he knows a free Syria sees his family dictatorship come to a crashing halt. So yes, it does bother me when people fail to vote. It represents a dismissal of tremendous progress towards a fair and civilized society, a rejection of a right that was won with tears and blood and sweat. Women especially had to fight tooth and polished nail for the right to vote on equal terms with men, and should be especially adamant about exercising that right to vote.
I say voting rights should be earned by community service or civil contribution at the age of 18. Nothing too strenuous, but a period of service which results in the right to vote, it is a privilege to have a vote. It says “I am”, that I matter and the power centres recognize that. Furthermore, voting should be compulsory.
Too many people complain that the people in power don’t enjoy a majority, yet these are the same people least likely to vote. A system of compulsory voting, for those who have earned the vote, needs to be enacted. A legitimate mandate is central to just democratic practice. Perhaps we can take a different approach and say if a person fails to vote three times in a row, they lose their right to vote. Such people are oblivious to the pain and suffering, struggle and sacrifice that right represents. I ask all who are too lazy to vote to speak to someone from Syria or any such country, Saudi Arabia perhaps, and ask them what they would give to be in your place. Our political future is in our hands, we choose, we are the ultimate bosses. No concept remotely as beautiful has ever before emerged from political evolution, and that the world struggles for this right is testimony to its universal appeal.
As for me, my MA thesis focussed on democratization and whilst I can sometimes rant and rave when the masses irritate me, nothing renews my faith in the country like an election day. I’m one of the lucky ones, I have a political voice. I am a historian; I know how rare that is in historical terms. So let us rejoice in this wonderful fact – for all the ills we currently endure, we count. From the Prime Minister to the local councillor, politicians need our mandate to legitimise their rule. Nothing is more powerful.