Those Bahamians who take for granted our democracy and their right to vote with smug or shallow excuses for not registering or voting, might wish to read the cover story of the December 26 edition of Time Magazine announcing its 2011 “Person of the Year”.
Instead of a single person, Time selected “The Protestor” in tribute to protestors around the world, and especially across North Africa and the Middle East who are forcing democratic change, including the right to vote.
What has been termed the Arab Spring is unfolding in different ways from the Maghreb to the Levant, perhaps even stirring protests for fairer elections in Russia. Still, no matter the country, protestors are bound by the shared goals of political enfranchisement and greater economic empowerment.
The choice of The Protestor has a double-significance: It links collective action with individual choice, which is the ideal of free and fair elections. Just as it may require a mass of protestors to gain the right of an individual to vote, it takes a mass of voters to continually secure those rights by exercising their franchise.
Bouazizi was the primary breadwinner for his mother and siblings. Deeply distraught at having his produce confiscated yet again, and harassed by various authorities over many years, he lit himself afire to protest his treatment and that of scores of Tunisians.
His death some days later from severe burns and injuries was the catalyst for events still unfolding. Within a year, longstanding and entrenched dictators fell in Tunisia, Algeria, Libya and Egypt. Other regimes such as the Assad dynasty in Syria appear imperilled.
The giddy illusion by some that with the despots gone well-functioning democracies would quickly emerge was punctured by chaotic legislative elections in Egypt, and the fear that the generals who secured Hosni Mubarak’s rule might not be intent on giving up power so quickly.
Fearing that their democratic revolution might be at risk, the protestors who voted Mubarak out of office with their bodies returned to the now famous Tahrir Square as a warning to the generals.
The unfolding of democratic revolutions occurring in the Middle East and North Africa, highlight a charter of rights fundamental to a functioning democracy, among them the rights of free assembly and speech to support or protest an idea or government.
A companion right which bolsters and protects these and other democratic rights is the right to vote in free and fair elections for the representatives and government of one’s choosing.
There are a number of glib excuses some give for not voting: “All politicians are the same. … These politicians don’t do anything for me. … My vote doesn’t count. … The system is flawed.” There are other variations on these themes.
While there may be rare cases of conscientious objection for not voting, most of the excuses tend to be juvenile and glib evincing an almost pristine and wilful ignorance of history and the struggle for freedom and democracy.
The right to vote is a symbol and guarantor of democratic rights and freedoms. Martin Luther King Jr. and those who marched and died for a Voting Rights Act enfranchising black Americans would not understand those today who take such a right for granted.
Nor would Nelson Mandela who spent over a quarter a century in prison or the millions of South Africans who often walk hours to a voting station then spend additional hours on line waiting to vote.
In Burma Aung San Suu Kyi was recently released from house arrest after many years. She has agreed to and is encouraging the Burmese people to participate in upcoming elections which it is unclear will be free and fair. Having won a previous election which was annulled by the then military junta, she has not given up on democratic politics.
To refuse to vote is a decision. It shows a level of disdain and contempt for our democratic system. There is certain arrogance to those who feel that voting is beneath them and that they won’t participate in electing “those politicians” (who, incidentally, are our fellow citizens).
Voting is not fundamentally about politicians. It is about the citizenry choosing their elected representatives and holding them accountable. Democracy, like the human condition is imperfect, requiring constant improvement and renewal. The alternative is a system of anarchy.
There is also an immaturity to those who refuse to help choose the nation’s elected representatives and refuse also to participate in governance. Still, they expect someone else to make the tough decisions on everything from crime to the economy to education.
Often, these same individuals have much to say on issues of public policy though they refuse to vote or become involved in governance. There is a level of hypocrisy by those who sit on their high horses complaining about the politicians while refusing to participate.
A refusal to exercise one’s right to vote is a dereliction of a basic right for which many have fought and died, and for which many are still struggling. For the progeny of slaves it is a sort of disregard and dishonouring of the struggles of those ancestors who for generations fought for basic freedoms, including in The Bahamas for majority rule.
Those who refuse to exercise their right to vote for cavalier and unreflective reasons, do a disservice to the witness of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Bahamian men and women freedom fighters, and protestors around the world today for whom the right to vote is a democratic gift not to be taken lightly nor for granted.