Electoral democracy, salesmanship or the games people play

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By Marie Burge

Election of politicians, though important, is not a significant measure of how well democracy is working. In fact, party politics in the current electoral system is often self-serving and does not engage citizens or communities for the long run.

Democracy, meant to provide wide representation of the people, would be better served by a carefully designed system of proportional representation.

Very soon P.E.I. will be struck with election fever and many of us may even take leave of our senses and get involved in what is often called a game. Before the prospect of two major voting opportunities in 2015 and in 2016 settles on us, we could reflect on democracy and elections.

Those who say, I'm not voting; the government does nothing for me, are probably more destructive to democracy than are corrupt politicians.

These citizens are claiming that the role of government is to cater to the wants of individuals. Without missing the importance of the individual, we need to insist that government, by its nature, is a social institution meant to serve the whole society, with special emphasis on sectors which are usually left on the margins.

P.E.I. is cursed with a long history of patronage which gives us poor governments. In some countries, corrupt political parties threaten citizens with guns. In our country, people are silenced by a party's threat, sometimes subtle, to hamper their capacity to make a living, for example.

Our question is: have we made any progress from the days when a vote could be bought with a teddy of rum and a five-dollar bill?

Some say all politicians are crooked. This is untrue and unjust and can be used as an escape from responsibility. We probably have the same percentage of crooked people in politics as we have in other sectors of society. As in other sectors, we need to collectively take the time and energy, sort out who's who, and then act accordingly.

It is probably true that many politicians allow themselves to be influenced by the rich and powerful. If the message of power and money is what they hear the loudest, they will be influenced by it. That does not make them crooked. It just makes them vulnerable and ill-informed. They may even get used to the "rush" which comes with being recognized in the halls of power.

It also gives them access to easy campaign funds.

There are those who maintain that all the parties are the same. These are also irresponsible people who obviously refuse to put effort into studying the actual policies of each party. Currently we have four parties in P.E.I. and one independent. There really are five distinct policy directions. It doesn't take a doctorate degree to get to know what these are.

That brings me to some concerns about how parties and their candidates present themselves to the electorate. Maybe politicians are more interested in "selling their product" than in giving voters policy options.

The pre-election language and actions of candidates and their "handlers" brings some concerns to mind. The corporate model reigns. Notice how obsessed parties are about establishing their "brand". This sounds more like the goals of a toothpaste company than the ideals of a political party. Party strategists seem to be more interested in advertising the "brand" than they are in policies. Parties often design election platforms around what they think will please the most of their potential voters rather than what will be for the good of the whole community.

The real kicker is the belief that "negative ads work". This is a sad commentary about politics and about our whole society.

Finally, and no less sobering, is the image of politics as a game. After all, we talk about the election as a "race". We talk about candidates "running" in that race. It is all based on the sports model of winners and losers. Candidates are supposed to "beat" their opponents. And of course, our electoral model is called "first-past-the-post".

Statisticians love to feed us the odds to help us in placing our bets (We mean, our votes).

Our electoral history in P.E.I. gives us a grim picture of two parties vying for absolute power. We should be reminded often of the quote, "Power corrupts; Absolute power corrupts absolutely". The "winning" party has frequently had a large majority with the Opposition reduced to ineffectual pecking at the flaws of the governing party. We are not served well by this setup.

A major electoral mystery for me: what happened to the debate about proportional representation in P.E.I.? Those in power, have obviously decided in their wisdom that proportional representation is not an option. One well-known supporter of the governing party went on public TV recently and chuckled that proportional representation "just isn't going to happen".

Sure we had a vote on the question. But what few people will dare to say is that those who long for absolute power did all in their power to discourage a "yes" vote. So now, is there a political party which would honestly take this on in the next federal and provincial election?

We need to adopt a form of government which truly represents the makeup of our community. We should vote for a way of governing which is best for the majority, without forgetting minorities. We should choose the political party which has policies to restore democracy. All of us can do better. As a community we have the capacity to revive a process for gaining proportional representation. We can all be wiser in our voting.


Marie Burge of Mermaid, P.E.I., is writing on behalf of the Cooper Institute.

Organizations: Cooper Institute

Geographic location: P.E.I.

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