With the date for the 2019 national elections scheduled for the 08 May rapidly approaching, several shows and media platforms have shifted focus to conversations concerning the elections and the various political parties involved. While this is a similar conversation that I’d like us to have I’d like to look at the importance of voting not only as actively taking part in our democracy, but also to possibly create a more robust less polarized electoral atmosphere in future.
A massive focal point in the preparations of the national elections, or any election really, is the importance of voting. Not spending too much time on the history of South Africa’s democratic elections, at its core the crux of voting is providing citizen the space, platform and ability to not only take part in a basic and vital part of a functional democracy but also the power to select the government that will define chiefly assistant in the running of the country. Simply put, letting ‘the people’ choose the party that they feel best reflects and represents their interests and that has the capacities to do so effectively.
With, the last two elections have witnessed a steady decline in voter turnout, a trend that looks to continue in the 2019 national elections.
One reason for the low turnout in voters is the increasing apathy towards elections by mostly the youth and the poor according to the South African Citizens Survey. Lack of faith in the electoral process in bringing actual effective and positive change to the country stands as the main reasoning.
After all, despite the difference in theologies and mannerisms, political parties all serve their own agenda. Right? This backed with usual circuses that are party campaign has left the South African populations with less than enthusiastic about election time.
A second more substantive reason is the almost non-existent education on the importance of voting by non-aligned, independent entities, like the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC). Most of the coxing people to vote work is carried by political parties which, for the obvious problem that this comes coupled with partisan campaigning, is not ideal. To be clear, the issue is not the campaigning for votes by political parties (although there are deeply problematic aspects of how political parties which should be addressed) the issue is without more visible, extensive promoting of the elections by the IEC the already skewed notion that elections are for the sole benefit of political parties and not the citizens that political parties exist to serve and represent is fortified. The importance of voting should, for one, not only be brought out and paraded with run-ups to elections, it should be constantly reemphasized throughout the years by the IEC (and other independent electoral bodies) to reestablish the link of elections to non-partisan entities but also to re-deconstruct ties that elections only concern and benefit members of political parties.
With regards to the possible political parties, this looks to also be a reason for the resistant stance towards voting. Currently, as a result of the campaigning power available to them, a common perception is that only three political parties are worth voting for, based on their size and dominance. These were the ruling party the African National Congress, it’s main opposition the Democratic Alliance, and the fast-growing in popularity the Economic Freedom Fighters. The presence of other, albeit, smaller parties like the Pan-Africanist Congress, the Congress of the People, and the Women Forward pollical party are gravely overshadowed by the sheer, overwhelming campaigning capacities of the ‘top three’.
However, the fact that there are other parties allowed to contest national elections freely in whatever capacity possible is a testament to the fact South Africa’s democracy is still intact and offers the means to further increase the vibrancy of the political atmosphere, giving choice to potential voters. If one feels that there no relatable options in the top three to vote for, being able to identify and vote for a different party is still an option. This also serves as a possible means to increase the voice of smaller parties, allowing them the power to more actively represent their constituency. Voting for smaller parties also serves of a solution for members of larger parties who wish to chastise their party by withholding their vote but not handing it to one of the larger parties in fear that it may grant them the majority and not abstain from voting altogether.
One last aspect that cannot be ignored is the right not to vote. Arguments used by some for not voting is the often undermined and oddly heckled. Being a democratic state with free and fair elections the significance in the right to vote is doubled down by the existence of the choice to vote. While for many voting is an integral part of any democracy being able to abstain from voting by mere choice is just as integral. The legitimacy of elections and their outcomes often cemented in the fact that voters voted for the party of their choosing without any coercion. This opting for the right not to vote however is also a tell for the lack of faith citizens have in the electoral process and its governing institutions. Still, opting not to vote often then runs into the question of whether those who did not vote have the right to complain about a failing government, seeing as they did indirectly select it.
In asking whether to vote, ideally, one would not stay away from the ballot purely based on the history of our democracy and the importance of elections in maintaining it. Even as a means of showing dissatisfaction with the current political climate, not voting in no way provides any possibilities for a change in how things are, only voting for an alternative is.