Sunday, 17 June 2012

The people’s choice

Two nations go to the polls today, ostensibly to determine their own futures with the exercise of suffrage, to declare by their votes who it is they wish to lead them and, in very general and rough terms, where. But are the Greeks and the Egyptians really doing any such thing?

Greek voters find themselves presented with a range of choices among parties and personalities, but in essence the options boil down to two, both unattractive and neither one representative of what the majority might be said to want. On the one hand are the doomsayers of the political class insisting that the country must grow up and not defy its paymasters in Frankfurt, Brussels and Berlin. This posture, shared by both the traditional leftish (PASOK) and rightish (New Democracy) parties, is described as ‘accepting the need for reform’ and similar phrases alluding to the messy and long-standing Greek arrangements of tax avoidance, featherbedding of state payrolls and cozy corruption—that is, the exact system these two parties installed and managed for decades.

On the other hand, Syriza and the refusnik parties describe their approach as standing up to the central European bankers by insisting on a different deal. They argue that the years of austerity have failed and merely driven the country to collapse, making the debt burden balloon into unsustainability. They tap the average Greek’s despair, outrage and suspicion of German motives. Yet no one wants to walk the plank of a Euro exit, so they clamor for reopening negotiations and, indirectly, of turning the gun being held at Greece’s head back at the EU itself since no one knows where a showdown will lead.

What is the beleaguered Greek voter to do? His pension is slashed, his elderly parents are eating out of garbage bins, the local hospital has no medicine, the city busses no longer run, and now the tourist trade is drying up out of fears of unrest. How are average Greeks, who work more hours per year than the supposedly virtuous Germans, to vote for their own future? They will trudge to the polls, or not, aware that the decisions about their survival will be taken elsewhere.

Meanwhile, Egyptians are living their own version of political manic-depression. After the euphoria of revolution, the heady promise of a real elected government suddenly has morphed into a demoralizing choice between the ancien régime and Islamic fundamentalism with the army standing by to gloat. A Mubarak-era court dared to wipe out the results of the recent parliamentary vote, smashing in one stroke the elaborately choreographed process for writing the country a new constitution. Tens of millions vote, but six guys in black robes decide the country’s future.

Yet despite the turmoil, attempts by the Mubarak remnants to put the genie back into a pre-revolutionary bottle are probably not going to work. The Muslim Brotherhood and other religious parties misstepped by not broadening their appeal and raising fears of a confessional dictatorship; the Tahrir Square secularists and youthful leftists didn’t build electoral machinery. These errors can be corrected, but votes cast in eventual elections will show the results of their efforts, not magically produce them.

Here at home, we have a similar lesson on display, should we choose to learn it. The Wisconsin recall effort failed where the fight against Governor Walker’s reactionary measures had achieved a measure of success. Once the campaign was channeled into traditional two-party electoral politics, the air went out of that tires on that bus.

Elections are a powerful symbol, and they operate as a check on the discretion of the mighty. But clicking the ‘like’ button does not a social movement make. If citizens are atomized, passive and ignorant, the act of voting becomes debased and shades into meaninglessness. By contrast, if they are awakened and ready to defend themselves, an election regains substance and heft even when lost. It will be fun to watch the totals come in showing who has accumulated more ballots in Greece and in Egypt, but these are mere chapters in the stories of peoples.

No comments: