Today’s Globe and Mail offers an interesting study in contrasts. The top two stories on their home page deal with election coverage. Canada’s election took priority, so leading the way was a report on last night’s debate between the leaders of Canada’s political parties. Following hot on its heels was a report on the voting in Iraq yesterday.
The article on the leadership debate would be annoyingly familiar to readers of North American media. Whether you’re American or Canadian, all election coverage is beginning to sound pretty much the same. Leader wraps himself in flag, other leader talks about how corrupt first leader is and what a better job he would have done, first leader retaliates and so on. In Canada, we have it slightly worse, as we have two additional opposition parities that provide their variations on the same theme.
Nothing new is ever said in these debates: Everyone sticks to the same old sad formulae that have stood them in such good stead over the last however many weeks they have been campaigning. A leadership debate is not an opportunity to judge the contenders on their merits as quick thinkers; rather, it is an opportunity to see how well they can answer different questions with the same response over and over again.
Reading the article about the recent Iraq voting is like the difference between breathing the air in Los Angeles and the air on a mountaintop. Instead of the torpid, sleep-inducing language of North American campaigns, here there is excitement and interest. People are talking about the importance of voting and meaning what they say.
There is no need to lecture the people of Iraq on getting out and voting; they know how important it is for them to have representation in the upcoming government. The Sunni Muslims who had boycotted the preliminary elections last year turned out in waves this year so as to ensure their voices are heard in Parliament.
Even the paramilitary groups, who threatened disruptions last year, were silent. They’ve recognized the inevitable and seen that the people they represent must vote in order to secure their future in a new Iraq. You don’t have to approve of or like George Bush to appreciate how much more these people are excited by their election than most North Americans can even hope to be.
I’m sure there will be those who tell me that I’m being a woeful tool of the Bushites and naïve for thinking that these are genuine elections. But if almost 70 percent of registered voters turn out on election day, and everyone is willing to call a truce even for one day, then the people who live there obviously think the Iraqi election matters. Isn’t that what’s important?
How often do we even get a 50 percent turnout of eligible voters in North America? When was the last time you read an article about an election over here where people are excited about voting because it is their way in having a say in how the country is run?
The biggest difference, of course, is that the Iraqis don’t take the right to vote for granted. To them, it is something special. Even though the results are pretty much a forgone conclusion because of the split along religious lines, the minority Sunni Muslims know that if enough of them vote, they will still be able to play a significant role in government.
When was the last time any North American honestly felt that their vote was important? Maybe some special-interest groups that mobilize behind a candidate or a party feel like they are making a difference, but for the person in the street to say that is almost unheard of. Most of us no longer make the connection between voting and having a say in how our countries are run.
Is it because we take the right to vote for granted? Is it because we feel cut off from the people who are running the country, that no matter what we feel they are going to do what they want? Or is it simply because we don’t feel like it makes any difference who is in power when it comes to our day-to-day existence?
Governments have become convenient scapegoats for us. If something is wrong with our lives, it’s the government’s fault. Taxes are too high, services are too low. They are all corrupt bums. You can never trust a politician to tell the truth. It doesn’t matter who is in power, that is most people’s attitude toward the government.
Is it any wonder that so few of us get excited by a political campaign? It’s a contest between the politicians and the electorate to see who is the most cynical or jaded. They speak and pretend to say something; we listen and pretend to respond. Everybody goes through the paces and calls it democracy.
In Iraq, the people line up for hours so that they can vote; they turned out in such numbers that polling stations actually ran out of ballots. In Canada, we’re lucky if 50 percent of the people on the voters’ list show up, let alone those who aren’t even registered.
I don’t know if there is any way to recapture on these shores, if indeed we ever had it, the spirit of excitement shown by the people voting in the Iraqi election. To be honest, I sometimes wonder if our politicians actively work to prevent that. An involved electorate is a dangerous one, as far as they are concerned; they ask awkward questions that pat answers – the bread-and-butter of political speech – don’t cover.
If I were truly jaded and cynical I would say they deliberately bore the electorate in an attempt to keep us as uninvolved as possible. But that could never happen, could it? I’ll say this much though: if Americans and Canadians took half the interest in their election campaigns that the Iraqis are taking in theirs, I’d bet we’d have governments more in tune with what we were feeling and saying than we do now.