The most eccentric moment of “people power” was recorded late on Saturday night European time: within a few minutes approx. 15 million individual votes were delivered to the EBU, the powerful European Broadcasting Union celebrating its 60th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest. People from 40 countries (including Australia) selected their favourite songs and performers. The result of this complicated and not very transparent e-voting operation offered few surprises, as Sweden took possession of the translucent ESC trophy for the 6th time since 1956, followed by Russia and Italy in second and third places.
A much more formal, but a far less encouraging popular vote took place in Ethiopia on May 24. More than 37 million registered citizens were called to elect a new federal and eleven regional parliaments. In spite of the enormous ethnic variety of its growing population (of almost 100 million people) and more than 50 registered political parties, just one political party – the governing “People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front” claimed to have won more than 99% of the seats. Even before election day the government-controlled Electoral Commission had already offered a comment forestalling any kind of criticism: ”…disturbing the people and the country is not expected from one party or deputy who thinks to lead the country. And if some party or deputy does that it is a shameful act and it is not a sign of civilization”.
Back in Europe two of its most populous countries, Poland and Spain, held a series of landslide elections on the third Sunday in May: in Poland the run-off election for president ended in a victory of the conservative opposition candidate Andrzej Duda (52% of the vote) while the regional and municipal votes across Spain offered an interesting preview of the national parliament elections later this year as the two main political parties (the conservative people’s party and the socialist party) lost more than 15% of the overall vote, with new forces taking over mayoral offices in many places including Barcelona, where human rights activist Ada Colau was elected as new mayor.
Healthy self-criticism and democratic appreciation
At the end of the day, numbers and majorities are critical in a democracy when it comes to calling a winner. But while numbers do matter, they are far from sufficient. For this reason, one of last weekend’s voting experiences clearly sticks out: the Irish constitutional referendum on same-sex marriage. The Irish offered the world a blueprint for a free and fair vote, turning out in high numbers (60+%) and becoming the globe’s first country to introduce a new dimension of equality at the ballot box. With only one out of 43 constituencies recording a no-majority, more than 1.2 million Irish voters (62.1%) approved the ground-breaking new article in the Irish constitution, while 734,000 (37.9%) voted against the change. More surprising than the happy celebrations by the gay-community were the reactions of the losers, who quickly congratulated the yes-campaign and offered a healthy dose of self-criticism: ” We have to stop and have a reality check”, stated the archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, who called the popular vote a true ”social revolution” and added: “I appreciate how gay and lesbian men and women feel on this day. That they feel this is something that is enriching the way they live.”
What both the ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ in the Irish vote were able to understand is that a properly conducted popular vote process can hold up a mirror to society rather than being a simple decision that is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. Understanding the democratic process in this way becomes more obvious in the case of popular votes on substantive issues rather than in elections, as in the former the citizens themselves becomes the decision-makers. While elections are about trust, alternating majorities and the delegation of power, initiatives and referendums offer citizens the opportunity to take responsibility for themselves by participating in the decision-making process. Summing up last weekend’s super-voting experiences we can clearly declare one polity a democratic frontrunner: Ireland, twelve points.
Text by Bruno Kaufmann, Board Member of Democracy International.
This article was originally published in People2Power.
Credits of image above: Quinn Dombrowski, Wikimedia Commons.