The Secretary-General of the Commonwealth, Kamalesh Sharma, has urged the UK electorate to vote in the UK General Election on May 6th 2010, pointing out that many poorer Commonwealth countries with newer parliaments have a much better turnout.
At the last UK election in 2005, the turn-out was 61%. Compare that to 83% in St Kitts and Nevis and 74% in Sri Lanka this year; 75% in Malawi in 2009; or 88% in Nauru in 2008.
Many Britons are currently asking themselves whether their support for a fledgling democracy in Afghanistan – whose presidential elections of August 2009 were so obviously flawed – merits the loss of their soldiers’ lives. There was inspiration in the images of mules laden with ballot papers crossing mountain passes to supply remote polling booths; but there was also despair, at the realisation that in parts of Helmand and Kandahar the turnout was as low as 10%.
So how much do we take our democracies for granted, and what do we learn from others’ experiences?
Foremost among the lessons of the Westminster legacy is that the newest democracies can be the keenest; and that those who have come nearest to losing democracy are the ones most determined to keep it. Elections have even been, quite literally, ‘to die for’. Ironically, the fact that power can change hands without violence can dull governments and voters alike to the importance of a system of decision-making and government that transcends individuals and political parties.
For the first time in over 80 years, there is now a real prospect that the two-party system in Britain could be broken by the success of the Liberal Democrats, led by Nick Clegg. The unpopularity of Labour’s Gordon Brown, coupled with the similarity of the Tory, David Cameron, to former leader Tony Blair, have led to a large section of the populace and media turning to Nick Clegg for inspiration and fresh ideas.
An interesting aspect of the current UK election is the focus on the party leaders – which are not chosen by the electorate. Televised debates have echoed the US Presidential election style. However under the current UK election rules, constituents can only place a vote for their local MP. Leaders are selected by parties and endorsed by the Queen.
Thus people voting for one of three party leaders will in fact be voting for a local MP. This also raises the prospect that one of the party leaders could be voted out by their own constituency even if their party seizes the majority in Parliament.