Vote — or apathy rules
Archived Articles 02 Feb 2007  EWR
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Franchise is a privilege that not all people seem to consider as special, or even a right that needs to be exercised. Indifference to the results of Canadian elections is a growing trend, with a notable decline in numbers of voting citizens. Now, alas, it seems to be the case in Estonia as well.

The two systems, while quite different, are rather similar when it comes to the voter feeling that the individual ballot does not actually make a significant difference. Canada's first past the post system does not reflect popular vote and in Estonia the modified d'Honte system is so complicated that the average voter probably could not explain how it works. This is seen most acutely at the riding level, the grassroots of elected parliamentary democracy.

In a perfect system, of course, the vote is the expression of a preference as a contribution to a collective choice. Thus we would accept the 50% +1 result as reflective of a majority, no matter how many votes were cast. But the Estonian system requires a minimum of 5% voter support for a party to have representation in parliament. Then that representation is determined by the slate presented by the party as reflective of the total of the votes garnered. Add to that the individual mandate; possible when a candidate receives a sufficient percentage of the vote in a district, and it is no wonder that the voter is first befuddled then disillusioned. This is just the start of an explanation of the Estonian system. In theory it is possible for a personally unpopular candidate high up on the party slate to gain election, accounting for voter dismay.

In Canada the traditional third and regional party woes give voice for calls to institute representation by population — something that Estonia does indeed have. However, opponents of rep by pop point out that the system often leads to multiparty elections with no clear-cut winner; hence coalition governments which are inherently short-lived and prone to infighting. But one must also be aware of the dangers of what John Stuart Mill termed the tyranny of the majority: a result where traditional winners routinely suppress the minorities and fringe elements of society, what Mill called the eccentrics.

Is there a system that is best for the country, never mind reassuring the voter that her choice is being genuinely considered? The traditional two-party systems such as the American model routinely leave almost half of the electorate dissatisfied. The Canadian three party system (the other parties on the scene are either regional or fringe) only works insofar as that the third party is the conscience. Their popular support or lack of it accounts for the swings in government between the traditional ruling parties.

It would be wrong, though, to suggest that there is a general unwillingness to become involved in the polity. Engaged citizens these days are more often expressing opinions on websites, commenting online. Two fine yet almost diametrically different examples are to be found with the Delfi internet portal and the Sõltumatu Infokeskus (SI, or Independent Information Centre). The first routinely posts opinion material that receives a vast number of comments, most of them, unfortunately, of the anonymous, craven and pusillanimous blither knee-jerk variety that fail to address the subject at hand. This is a shame, for a considerable number of these op-ed style pieces are carefully considered contributions to healthy political dialogue. SI posts material that quite often borders on being eccentric. Yet SI's relevance is in the fact that the thoughts expressed encourage a different line of thinking than that found in the mainstream Estonian press.

Among those suggestions is to change the Estonian political system so that there are 101 ridings across the nation (as opposed to ridings per the 12 regions that the country is divided into for election purposes), and to avoid the d'Honte distribution to have the mandate be first past the post, as in Canada. This would discourage, perhaps, the wingnut candidates, and make parties more careful of where their stars choose to run — again, as in Canada. However, with the half dozen established parties all capable of winning ridings this may splinter the parliament further, and make any coalition messier to run. Fears of developing an American two-party system of centre right versus centre left are also well founded. (That system as Fareed Zakaria has pointed out in "The Future of Freedom" was slain by the primary, the method through which a party selects its candidate. The primary system does not reflect the wishes of the majority and is at the cause of much of voter disaffection and distance in the US.)

This is moot at the moment, for the Estonian constitution would have to be amended before any electoral system reform could be considered. Analysts suggest that it would take up to 8 or more years before any amendment would be put to the people. Something does need to be done, as 4 out of 10 Estonians passed on voting in 2003.

In context of the above it is not surprising that on SI there has been a call for boycotting the 2007 elections in Estonia. The claim is that the people have lost faith with the politicians. The reasoning is, however, suspect, no matter how the common man might be indignant about how government is run, and by whom. That is a familiar refrain: not all in Estonia have shaken off the vestiges of occupation, party politics and the choice of leading candidates on party slates often reflects not the future but the past.

Passive dissatisfaction does not bring change. What does effect policy is principled involvement by the citizen. That means exercising franchise, utilizing democratic freedoms in a positive direction, calling for accountability and openness. By not voting the apathetic citizen leaves all such work for others, and when the number of others actively involved dwindles then the risks of undermining democracy is that much greater.

The first place to sound off is at the ballot box, what follows after is a case of conscience, both of those entrusted with trust and those giving it. Do your democratic duty as a free Estonian citizen, and vote in the upcoming election.
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