Will the internet give the kiss of life to Poland’s moribund body politic?
Every night, about 10 or 11 O’clock, I take the dog out for a walk in the park that my flat overlooks in Warsaw. Usually Morski Oko park is well lit by lamps that line the paths, so I feel perfectly safe.
But in the last three weeks the lamps have gone out, leaving much of the park in almost total darkness. This is bad news if you have a young male dog like mine, who, just recently, has been driven mad by several female dogs ‘on heat’ in the park. Not a very well behaved dog as it is, Chagall (for that is his name) has been taking off on his own at 11 ‘Clock at night in search of doggy love, a good sniff, and much more besides.
With the lights out in the park, he often simply disappears, only to return to his distressed owner, a little later, when his passions are spent.
The lights in the park went out, coincidently, when the Warsaw mayor, Lech Kaczynski, gave up the post to take up his new job as President of Poland last December. Had he forgotten to leave instructions to his staff that, in no circumstances, should the lights be left to go out in Morski Oko Park?
Kaczynski had got elected as mayor, and as president, on promises of fighting corruption and crime in the capital and in Poland. So my girlfriend and I shot off a complaint to the email address the town hall uses specifically for the purpose of registering complaints to the local council. We reminded him that bad lighting in parks makes people feel unsafe, increases opportunities of crimes such as muggings, and it doesn’t help much when you want to find your love-crazed mutt, either.
In complaining to the local authority in this way we were taking part in what could be called e-democracy – the new hope of some e-activists and many governments to reengage the public with politics.
e-citizenship – antidote to the apathetic voter?
The political class in the West, in Warsaw and in Brussels has been scratching their collective head recently, wondering why citizens are increasingly abandoning them. Voter participation is falling. Suspicion of the political class in increasing and cynicism in the political process is widespread.
One of the countries where this disengagement from politics is at its most pronounced is Poland.
Voter turnout in general elections struggles to get over 50 percent. Politicians are collectively despised as being corrupt and a bunch of self-seeking liars and cheats.
For the proponents of e-democracy the solution to this political malaise lies in making the political process more ‘accessible’ and ‘inclusive’, to use two current buzz-words. If only we made getting involved in politics easier, then those lazy, apathetic voters would suddenly transform into active citizens, taking back politics from the corrupt and isolated politicians.
So, from above, the political class has been designing experiments to make it easier for citizens to register their complaints about local services, and make it easier to vote, by allowing e-voting from home or putting voting booths in supermarkets (in church maybe they could use the confessional boxes?), libraries, etc.
From below, e-activists have been pushing this agenda too. The new vanguard of politics is at the end of a broadband link, apparently. Clickers of the world unite...
While I am all for trying to reenergize politics by any means possible, e-democracy advocates – a motley crew made up of techies, geeks, nerds, plus the isolated political class – are being both naive and patronizing. Making politics more ‘accessible’ will not bring back politics with a capital P.
Firstly, and most obviously, in a country like Poland, e-democracy will remain an irrelevance to most people simply because they do not have access to the internet – only 1 in 4 are net users. The digital divide in Poland is not just a yawning gap, it’s a yawning chasm.
The problem gets worse when you look at who has access to ‘e-democracy’ and who does not. The middle class in Poland are mostly connected up to the web these days, whereas the working class and peasantry (the vast majority of the population) are not. And which group is most likely to stay home on polling day in Poland? It’s the very same people who do not have access to the internet. Emails to local authorities about rubbish bags littering the streets, or drunks littering the streets, are coming from those who vote in the normal way at the polling station, and are 'connected' anyway.
E-democracy is a good way of letting off steam for the middle class. But it won’t bring back participatory politics to Poland, I am afraid.
In the general election in the UK this summer they tried to reverse the falling turnout rate by making it easier to post your vote, and there was some experimentation with e-voting. A report by the electoral commission found later that these measures had no significant difference to voting habits, however.
The patronizing remedy put forward by politicians who think the main reason for falling turnout is ‘voter apathy’ and laziness is to make it easier to vote and participate. This notion is self-serving for politicians as it takes away the blame from them and throws it back on those lazy citizens.
Politics, and people’s disengagement from it, has sociological, historical and cultural roots, and cannot be reduced to 'access'.
People don’t vote because they don’t think it will make much difference. Since the end of the Cold-War, politicians have given up giving people real alternatives. The old left/right thing has all but gone, and nothing has yet replaced it. Ideology has dropped out of politics, leaving politicians in the position of managers of a system nobody questions anymore.
People in Poland, and elsewhere, don’t feel themselves to be the subjects of politics, but the objects of a process they feel is out of their control.
And in a country like Poland, where political parties have never had any roots in communities, politics is seen as an irrelevance, a waste of time.
Bringing back real politics involves challenging the idea that there are no alternatives to the status quo.
And that’s a tough call.
And do consumerist-type complaints to local councils constitute politics anyway? Isn’t politics about something a little more important than that?
Proponents of e-democracy mistake the medium in which politics is carried out and though for content. People will only become reengaged with politics when politics rediscovers its ideological content, gives people alternatives, and reminds them that they, could be, in control of their own lives.
Oh, and by the way, the Town Hall never did give us a reply to our email, and I still can’t find my dog in the dark. And even if the lights do come back on in the park, politics will still be in the dark in Poland.
Read more about this, maybe, here: Frank Furedi, Politics of fear - beyond left and right
Saturday, January 07, 2006
Posted by beatroot at 1/07/2006