Saturday, October 01, 2005

Silent majority

Why are Poles so allergic to the ballot box?

The General Election last Sunday had a turnout of around 40 percent. This is low even by Polish standards, where the ballot box has never had a particular allure. In the 2001 election, turnout was only 46 percent.

Many leftwing voters in industrial heartlands didn’t bother to leave the house this time, after the left wing government failed to tackle the 1 in 5 unemployment rate, and the seemingly endemic corruption in their ranks.

Others have simply abandoned the political process altogether. One non-voter I talked to said that the election ‘didn’t matter’. He didn’t think that voting one way or another would make any mark on the future of his country. All the real battles had been fought, he said, and whichever party won would not make that much difference. And then – with almost pride, I think! - he claimed membership of what he called, ‘the silent majority’.

One non-voter told Euronews: “All of these people were in power already. I am against all of them. They have ruled for 15 years - the names of the parties kept changing but the faces stayed the same."

The standard commentary has noted the growing cynicism for politics in general and politicians in particular. And this mood of powerlessness and disengagement is felt most strongly in low-income groups and the poorly educated.

In the Euro-elections last June, barely 20% dragged themselves out to vote. President Kwasniewski told TVN 24 back then that lack of voter interest in the democratic process was ‘an illness’ and ‘had to be studied.’

The highest turnout in recent times has been in the 2003 referendum on whether Poland should enter the EU or not, where over 60% of voters went to the polls.

But Poles have never shown a great interest in elections. Even in 1989, in the first democratic elections since the nineteen twenties in this country, only 64% voted. By 1997 that figure had slipped to under 50 percent.

So the argument that Poles have become cynical about politics is a weak one. Poles have not become cynical, they always were.

Politics in a post-political world

Since 1989 voter turnout has been falling in western Europe. With the great left/right ideological battles a thing of the past (There Is Now No Alternative to Capitalism), and societies becoming more and more fragmented and atomized, social cohesion and responsibility has weakened.

And political parties – which once had genuine roots in societies – have become detached from the people.

In 1950s Britain, for example, the Labour Party claimed a membership of about a million; today that is down to under 300.000. Over the same period membership of the Conservative Party declined from some 2.8 million to less than half a million – and the average age of its members is over 65.

But Poland is a country that never really has had much cohesion - due to obvious historical reasons - and all the political parties (bar the ex-communists, ironically) that contested Sunday’s election are less than ten years old. They have no grounding in Polish society at all.

And the individual’s relationship to the state, and to his or her community, has always been a difficult one here.

So without political alternatives and a strong civic society, voting can seem irrelevant.

And that’s why the ballot box is a stranger to most, and why the silent majority has become a permanent feature on the political landscape.

It is becoming almost trendy to be a political cynic, these days. But leaving politics to the politicians is not a solution to anything.

The only way forward is for politicians to be encouraged to present real alternatives to voters, and for voters to form strong communities and re-engage with the world around them.

Until then the Cynicism Party will always be the real winner in elections in Poland.

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