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Acceptance of dissent is the fundamental requirement of a free society.
It is disappointing at a time when civil liberties are being eroded throughout the Western world as a result of the fall out from September 11 that we find yet another Irish writer who has joined that band of strident voices - most notably from the right of the political spectrum - to call for the abolition of one more fundamental democratic right; that of having the freedom not to vote. Terry Prone in a recent Irish Times article, dressing himself in the clothing of the vibrant enthusiast concerned with combating the erosion of collective interest in serious issues, argues that:
One way to change this would be to make voting a statutory duty of citizenship, so just as you can't legally drive a car, watch a television or get married without taking out a license, you couldn't benefit from the fruits of democracy without making the small, once-every-four-to-five-years effort to cast your vote ... only vigorously enforced legislation making it obligatory to vote is likely to reverse that erosion and predispose the rising generation to intellectual and actual involvement in politics.
And not to benefit from the fruits of democracy means precisely what? Are we to be deprived of our homes, interned, fined? And what penalty would exist for those who do make the effort to come out on election day for the sole purpose of spoiling their vote? Is that to be made illegal also? Is vote spoiling not a political act, equally as valid as that of actually casting a vote? Is the principle of consent/democratic dissent to be abandoned in favour of coercion?
Whatever the punishment I shall be on the receiving end of it. Because there is little that could persuade me to forgo my democratic right not to vote. What a humiliating subservient experience it would be to have to trudge along to a polling station to vote for one of the crew who pass as political representatives in this country. I broke with my own convention last year only to vote for a person whom if elected was least likely to prove physically harmful to his constituents. But the choice was my own - either to consent to or dissent from the act of casting a vote.
Now if Terry Prone has his way the one few remaining private acts of political dissent is to be denied us. But is this really to tackle apathy or to hide it? We may recall the ruse used by the Tory Party in Britain to conceal the real rate of unemployment: create meaningless jobs and continuously re-categorise. Juggle the figures and pretend that some out of work are not actually officially unemployed. Terry Prone's suggestion is exactly the same as this. The purpose is to legitimise a system of government which is patently suffering problems of legitimacy as evidenced by low voter turn out.
Yet voter alienation is not a phenomenon peculiar alone to the Irish as already pointed out by Breda O'Brien in an earlier Irish Times piece when she observed that 'electoral politics is becoming sidelined worldwide'. The service provided by elected representatives in our liberal democracies is clearly not considered sufficiently worthy to merit votes in return. Yet no mention by Prone in his article of coercive measures to be employed against them in order to improve performances.
The biggest winner in his suggested scenario would be the state and the establishment parties who could then behave as Tweedledee and Tweedledum doing little on the basis that they have full democratic endorsement. The extreme right might do well tapping into the resentment cum protest generated by state coercion. The Irrelevant Left might benefit as well as short of compulsion there seems little that would prompt people to vote for them. Rather than be compelled to vote in a system that may generate intelligent disapproval rather than apathy alone, thoroughly and transparently considering alternative forms of democracy would be a better means of involving people instead of pretending that if we are forced to vote that such a vote reflects what we actually feel. Legal compulsion is hardly a substitute for genuine democratic participation. All it would produce would be a false reading.
Maybe the real thinking behind Prone's suggestion is that it will help outmanoeuvre Sinn Fein who Prone thinks are the only party to gain from the present voter apathy. 'Because Sinn Féin refuses to accept political apathy as a given, it is better at removing it than parties which, because they've been around longer, tend to be somewhat disempowered by the "good old days" they believe are now gone forever.' If he really wants to challenge Sinn Fein then he should do it in a more honest manner, challenging the party on the very issues that it raises.
If the only way to legitimise the state and the establishment parties is by criminalising almost half the population under the guise of creating an anti-apathy incentive then the Celtic tiger might roar again. Only this time the jobs boom will be in the Garda Siochana and the prison service sorely in need of numbers to round the rest of us up and hold us in custody.
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