Democracy – but beautiful

Published on 25 February 2011 at 11:11

An angry Ireland votes today, and will doubtlessly elect as its next Taoiseach Enda Kenny of Fine Gael, a centre right party, to replace Fianna Fail, another centre right party, widely blamed for the country’s economic crash. Mr Kenny, like most of Ireland’s political leaders, intends to pursue more or less the same policies espoused by his predecessor: more austerity budgets, abiding by the terms of the EU/IMF bailout and providing more billions of public money for Ireland’s failed banks. As columnist Fintan O’Toole observed: “It will mean that all the rage and disgust, all the cursing and fist-shaking, will have amounted to nothing very much.”

As the Irish resignedly exercise their democratic right, they are also watching the uprisings in North Africa and the Middle East, where hundreds are dying for basic freedoms. Many riveted to Al Jazeera or BBC as events thrillingly and frighteningly unfold must feel moved and also inspired, because they, like most of us, must instinctively grasp what a noble thing democracy is. Correspondingly, their hearts must also sink at the idea that at some point, after all this sacrifice and blood spilled, that the peoples of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya will have to choose between local variants of Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, bickering about which taxes to tweak, public services to cut, and how to get a better interest rate for EU/IMF reimbursements.

Must the advent of democracy inevitably lead to technocratic quibbling? In some ways recent comparisons between events now and the revolutions of 1989 are unfortunate. If voter turnout in ex-Communist countries like Romania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic and Poland is a barometer for the enthusiasm democracy inspires, then an average 50% to 60% for elections suggests that the answer is Yes. Only twenty years down the road, nearly half of these electorates have simply switched off.

The problem is not just complacency, but seems also due to how timid and uninspiring our leaders are. How, for instance, can they sustain respect when the likes of EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton and Barack Obama were so embarrassingly lukewarm as Egyptians, at the risk of their lives, poured into Tahrir Square? What would they do if tyranny stalked Europe again? And yet this hasn’t so much to do with their personal failings, but rather a risk averse political culture, which means that an essentially decent woman like Lady Ashton and the once exhilarating Obama have such little room for manouevre, and seem crushed, and not liberated, by all the power at their disposal. Because we live in societies that dare nothing, then inevitably nothing will change, and as a result voting becomes no more uplifting a gesture than choosing between Cornflakes or Rice Krispies at the supermarket. Despite decades of tyranny however, the people of North Africa are proving that what seems like iron reality can turn as quickly to dust. When entering the polling booth Irish people, like Europeans, should remember that the world is not hard cheese, but their oyster.

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