A Short History of the Future of Elections


We live in times gripped by the conviction that periodic ‘free and fair’ elections at the national level are the heart and soul of democracy. The conviction has deep taproots with a remarkable history. In 1945, there were only a dozen representative democracies left on our planet. Since that time, in nearly 90 countries, national elections have come to be seen widely as the best way of forming good governments, sometimes even as a ‘timeless’ and non-negotiable feature of the good political life. Article 21 of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in December 1948, famously set the standard. After noting that every person ‘has the right to take part in the government of his [sic] country, directly or through freely chosen representatives’, the article states the core principle of self-government: ‘The will of the people shall be the basis of the authority of government; this will shall be expressed in periodic and genuine elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret vote or by equivalent free voting procedures’.

The way of thinking condensed in these few words has been the global orthodoxy for some time: the crowning moment of democracy is widely presumed to be the ‘free and fair’ general election based on the universal franchise of citizens who live within a common territorial state. A simple glance at the history of representative democracy shows that the orthodoxy is time-space contingent; it is by no means either ‘natural’ or an ‘iron law’ of political life. It is the product of a variety of intersecting local and global forces. Most obviously, the orthodoxy draws strength from voters who demand free and fair elections, take part willingly in national elections and who have much to say about why and for whom they vote, or (when it is not compulsory) passionately refuse to cast their ballots. The orthodoxy is nurtured as well by state-level political classes operating through political parties, legislatures, lobby organisations and incumbent governments. Periodic national elections are their bread and butter: sources of funding, access to government administration backed by popular legitimacy. The orthodoxy has additional props, including roving reporters and butterfly journalists who flit from one general election to the next, along the way spreading through ‘breaking news’ headlines the impression among their multi-media audiences that general elections are the alpha and omega, the high-drama moment of democracy. The orthodoxy is equally reinforced by opinion polling agencies. Their efforts to measure voters’ attitudes and opinions using sophisticated algorithms have become big profitable business. And not to be underestimated are the power/knowledge clusters created and serviced during the past generation by political scientists, research funding agencies, pundits and election monitors: all of them have a material interest in keeping alive the orthodox view that national free and fair elections are the defining principle of modern representative democracy.

A Short History of the Future of Elections

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Numero 19 ELECTIONS luglio, 2017 - Autore:  Condividi


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