By Themba Mkhize
Widespread voter apathy is widely viewed as negative, but if we are being critical, is it really? I think voter apathy has been saving Jamaica from more detrimental responses to political frustration for some time.
In many cases, voter apathy amounts to a rejection of all political parties and all conscious political participation. The opposite is also true – in many cases it is a conscious form of political action, whether an act of protest, or an expression of frustration. Whichever the case, it sends a strong signal that much of the electorate has better things to do than to lend support to political parties.
The rejection of political parties and the broader political process is undeniably related to the lack of trust in political agents and institutions.
To examine this argument, we take into account the work of political theorist, Tom van der Meer. In his 2017 article Political Trust and the “Crisis of Democracy”, he offers three relative states of political trust. These are trust, mistrust and distrust. He explains that using trust and distrust as reference points does not adequately account for the midpoint, mistrust, which is the absence of trust. This often does a disservice to stable governance as mistrust is a very useful sentiment.
On one hand, trust creates room for complacency in governance and naivety among the electorate. Emphasis can be redirected away from processes that ensure checks and balances are being undertaken, and sceptics may be labelled as trouble makers for raising legitimate issues. When the problems arise, which they inevitably will, it may be too little too late to avoid a shocking system meltdown.
On the other hands, distrust undermines everything political. Look to the United States and you will see that we are living through an example. Distrust of political parties, their agendas and the electoral process is being exploited to discredit the electoral processes, the integrity of both parties and the integrity of the United States! Distrust is being used as fuel for hate, to court hostile division, and, I presume, to lay a platform for an eventual power grab. Distrust of the opposition is also blinding some supporters to the fact that the subject of their support is in fact a manipulative and distrustful figure.
The nature of mistrust is that it lends a healthy scepticism to political affairs by encouraging a high degree of scrutiny and accountability of political institutions. This is done without the destabilizing spasms of distrust, requiring a robust political system to begin with, and lots of participation to provide keen eyes and decisive action in the promotion of good governance.
From my observation, Jamaica is beyond being mistrustful. We are politically distrustful, and would be just as vulnerable to shocks as any other country, except that our people swing towards apathy and not action. I am willing to consider that it may have been our saving grace these past years.
This is lent credence by what seems to be the negative relationship between support for democracy and support for a military coup in Jamaica (Harriot et al, 2018, The Political Culture of Democracy in Jamaica and in the Americas 2016/17 (LAPOP) Report). The LAPOP 2016/2017 report finds that Jamaica was found to have the highest level of support for a military coup in the Americas (56.4% overall) which was accompanied by decreasing support for democracy (a 23% decline over 10 years to 55.8%), and further, low levels of trust in political institutions (22.5% trust in political parties) and political processes (31. 8% trust in elections).
That Jamaicans would consider subjecting themselves to military rule is peculiar to me. The unpredictability of a military coup has extreme and dramatic implications for daily life, freedom and development. Our culture of violence raises the stakes. I am doubtful that most Jamaicans even know the name of the head of the Jamaica Defence Force, much less his character, beliefs and fitness for political leadership. He has presented no manifesto nor presented himself for our scrutiny in that regard. By no means do I discredit the character of General Rocky Meade, but I believe it is unfortunate that such consideration is even necessary!
All this comes together to indicate that distrust has created an environment where there is, at minimum, notable stated support for elements which potentially threaten the nation’s democracy. Though I find it hard to believe that more than half of Jamaica would, tomorrow morning, rally to Half-Way Tree Square in support of a government overthrow, that they would make such a claim to researchers says enough for me. It is a testament to the frustration, desperation and diminished hope of Jamaican people politically. When those cards are on the table, voter apathy seems almost like an act of ironic patriotism.
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