Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Voters hold key to democracy working

July 5, 2016

The aftershocks following the political earthquake of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom are still shaking the foundation of British politics. This is certainly a time for both the leadership and the people to be clear-eyed about the future. But top leaders have dropped out or are on the ropes and many people are upset and confused over the result. Millions want a second referendum, but they forget that votes have to be binding to be respected as the will of the people. Flip-flopping people would get no respect at all.

This is all a far cry from a time when the British ran an empire that controlled around a quarter of the land on earth - a domain the sun never set on. Now, just figuring out its place in the world outside Europe is leaving the country at sixes and sevens. Others would also benefit from understanding how the country got itself into this troubled state and why so. At the centre of the national mess is the question of the role of political debate and its conduct before a landmark poll. This goes to the heart of any democratic system: When voters are asked to decide, they must be able to do so in an informed way - understanding the issues and what is at stake as fully as possible.

Political parties will always try to present their case in the most favourable light while rubbishing that of their opponents. They expect no less from the other side, and so the debate goes on. This is the adversarial system of Westminster politics, where no quarter is given and none is asked so that only the fittest ideas can survive. It is part and parcel of the sound and fury of political campaigning. It's what politicians do everywhere. The weak link, unfortunately, is the voter. Such a system works best when those making the decision can separate sense and sensibility from sound and fury. The political culture in many places, however, is so corrupted that passing on misinformation, falsehoods and scaremongering is regarded as normal electioneering. Then, something is seriously wrong with the body politic - indeed, with the practice of democracy itself. Tragically, the EU referendum in Britain reflected all that is bad in the system. Examples included the distortion of just how much Britain pays a week to the EU. Figures cited were way off the mark, with politicians afterwards conceding that they were a "mistake".

What amplifies such wrong-headed behaviour are the social media and a partisan press. One study by a British university found that 82 per cent of newspaper articles about the referendum favoured Brexit. These were mainly found in the freewheeling British tabloids. Further, when social identity trumps sound ideas - even verifiable facts - it's not difficult to see how nativist and populist ideas can hold sway. Ultimately, the only bulwark against such political risks is an informed and enlightened electorate.

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