POLITICAL ENGAGEMENT is something that is often exposed as a virtue. In fact, the role of the media is often to create a more engaged and informed population. The assumption here is that if people know more then they will be able to make better political decisions.
However, when one investigates the voting behaviour of many highly developed nations one will notice very low voting rates. If one goes further and attempts to asses this against the ‘Human Development Index’ we find a strong correlation between low voting rates and the high levels of human economic satisfaction.
So the question that arises is; are lower voting rates actually a good sign for the stability of a nation?
American economist Anthony Downs argued that there was a basic formula for voter turnout which weighed three variables; a voter’s perception that their vote will affect the outcome, the perceived benefit that their chosen party/candidate will bring if they win and the perceived civic duty to vote.
These variables must be greater than the other side of the equation which is the time and cost of voting. Using this matrix, interesting trends appear when we evaluate voter behaviour of recent.
In a recent referendum in Crimea regarding cessation from Ukraine to become part of Russia, the voter turnout was, according to AFP, 73 per cent. However, the number of ethnic Russians who voted in this election was well above 95 per cent.
The voter turnout of the ethnic minority, Tatars, was extremely low, fewer than 10 per cent by some accounts, and as many claimed they felt that the referendum’s result was a foregone conclusion.
Mathematically, assuming they all voted against the action, their vote wouldn’t have had any impact other than to lower the margin of endorsement to secede. Irrelevant of how politically engaged the Tatars chose to be, their fate was predestined.
In Rwanda, in 2010, President Paul Kagame won a resounding victory. All the election observers noted that the election was free and fair. There was a significant voter turnout and anyone in Rwanda the day after the election would have noticed a country full of adults with purple pinkie fingers.
Most individuals interviewed by the press mentioned that they felt a vested interest in Rwanda’s development and wanted to continue the progress that had been made. Additionally, as the leader of a party that had emerged from a struggle that had ended the Genocide and turned Rwanda into a promising nation with a growing economy, the ruling party had a strong foundation to argue its case.
While this is, by and large, an example of what one would want from a political process, human rights groups still jumped on their soap boxes to condemn the President, the RPF, and the Rwandan people, for a variety of mostly hypothetical issues.
These two examples show the complexity that come with evaluating a situation from just looking at voter behaviour. There can be little debate that the United States is the most prosperous and innovative nation in the world today. However, it has atrociously low voter turnout.
Barack Obama was the first black man elected President in what was the highest voter turnout in a century, but it still was only 57.1 per cent of adults. In fact, in the previous 10 elections, as the media became more prominent and diverse, the voter turnout continuously declined.
This may not be an entirely bad thing. As people move into the middle class and diversify their activities they lower the benefits of voting. The cost of taking time out of their day to vote goes up and hopefully their dependency on the government for services goes lower.
Economically, politicians often appeal to the needs of the bottom poorest or business’ (and their leaders’) interests. Middle class voters are disconnected from this as it is often hard to change the tax regime for middle class people as they are the backbone of any economy.
Perhaps the goal of nations that are developing rapidly may be to have people disconnect from politics. People will become engaged in other activities and focus on their mortgages, promotions at the workplace, entertainment, and/or private schools, rather than their elected leaders.
The writer is a Rwandan economist currently based in Copenhagen.