As one of the more positive consequences of the Arab Spring, voters in Egypt and Morocco have recently exercised their right to vote. This was especially so in Egypt, where people waited in line for hours. The "chaotic celebration of democracy" saw polling hours extended because of the unexpected large number of enthusiastic voters. Long deprived of any form of empowerment, people formed lines of up to three kilometers outside voting areas with the massive turnout expected to see over 70% of eligible people participating.
At about the same time energized voters were expressing their enthusiasm at the ballot box in Egypt, voter turnout in Switzerland during the last elections for parliament was low. Voter participation for the Federal Assembly in October 2011 was calculated at 49.1%, slightly higher than 2007, but still less than a majority of the eligible voters.
Are there conclusions to be drawn from the differences between the two elections? Obviously, the enthusiasm over the ouster of President Mubarak as well as the first serious election in Egypt in memory contributed to the high turnout level. People died in protests over the right to select their leaders, and the high turnout was not all that surprising in spite of calls by certain factions to boycott the election. On the other hand, the election in Switzerland is part of a certain routine; there are no crucial decisions to be made as the economy continues to be strong and differences between the parties are rather slim. The right to vote to select representatives is very well established in Switzerland as are participating in referendum or initiatives. The new winds of democracy cannot be compared with steady breezes.
However, merely saying that there are differences in the perceptions and attitudes toward democratic voting in several countries is to indicate that there is a form of "geometric variable" we are witnessing. Pre-democratic countries struggle to administer any form of free and fair elections, whether in the Congo or Egypt. On the other hand, democratic or post-democratic countries take certain processes for granted. And we will not discuss here the democratic deficit felt by countries like Greece when it comes to their economic policies and the European Union.
My American history Professor in college, Henry Steele Commager, used to say that the miracle of the United States was that there had been regular presidential elections every four years since the beginning of the Republic. He would always emphasize the word miracle. Watching the struggles in Egypt and the enthusiasm of the people only re-inforces that notion of miracle.
I suspect the turnout in the November 2012 U.S. election will be even lower than the last election in Switzerland. The enthusiasm of the Egyptians should remind us how people struggle to have the right to vote, how important it is to feel empowered. And, we should spend some time analyzing why people did not vote in Switzerland, and will not vote in the United States next November. It is not just that they feel apathetic; rather, I believe, many people feel that they are estranged from the political process in what might be called post-democratic countries.
November 29, 2011