Canada's democracy conundrum: high marks for freedom, not so great on voting

For those who follow these things closely, democracy has been on the run all over the globe. Canada is still a shiny beacon, however, except in one stark category — not enough of us vote.

Even the notion of democracy seems to be under attack in many parts of the world

Here's something Canadians can think about as we head to the polls today: There was an election in Belarus last week.

In case you missed it, the incumbent, Alexander Lukashenko, was re-elected for a fifth term as president.

It wasn't even close. Lukashenko polled 83.5 per cent of the vote, his highest total ever. His two nearest rivals, both of whom were pre-approved by the president, received 4.4 and 3.3 per cent of the vote respectively.

Voter turnout in Belarus was spectacular by Western standards. About 87 per cent of all eligible voters cast ballots.

In Belarus, voting is not compulsory, but it is strongly encouraged. Voters were offered concerts, cheap food and beer in return for showing up at the polling station.

Unlike the last election there, in 2010, there were no riots when the results were announced. The European Union was so pleased by this development, it is apparently considering dropping long-standing sanctions against Belarus for human rights and election abuses.

According to Freedom House, a Washington, D.C., organization that monitors the state of democracy in 195 countries around the world, Belarus is one of 51 countries, a quarter of the total, considered to be "not free".

The group considers factors such as freedom of expression, civil society, state surveillance and the rule of law in determining whether a country is "free", "partly free" or "not free".

Belarus is a reminder that you can't have democracy without elections, but you can have elections without democracy.

Time to celebrate

On this election day, we Canadians will no doubt complain about the long lineups at the polls, the more rigorous requirements for voter ID mandated by the "Fair Elections Act" and the likelihood, if the previous two elections are a guide, that fewer than 55 per cent of eligible voters will even bother to show up.

There are some new ID rules for voting this year, but, really, it's not that difficult. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

But there is also no better time than election day to reflect on the importance of, and yes, even to celebrate the success of our democratic experiment.

One only has to read this year's edition of Freedom in the World, Freedom House's annual report on the state of democracy, to get an appreciation of just how fortunate we are. 

We are among the 40 per cent of the world's population lucky enough to live in a "free" country, even as the trend line is definitely moving in the other direction.

Return of the iron fist

The title of this year's report, "Discarding democracy: A return to the iron fist," is stark, and its conclusion unambiguous. "Acceptance of democracy as the world's dominant form of government … is under greater threat than at any point in the last 25 years."

The report points to Tunisia, the spark of the so-called Arab Spring whose democracy activists won this year's Nobel Peace Prize, as one of the world's few bright spots. 

But it sees a sharp decline in democratic values in several economically powerful and regionally influential countries such as Russia, Egypt, Turkey, Kenya and Venezuela.

The report cites "an open disdain for democratic standards" by the rulers of many of those countries, who "now increasingly flout democratic values and argue for the superiority of what amounts to one-party rule."

In Russia's annexation of Crimea and proxy invasion of Ukraine, the authors see an example of an autocratic government seeking "to throw off the constraints of fundamental diplomatic principles."

Democracy on the run?

Another discouraging view of the current state of democracy can be found in the 25th anniversary issue of The Journal of Democracy, published earlier this year. 

The opening essay, by Marc Plattner, the journal's co-founder, asks the question "Is democracy in decline?"

Plattner argues that around the world there are serious questions being raised for the first time about whether democracy is still "the global standard of political legitimacy and … the best system for achieving the kind of prosperity and effective governance that almost all countries seek."

He argues that many Western democracies are still struggling to recover from the global financial crash of 2008, while authoritarian regimes like China continue to make huge economic strides without introducing democratic reforms.

For many people around the world, this calls into question the idea that only democracies can achieve high levels of economic growth. Who would see Greece as a role model for how democracies deal with economic hard times?

So just vote

But before we Canadians pat ourselves on the back, we should probably remember that, like in many other Western democracies, too many people here continue to resist the most visible and easiest manifestation of support for democratic government — voting.

There were long lineups at advance polls over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend, frustrating voters and election scrutineers alike. Elections Canada admits it was caught off guard when 3.6 million turned up at the advance polls, a 71 per cent increase over 2011, when polls were open three days.

Canada ranks 14th out of 17 peer countries in voter turnout.

In 2011, only 53.8 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot, including just 38.8 per cent of those aged 18-24, the second lowest total in history. Only the election of 2008 saw a lower overall turnout.

A survey conducted for Elections Canada after the 2008 election found that 57 per cent of non-voters cited "everyday situations" like being on holiday, too busy, work schedules or family obligations as reasons for not getting to the polls.

More than half of those people said they would vote if they could do it online, but so far, there appears to be no great interest in moving towards online voting in Canada.

Perhaps we need to be more like Belarus and offer concerts, beer and cheap food.

Or perhaps we should just count our blessings and go out and vote.  


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