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By Walter Edey
Democracy is a system of government that is built on the principle of popular sovereignty – a central tenet that assumes and presumes that all voices should be heard, and that every person’s view has value. However, this ideal is only truly possible when the citizens fully participate in the process of government. Too often, people are content to let others make decisions on their behalf, without really making any effort to understand the issues at stake; or take a stand for any abuse of their rights as citizens. And so, because of the fragility of democracy, the wolves will devour the lambs, when a majority of citizens are silent or inactive. Furthermore, in such circumstances, democracy loses its fragrance and savour, and becomes no more than a little government, that exists in name only.
Politics, at its core, is a competition of ideas. And in a democracy, these ideas are represented by elected officials with a variety of political ideologies and who come from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Ideally, the representatives of each ideology should be willing to engage in respectful vigorous conversation with those from other camps, recognizing that no one group has all the answers to the needs of a diverse cultural, social and complex society. And, as with any fight or competition, if no arbiter, referee or judge exist, unless the competitors commit to or possess a sense of fairness, justice and standards, the quality of the activity is reduced. In a democracy the judge and the jury are the citizens. When a majority of citizens don’t participate in the democratic process, it is a silent and inevitable vote for apathy, the status quo, chaos, political polarization and ultimately authoritarianism.
For those who know of two or three generations of politics in Barbados, there was a compelling political folklore – and theater, that is now distant, but will always remain a standard bearer of functioning democracy. Some folk know and remember a time when the cut and thrust of political debate filled and thrilled a full visitors gallery of parliament; when workers scampered home to listen to the five o’clock start of the annual budget speech; or when the removal of the secondary school fees and Independence debated fiercely, fueled by bitter, divisive and narrow speeches, yet those education and Independence policy decisions survived multiple changes of government. Way back then, governments and oppositions welcomed, relied on and sharpened the ideas of each other. Way back then, political foes sought the middle ground which responded by growing blossoms, flowers and fruit – and what made the country and its people mutual winners.
At that time, that healthy culture of competitiveness and camaraderie of politics was also present elsewhere, in cricket, and other sports. On weekends, large crowds filled cricket grounds to watch their favourite players and teams compete. Diverse teams representing different economic, social and racial and class groupings. After many games, whether in the city or the country, players of the two competing sides, after victory or defeat, and some supporters, gathered in small pavilion spaces, debated the catch, stroke or wicket of the day and they broke bread and sipped chosen beverages. In many instances, the after cricket “tete- a-tetes” continued into the wee hours of the morning. This shared love of cricket, made the game classless and colour blind. Cricket was an arbiter and a bridge of battle. An intervener which fostered a sense of unity rather than division.
Today, on many of the cricket playing fields, on weekends, the grass lies flat and asleep, but few, if anyone, hear or notice their weeping.
The political climate has also changed. The big screens, technology and sound bites replace rum the corner shops and the dominoes. Social media and text messaging have removed the emotional energy and interactive human experience. Additionally, voter turnout at general elections which was once in the eighty percent range, was in the low forties in the 2022 elections.
In any functioning democracy, responsible citizens are vital. Without responsible citizens, democracy will quickly break down. That responsibility is not only your actions but your words. When everyone holds his or her representative accountable, it becomes a disruptive force against corruption, against division, and ultimately the downfall of democracy.
When apathy and blind support for a party grows, political polarization rises its ugly head, and gridlock and dysfunction have their way. And then, the political monster called authoritarianism, like a thief of the night, seeds, takes root, grows slowly, gallops, and then obliterates the light of democracy, all because, every citizen was waiting on someone else to stand up, speak out and be responsible for keeping democracy alive. However, if the light of dawn comes, if the society awakes, and if every vote becomes a voice, and every voice becomes a vote, only then will the future of the ship of state, of the institution, of the family and the individual be safe and secure.
Walter Edey is a retired maths and science educator in Barbados and New York.