A RECURRING theme in newspaper opinion pages has been the supposedly low regard in which parties and politicians are viewed by the public. Politicians have been discredited by their self-serving behaviour and petty-mindedness argue opinion-writers, citing the findings of opinion polls that show a high percentage of respondents intend not to vote in this month’s parliamentary elections.
While we cannot dismiss this conclusion, we could also argue that Cyprus, at long last, is suffering from the voter apathy evident in most Western democracies and this is not exclusively caused by the loss of credibility or trustworthiness of parties and politicians. It could be caused by a more general loss of faith in politics and politicians’ ability to improve things, especially in times of recession and high unemployment during which governments have proved powerless to improve economic growth. It could also be caused by changing social trends, people taking more interest in television soap operas and Facebook than in politics.
In Cyprus we had been accustomed to very high turn-outs in elections for many years, because in a new state people who had never had political rights had a strong desire to exercise the right to vote. Fearing the novelty of voting would fade, the political parties passed a law making it obligatory for people to vote, and those who did not show up were fined. Voting by coercion worked for some years, but by 2011 so many thousands of people disobeyed the law that the attorney-general announced that prosecuting those who did not show up to vote was unfeasible. Civil disobedience had turned the law into a dead letter.
So now that political apathy is no longer punished, people that vote are those who want to have a small say in politics. And while this number may be falling, this is not such a bad thing, and it certainly cannot be attributed exclusively to public frustration with the parties and the poor standard of politicians, as newspaper columnists believe. It is not as if five or 10 years ago politicians enjoyed a better reputation and the parties acted more responsibly. They were still guided by brazen populism, passed unconstitutional laws and engaged in corrupt practices.
It is probably true that the quality of deputies is not as good as it was two or three decades ago when deputies actually read the bills they approved and took their law-making seriously. Today they are more interested in producing a sound-bite that will get them on the television than wading through hundreds of pages of proposed laws, which goes unnoticed by the public and television news bosses. It is sound-bites and attention-grabbing publicity gimmicks that get people elected nowadays, while good, hard-working deputies that are not media-savvy are snubbed by the voters. Voters are not as innocent of the poor quality people that get elected, as journalists seem to suggest.
In fact, public disaffection with politics could be for the wrong reasons. It might be because parties and politicians can no longer do political favours – public sector jobs, promotions, contracts etc – on the scale that was taking place before the crisis. There is a freeze on public sector jobs, SGOs are downsizing or closing down, promotions do not come with pay rises, state handouts have been drastically reduced and procedures for state contracts have been tightened. In other words, the corrupt practices used by the parties to attract voters have been restricted by austerity and spending cuts.
In a report in this paper a couple of months ago about the political apathy of the young, a couple of young interviewees said they would not vote because the parties were doing nothing to help them find employment. Anecdotal evidence, but it is an indication that many voters may be snubbing the parties because they have nothing to gain personally from backing them and not because they are disappointed with the low level of political debate. This is a positive development, hitting at the cronyism and clientelism on which parties depended for their support. Perhaps it could be a first step towards changing the transaction-based relationship between parties and voters, and eventually the latter would base their voting decisions on what a party stands for rather than what it can do for them.