Deepening Democracy Means Looking Beyond Elections

We must remember that democracies are not self-executing systems; they stand on complex political institutions that reflect the political power of the citizenry. For many countries, then, the challenge is keeping the population constructively engaged in the democratic process following successful free and fair elections.

Elections are often not the problem. Voter turnout rates have been consistently over 70 percent in major elections. The recent presidential elections in the Philippines, Indonesia, Brazil and Argentina can all provide a solid barometer for measuring democratic participation. But beyond electoral processes, it is just as vital to the health of a democracy that ordinary citizens are meaningfully involved in the discourse concerning issues affecting their lives and country. The sphere of debate on public policy should not be consigned to elected politicians. Public policy should be everybody’s business.

An educated populace and the influence of civil society are critical factors in this respect, but we often overlook the role of communication to inspire (or disenchant) the voter population. Take a close look at daily news reports and ponder: What exactly is communicated to the public about the policy agenda? What is the content and texture of the messages presented to people about the most pressing challenges to the national interest? How are the issues framed? Are arguments based on facts, or does the rhetoric serve a party-line agenda aimed at winning elections? Does politics obscure policymaking? Does political language engender public engagement or does it alienate and turn people away?

To inspire a citizenry to assume their rightful place in public debate, we must use language that is clear, truthful and constructive. Obfuscation, empty rhetoric and sophistry do not feed understanding. Preoccupation with the mundane and the sensational, and with personalities rather than issues, can mislead.

Who’s responsible?

Holding the language of public discourse against the highest standards of reason and integrity is a responsibility shared by politicians and the media, and to a considerable extent, civil society.

Politicians are often swayed by their instincts to remain in power. The best and worst of them succeed in a milieu where the media culture fails to examine and expose their posturing as politicians vis-a-vis their actual performance as stewards of public interest. When journalism gets swayed by the seduction of rhetoric and day-to-day political squabbling, it fails to function as an independent and critical interpreter of the challenges that confront democratic nations.

Politics is a distraction, but it is a reality in democratic governance. But its practitioners and chroniclers should not be too blindsided by its consuming force that they turn their lenses away from the facts, figures and contexts beyond politics that should inform policymaking.

Civil society, meanwhile, can be a watchdog when both politicians and the media lose focus. It should endeavor to unveil the underlying stories, the sidestepped agenda and game-changing facts that oftentimes get lost in the layers, and noise, of rhetoric in public debate.

Insight is profoundly empowering: having a good grasp of matters of public affairs enables individual citizens to participate more confidently and make informed choices in the complex settings where decisions for the collective good are made and validated. When and where there is a judicious and sustained public engagement in policy discourse, politics fosters inclusion; policymaking necessarily expands beyond the confines of the politicians — and, issues, more than personalities, define the outcomes of elections.

Maria Almojuela is an MPP student at the Blavatnik School of Government, Oxford.

This post is part of our Deepening Democracy series, responding to a September 2012 report by the Global Commission on Elections, Democracy and Security, on improving the integrity of elections. The series is being curated by the Blavatnik School of Government and hosted on Politics in Spires. It features contributions from students on the Master of Public Policy course at the Blavatnik School, as well as guest posts from Oxford and Cambridge scholars in politics and international relations.

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