Giving up our electoral role

As we go to press, millions of South Africans are forming orderly queues, in which they may expect to wait several hours for the privilege of voting. Most will have little experience of this arcane activity, having done it only once, five years ago, when it would have seemed as much like signing a welcome-home card for Nelson Mandela as the exercise of a hard-won democratic privilege.

This time it is less celebratory, but everybody knows that the outcome will be a landslide victory for the African National Congress and for Mandela's chosen successor, Thabo Mbeki. And they also know that all the opposition parties put together are unlikely to pick up enough votes to mount a credible challenge to the ruling party. Yet, even with such a certain outcome, the voters arrive, some walking many miles to the polling stations, and prepare to spend the day waiting to draw their crosses.

Back in war-torn Europe, the British, too, are preparing to vote. We long ago lost our innocence and enthusiasm about such things as democratic choice. When the polling booths open (conveniently within easy strolling distance of home for 99 per cent of the population), barely one in three of us will make the effort to vote in the European elections. If more of us than that start the day with the intention of voting, a missed train, a drink after work or a report to finish will easily divert us from our civic duty. After all, we will say, it is hardly the general election.

Yet the European Parliament, whether we acknowledge it or not, has greater powers than ever to shape our lives. This is the "mouse" that roared earlier this year when it managed to get rid of the entire European Commission, then took on America's right to choose which country's bananas we eat and demanded that consumers be told whether the beef they buy has been treated with hormones.

Since then we have started to notice it a bit more. Its consumer protection and environmental work steadily improve the quality of our lives in the form of better (and better-labelled) food, cleaner industry, less-polluting cars and fairer working practices.

None of this, however, seems to have generated much media excitement over Thursday's elections (true, there have been pressing matters such as football and the royal fiancee's breasts). Having had almost the lowest voting turnout in Europe in the 1994 Euro elections (36.4 per cent), Britain looks set to maintain an energetic lead in apathy. Fairly or unfairly, we have come to see candidates for Brussels/ Strasbourg as duffers and deadbeats who couldn't make it to their own national parliaments.

Added to this, a change in the voting system could produce an even lower UK turnout than previous Euro elections. You will be highly unusual, for example, if you know the names of the top three candidates on your party's list, or even the top candidate on any other party's list. You would be in good, even erudite, company if you did not even know there was a party list. The alleged complications of this list system have been wildly exaggerated. What is true, however, is that voters are less likely to feel personally loyal or attached to a particular candidate among the party lists (and less likely to be personally canvassed by them as well).

None of this augurs well for the turnout on Thursday. Indications are that it will be lower than in 1994, since applications for postal and proxy votes are already known to be 20 per cent down.

For the first nationwide election fought under a proportional- representation system, it is disappointing, since this should be the trial run for a workable PR system for Westminster. There is little point in poring over how proportional the representation turns out to be if it is based on fewer than one in three of the electorate. It is doubly disappointing that, at this moment in history when Europe most needs a strong, respected, democratic structure to exercise its growing power, Britain, at least, seems to have abandoned the basic expression of democracy.

What, one wonders, would an international observer such as David Steel, currently in South Africa to ensure fair play, say in his election report if he heard that one area (in London, as it happens) has had printed only half as many ballot papers as it has voters on the electoral roll?

Foul play? Self-inflicted foul play, anyway.

This article first appeared in the 07 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Europe grows after Kosovo