Joburg Advocacy Group (JAG): We're Saying "No"

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

We're Saying "No"

JAG has announced that all of its members will be spoiling their votes in tomorrow's election in protest against the current local government system and the failure of most of the political parties to commit to any form of direct democracy.

Here's why we made the decision:

Firstly, as mentioned above, we're seeing no commitment to moving towards a more accountable, people-centred form of direct democracy amongst the political parties, and little capacity to implement it in Cope, the only party that agreed to sign a social contract with the voters (apart from all Independent Ratepayers' Association of SA-affiliated independents).

Secondly, we feel the local government system itself is deeply flawed and that, without meaningful system change, it doesn't matter who's at the helm. Voting for one party or another would simply be akin to rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Thirdly, by law, spoilt papers have to be counted and become part of the voting record. They're an established means of registering protest in democracies around the world. A high number of spoilt votes in the upcoming LGE would effectively be a vote of no confidence in the current system of local government, and could be used as a platform to lobby for system change.

Then, many voters have threatened not to vote in the elections and, as part of our direct democracy campaign, we've been encouraging those who're thinking of abstaining to spoil their papers instead. So it isn't just a case of a few isolated people choosing the spoilt vote option - we suspect many voters will either abstain or will spoil their ballot papers.

Next, submitting a spoilt ballot is a valid and acceptable way of exercising one's democratic privilege, although it's obviously a matter of individual choice. It's by no means a meaningless gesture. In fact, if you feel that none of the political parties speak for you - and especially if you don't trust them - it's the only choice.

Then, both the ruling party and the official opposition are definitely concerned about the spoilt vote lobby, so this isn't just a case of snapping uselessly at their heels. JAG has come under a lot of pressure from both parties on this issue, and it's notable that party leaders are now actively using the media to urge voters to vote.

Finally, as we've already mentioned, our contention is that, without meaningful system change, it doesn't matter who's "in power" (we prefer the term "in office"). In the currrent system, all political power is mediated through political parties, and we feel elections are more about obtaining and maintaining political power than about public service.

One thing is for sure: voters have little or no say in how the system is run. The only power they have is to vote for candidates who've been selected by the various political parties (and whose members represent only about 5% of the voting population), and then to hand over the keys of government to those parties after the election.

Unless we can begin working towards a new system of direct democracy, nothing will change. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupt absolutely. Without direct citizen oversight of the democratic process, political parties will continue to abuse the power that should be rightfully vested in the hands of the people.

Sometimes exercising one's conscience is about making a symbolic gesture. Many great people far worthier than we have done it in the past. Gandhi's Salt March and Rosa Parks' refusal to give up her seat in the "white" section of a bus during the Civil Rights Campaign in the US are just two cases in point.

So, as best we know how to explain it, that's why we'll be spoiling our ballot papers tomorrow ...

Click here to read an essay entitled TO VOTE OT NOT TO VOTE? - a personal perspective on spoiling one's vote, written by one of JAG's founding members.

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