No24 May 1997.4
People walking along a busy Montreal street are confronted with graffiti like: If voting could really change the system, they would make it illegal, and Vote, shmote, who cares? Cynical observations, but very significant too.
In Canada, in France, in the Congo, the media are abuzz about the elections. From continent to continent, the elections are a hot topic, but seemingly only for the media. No one else is paying attention.
Where does this political indifference come from? Especially when it is so important to have someone to stand up for you in a jungle that is ruled by the powerful. We all need someone who will speak and act on our behalf, who will defend our cause in the face of partisan politics and injustice. We all want to be represented by someone who has our best interests at heart, who will defend the widow and the orphan.
So what has happened then, that can explain why the people feel so alienated from their representatives, why the voters have so little confidence in the candidates?
Nothing has happened. Exactly that.
Or rather, something has happened: a lie...no, many lies that have come between the promise and its fulfilment, between the deception and justice, between the proposal and its accomplishment, between the ideal and the reality.
But what else? A chasm has opened between the candidates and the public; the candidates have distanced themselves from the people and the problems of the real world; they have been de- incarnated. The elected representatives' lack of caring has come around full circle and is now reflected in the people's lack of caring. "Out of sight, out of mind", goes the old proverb. Out of sight of the people, out of touch with the stakes they face. Our representatives aren't representing anymore. Bent on their own interests, they have deserted worthy causes. It is reminiscent of a wise story:
A unhappy man whose heart had been hardened by wealth one day went to see a rabbi in the hope of finding joy again. The rabbi told him: "Look out the window and tell me what you see." The man said, "I see people coming and going in the street." Then the rabbi held out a mirror to him and asked: "Look in the mirror and tell me what you see." The man looked and said, "I see myself." The rabbi replied, "And you don't see the others anymore? Consider this: the window and the mirror are both made of glass, but since the mirror has a coating of silver on the back, you can only see yourself, while you can see others through the transparent pane of glass. I regret having to compare you to these two pieces of glass. When you were poor, you could see others and feel compassion for them. Covered with silver, you could only see yourself. No doubt it would be better to remove your silver coating so that you can see others again."
Representatives would do well not to forget their origins. Everyone comes into the world naked, and leaves it naked. Between the two, why not have the decency to cover the nakedness of society's most needy? And in so doing, why not join in greater solidarity with them? No one can be happy in isolation. There comes a time when the misery of the forgotten, the rejected and the hungry turns to revolt and despair, and that is when we risk seeing the overthrow of all the things we have built without them or even against them.
So what are the real issues that should be close to the hearts of our representatives? Above all, concern for the poorest in our society. When parents bring a handicapped child into the world, they give that child more care and attention than the others. Not because they love him more, but because he needs more help, because otherwise he can't make it on his own.
Why then don't we see the same concern reflected in the candidates' election platforms? They are filled with high-sounding phrases, promising a rosy future. But nobody believes them. We have lost faith in our candidates because all we see are empty promises that aren't backed up by the will to do something concrete for voters. Most of the candidates seem to be interested only in power and riches. Having a "ministry" is no longer seen as a service to society as a whole, but rather as a springboard to satisfy the candidate's thirst for dominance.
They are out of touch with the people.
In Africa, in the new Democratic Republic of the Congo, one dictator steps down and the next one steps into his place. Six of one, half-dozen of another. Under Mobutu Sese Seko, the Zairians were the poorest people on earth, while the dictator's personal fortune (about $7 billion) was more or less equal to his country's national debt.
Under Lawrence Kabila, the Congolese will be just as poor, since he has already started selling the country piece by piece to the highest bidder (including some Canadian interests which recently bought a copper-rich region of the country). As for his concern for the weak, he called the plight of 300,000 Rwandan refugees, victims of the warlords, a "small problem". As an African saying goes, "When two elephants fight, it's the grass that gets crushed."
They are out of touch with the people.
In Europe, in France, the legislative elections have left the population completely disillusioned and undecided. People are worried about increasing violence in the suburbs, but the party leaders have scarcely mentioned this concern at big election meetings.
They are out of touch with the people.
In North America, in Canada, in Quebec, half of the voters are not paying any attention to the elections. The depth of poverty in some parts of Montreal, to mention only one example, has all but wiped out any interest people might have taken in the wild imaginings of certain politicians. Unemployment, alcoholism, prostitution and drug addiction have stifled the desire for the common good which should be the driving force behind politics. Our leaders have been so eager to sacrifice everything on the altar of the zero deficit that they are happily trampling on an even more important principle, that of zero poverty. "You can't make an omelette without breaking a few eggs," say some. Well, if you're a rooster, you can tough it out. But what if you're just a tiny chick?
Out of touch with reality, that's for sure. And by a wide margin!
Who then will rise up to champion the rights of the little people? And let us remember that the "little people" now form the majority, since the middle class is rapidly disappearing under the weight of debt and taxes.
Who, then, will be dedicated to solving the real problems:
- The problems of welfare recipients whose benefits have been slashed and who are criticized (in a shameful TV ad) when they accept work under the table in order to survive.
- The problems of the sick who are left to die in hospital corridors because of savage cuts to health care.
- The problems of single-parent families, where the mother or father has to work longer hours to put food on the table, and has less time to spend with family.
- The problems of disenchanted youth without a future, who end up selling themselves to pay for their studies or to get a job.
The candidates should stop saying that their hands are tied because of the current economic situation, when they seem to have no trouble finding tax shelters for the very rich in our neoliberal societies. Lies like this one are so barefaced that we cannot accept them anymore.
Who will rise up to champion the true principles of democracy that will awaken the people's interest again?
Let us say it once more: if voters throughout the world are so indifferent about the elections, it is because they have caught it from their representatives. Politics are filled with lies because some politicians have no ideals.
People from all nations and continents, from Africa, Europe and North America, should rise up together, protest, express their dissent so that the representatives we elect get the message and present more humane platforms.
Perhaps this would restore the voters' trust and make them starting caring again. We can always hope!
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.