Elections Without Democracy

Listening to David Aaaronovitch’s recent Briefing Room edition: Election special 2. Elections without democracy,  I was reminded of an incident I was present at in the German “Democratic” Republic ("East Germany") back in 1984.

The small village where Karin (who later became my wife) was living and teaching at the time was holding municipal elections. She was helping to supervise the voting – the sort of thing that as a young teacher one was expected to “volunteer” for in the GDR.

There was a sense of occasion in the village (where very little unfolded most days) that was not entirely confected. I joined the small audience to a rather charming children’s choir outside the polling station as they sung Summ summ summ! Bienchen summ’ herum![i]

As Wittgenstein argued in his critique[ii] of Frazer’s Golden Bough, the fact that rituals may be important to a community does not necessarily imply that the people in those communities literally believe that performing said rituals (say performing a rain dance) will actually determine the future (whether or not it actually rains).

Nobody in the GDR believed that their participation in an election could really affect the result. And yet they came to vote. People were not legally required to vote (as in Australia) but it was “expected” of you, and it would probably not be good for your future career prospects if you did not turn up.

Karin’s job was to tick people off the list as they arrived to vote – just as genuine volunteers do in the UK on poling days.

Then in walked Lutz (not his real name) the village alcoholic, and Karin could not find him anywhere on the list.

“Lutz” worked (when he did) for the local Landwirtschaftliche Produktionsgenossenschaft (LPG) – a “collectivised” farmers’ cooperative. At harvest or planting time, Lutz’s colleagues would drive round to his small flat and collect him. Most of the time he was left to his own devices and would be paid cash in hand for the days he actually managed to turn up on his own account – presumably days when his supplies of Schnapps ran out. Lutz was the sort of person who, in the UK, would probably have begged on the street and lived out of a shopping trolley. He managed to live something more like a normal life in the GDR. Nonetheless, this was the first time Lutz had ever attempted to vote.

After some fruitless searching on the list, Karin consulted her supervisor. He suddenly became somewhat evasive and muttered something about “the other list”, which he subsequently retrieved from a bag under his desk. Lutz was on this list, along (Karin observed) with a handful of other “ne'er-do-wells” who had clearly been excluded from the main list of voters.

The shenanigans with the two lists, Karin realized, were all to do with boosting the turnout figures. Even though the turnout for the people on the main list would have been in the high nineties, including people on that list who would almost certainly not turn up might have dragged down the percentage turnout by a point or two. (Conversely, if everybody – or nearly everybody – on both lists had turned up, the turnout would have been over 100%.)

After “die Wende” it emerged that even the figures for the results of elections in the GDR had often been outright falsified. Though victory for the Sozialistische Einheitspartei Deutschlands[iii] over the other parties was guaranteed by the rigged rules of the game, this was somehow not quite good enough for those conducting the proceedings. This kind of overkill obviously served to further delegitimize the whole exercise rather than to legitimize it.

Here in the UK, though we provide far less well for people like Lutz, we have genuine democracy. Not enough in some areas perhaps, but what we have is not counterfeit. But who among us can put our hands on their hearts and say we have never taken part in a “consultation” or a “performance” measuring scheme or similar activity (either in the workplace or in other area of public life) that was not essentially a sham?

[i] Buzz, buzz, buzz! Bees buzz around!

[iii] Socialist Unity Party of Germany

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are moderated, but you can leave them without registering.