ZAHRAA BEEHARRY

The very foundation of democracy rests on the idea that citizens vote for a platform or programme as opposed to the pursuit of their personal advantage. Yet, merely a month away from the general elections, we already feel like we are at an auction house. ‘On sale’, our votes, and vying for it, the political leaders of this country.

Under the guise of public good and national interest, politicians continue to appeal only to key subsections of the population that are enough to secure them their much-coveted seats in the National Assembly.

Clientelism; the exchange of goods or services for political support has become a parasitic feature of our political system and for years, the convenient go-to for most politicians has been to increase old-age pensions. I don’t deny that the elderly deserve a better lifestyle and standard of living but so does the rest of the population.

Yet, our justified and longstanding demands or concerns, at the eve, of elections go even more unheard. The only votes and concerns that matter are those that are easily swayed or bought and that come at little to no cost to the politician’s own pockets. Therefore, all they propose are targeted measures which are sadly just uninspired attempts to boost their credibility. As such, they have developed an irresponsible and warped idea of the public good. So many govern according to their whims and fancies. They do not care about the stability of the country nor about future implications so long as it serves their purpose.

This goes against fundamental ideals of the democratic system, where everyone is equal and thus should have equal access to the state. Instead, in our ‘fully functioning’ democracy, some votes are worth more than others.

While such targeted appeals might have worked before, or could even work this time, the population is catching on and we are finally opening our eyes to the idea that we have inherited a political class that lacks entrepreneurialism and vision and now the long-term credibility of these political leaders and parties are at risk.

It is clear that these practices delay our progress and is harmful to the very integrity of our democracy and the average citizen is fully aware of it. When you ask them, if they condone these practices, more often than not, the answer is that they deplore it.

The ultimate hypocrisy is that this disapproval remains symbolic because the moment an opportunity presents itself, many are willing to trade their votes for self-advancement. As wrong as these practices might be, they are regarded as an inevitable part of the system.

What is often overlooked is even if these exchanges are mutually beneficial, they are highly asymmetrical. The politicians get into parliament and enjoy all the privileges that come along with being an elected member but what are you left with? A meal from five years ago?  A few bank notes? A policy that should have been implemented anyway?

Once they’ve bought your vote, they’ve also purchased your silence for the rest of their mandate. This is why some political theorists have likened clientelism and patronage to a form of ‘consented domination’ and control.

A huge part of why this system prevails is because these very political leaders have failed to provide public goods adequately and people are forced to rely on such handouts. This is why, the more we wait, the more political, economic and social development gets delayed and the more they manipulate us.

While so many of us do want change, we expect it to come from above. Waiting for politicians to change a system that benefits them isn’t going to materialise. We also have our share in sustaining the system too. We tolerate it and play along when it benefits us. Our political leaders know our weaknesses, and they are comfortable exploiting us. Maybe, we should change first and protect ourselves from such manipulation. Then, they will have no choice but to change and adapt as well.

While this might seem improbable, for now I’ll hold on to the hope that our citizens can grow wiser and learn to hold accountable their political leaders eventually.