“If once [the people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you and I, and Congress and Assemblies, Judges and Governors, shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions.” So said Thomas Jefferson, third president of the Unites States of America, who probably knew a thing or two about it. And what more important time for the people to be attentive to public affairs than during elections?
Well, not during elections to the EU parliament, clearly. The turn-out in Sunday’s election Poland, despite the good weather, was only 23.82%, compared with 34.19% in the United Kingdom and 43.1% across the EU as a whole. Indeed, the turn-out was lowest in the CEE region which is odd given that this year sees the twenty-fifth anniversary of the demolition of the Berlin Wall and, in Poland, celebrations mark the twenty-fifth anniversary of the first semi-free elections following the collapse of Communism marked, inter alia, with the exciting international “Polska. Spring Into” advertising campaign (please see It Pays to Advertise).
Indeed, neither the long queues of Ukrainians in Prague eager to vote in their own presidential elections, nor the sight of others braving masked gunmen to try to vote in the east of Ukraine nor even, with perfect timing, the death of General Jaruzelski the last communist leader of Poland, whose 1989 Round Table talks with Solidarity leaders ushered in the peaceful revolution here, bestirred folk from their apathy.
I suppose it is human nature to want something when you do not have it and ta take it for granted when you do, but it does seem surprising that the opportunity to vote, even for something with the manifest imperfections of the EU parliament, should be so casually cast aside. Years ago, especially in the UK, politicians could generally be trusted to strive to do the right thing. Most came to politics after other careers and were not motivated by personal gain. The public took a much greater interest and membership of political parties was high, as was the turn-out at elections.
As politicians have largely become a self-regarding caste, who see politics a job to provide then with financial reward, in effect in many cases becoming the most sophisticated “benefit scroungers” of the lot, so the public has become turned off and apathetic which is, of course, exactly the wrong response. Politicians now need to be scrutinized more closely than ever before. They talk about the need for greater engagement with the electorate but, in reality, our indifference suits them quite well.
Thankfully, as President Lincoln reminded us, you can’t fool all of the people all of time, and the results of Sunday’s EU elections will have shaken many out of their apathy as there has been a dramatic rise in support of parties which are openly skeptical of, or opposed to, the EU project. A shot across the bows of the EU elite has been long overdue and if some of the rigging has been demolished as well, so much the better. If the EU is to survive and prosper in an age of increasing international competitiveness it needs to be responsive to the concerns of citizens and to reform to establish proper democratic accountability. It is also up to the electorate to play its part and, alas, apathy is not on the cast list.
Be that as it may, in Poland the final result put Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s Civic Platform on 32.13%, opposition Law and Justice 31.78 %, Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) 9.44 %, New Right 7.13 % and Polish Peasants Party (PSL) 6.8 %. This means that Civic Platform and Law and Justice will each have 19 MEPs in the new European Parliament, SLD five, while PSL and the anti-EU New Right will each have four MEPs. The New Right, you will recall, is led by our old friend Korwin-Mikke (please see What Women Want) who believes women to be less intelligent than men, a thesis from which many of us dissent.
Looking at the results across the EU, apathy breeds strange bed fellows – something which might well appeal to Korwin-Mikke given his ideal function for the EU parliament building. The last word is to Albert Einstein who, echoing Edmund Burke, said that the world is a dangerous place to live; not because of the people who are evil, but because of the people who don’t do anything about it. I do not say our elected representatives are evil, but I do say that we should, as Jefferson urges us, deny them the chance to become wolves.