Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
March 6, 2000
The slow train to universal suffrage
It has been a long hard struggle to achieve a measure of universal suffrage in this century and in only some parts of the world.
Democratic governments were instituted to protect the average citizen from the abuse of power of the influential elite. Systems were set up to regulate a more equitable distribution of wealth and power.
The process was slow. Throughout the centuries the West was governed by an elected or non-elected ruling class who had little faith in the public.
Greek democracy gave voting rights to 10 per cent of the population. The other 90 per cent were slaves. Over time, voting rights were given to land-owning males, then males with an education and finally some universal suffrage for males was established about a century ago.
Women had a more fierce struggle to be recognized as persons. In our own country personhood was bestowed on women in 1929. Some 30 years later aboriginal persons were also considered to belong to the human race.
In some countries voting was not only a right but a duty mandated by law. In other countries, like the U.S., fewer than 50 per cent of eligible voters exercise their franchise. Different systems were set up to count the votes, some reflecting popular representation, others skewing the result through a constituency system.
In our own country it is possible, for instance, that 26 per cent of the vote can determine the winner in a given riding with 74 per cent of the electorate not being represented because the other three parties received less than 26 per cent. Country-wide, this can translate into a majority government elected by a minority of the electorate.
However imperfect the system, it is seen as the best system available and has been passionately defended in a series of wars. Year after year we are reminded that young people sacrificed their lives to defend our hard-won freedom. The small group of nations who boast about this victory refer to themselves as "the free world."
The freedoms referred to were categorized as "freedoms from" and "freedoms of," such as freedom from want and fear, and freedoms of speech, worship and association.
But something happened on our way to utopia. After a gradual rise over the last 150 years, democracy seems to be in a sharp decline despite billions of dollars spent on election circuses.
When George Bush Sr. was elected on his thousand points of light program to usher in a kinder gentler America, he assured the world in his inaugural address: "We know how to secure a more prosperous life for man on earth; through free markets, free speech and free elections."
Free trade and free markets got on top of the list ahead of traditional democratic freedoms.
Think tanks financed by corporate interests suggested that there was an excess of democracy which interfered with economic progress. International finance suggested that 30 per cent of the population could be sacrificed without seriously damaging the economy.
People were laid off by the thousands to make corporations more competitive and efficient. Competition inevitably leads to monopolies and mega-mergers.
Increasingly the Western democratic system, pushed and pulled by lobbyists and handsome contributions to political party coffers, became the servant of corporate interests disguised as the national interest.
Only in the last few years are people awakening to the fact that we allowed our hard-won freedoms to slip through our fingers for the freedom to worship mammon.
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