Time to Take the Polling Booth to the Voter

Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales), May 3, 2003 | Go to article overview

Time to Take the Polling Booth to the Voter


Byline: Mario Basini

IF THE dress rehearsal had all the impact of a slap across the face with a paper handkerchief, the performance reached the heights of a dramatic masterpiece.

The second Welsh general election gave the lie once and for all to the notion that National Assembly politics are dull.

There were cliff-hanging individual contests won or lost on the turn of a handful of votes. There were dramatic last-minute reversals of fortune and unexpected plot twists. And there was the poignant premature demise of some of the best-known characters. The prospect of an equally dramatic sequel in four years' time is mouth watering.

If the occasion lacked anything, it was the appropriate level of audience participation. The reasons for the low turnout at Thursday's poll are many. And they have very little to do with the process of devolution.

In the first place, as Rhodri Morgan has pointed out, the war in Iraq ef-fectively reduced the month-long election campaign to little more than 10 days.

For two-and-a-half weeks while the fighting continued and British soldiers daily faced death, the war understandably monopolised public attention. It squeezed almost all other subjects off the media's agenda.

When the fighting ended and the media refocused, the campaign began to gather momentum. But the election came before that campaign was up to full speed.

Disillusionment with politics and apathy towards the democratic process has been spreading like a disease across Western Europe. For decades, anything over a 50% turnout in the American presidential elections has been regarded as a triumph for democracy.

In Britain, local authority elections and those to the European Parliament have been conducted with turnouts which make Thursday's 36% of the electorate look positively healthy.

Nor has the public response to Westminster elections been much more enthusiastic. In the last general election Tony Blair won his massive majority with the support of little more than a quarter of the electorate.

This apathy appears mere laziness when set against the eagerness which countries in the developing world grasp the right to vote.

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