On the afternoon of May 17th 1957, Martin Luther King Jr standing at the steps of the Lincoln memorial delivered a message against injustice and appealed for the voting rights of African Americans in the “Give us the Ballot” speech.
‘Our most urgent request to the President of the United States and every member of Congress is to give us the right to vote. Give us the ballot and we will no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. Give us the ballot and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring an end to the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence. Give us the ballot and we will transform the salient misdeeds of bloodthirsty mobs into the calculated good deeds of orderly citizens…..’——MLK
Decades later, we have the ballot in our hands but still feel an empty void. There is a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. Where is the ballot that Dr. King was fighting for? Where is the ballot that was supposed to end bloodshed in the world and resolve conflict in Africa? What happens to the ballot that we cast in that box?
Democracy is the term frequently used to describe the institutional fabric from which diverse and conflicting ideologies can co-exist through equal representation. The underlying principle is rooted in the idea that each individual is an integral piece of a strong and complete nation. Included in this apparatus are checks and balances established by constitutional bench marks such as the separation of powers to prevent concentration or domination of power by one individual or branch of government. In a democratic government, sovereign power resides in the body of citizens who elect officers to represent them.
The ballot is a powerful symbol and center-piece of a democracy. It empowers the people and offers the template from which they independently choose the destiny of their society. With every vote cast, there is always the belief that ‘all animals are equal.’ It’s the mouth piece of the trumpet through which we blow air to produce a beautiful sound. The sound of democracy and freedom that rings across generations.
A victory through majority vote is the fundamental event that cements the foundation and legitimacy of any leader. To curb the rising number of dictatorships and autocratic regimes, the western governments have over the years pushed for elections in many African nations. With the mounting pressure, many autocrats have attempted to hold periodic elections– though it was evident that none of these leaders had any intention of delivering election concession speeches. Losing or accepting defeat was never an option and the solution was to wage a war against the ballot.
This war has been waged on two fronts. Minimize voter influence and/or ignore voter choice. The goal was attaining the desired outcome irrespective of the people’s choice at the polls. In a few instances where the incumbents lost elections, instead of a concession speech, they declared victory and chaos ensued. Without significant external intervention, the autocrats have made the world believe that power-sharing is the only alternative democratic platform in conflict-ridden and divided societies.
A string of power sharing governments has emerged. What was once a life-saving and temporary mechanism to stop conflict and bloodshed as institutions of democracy were nurtured– has become in itself the institution of democracy. Power-sharing in the past was instrumental in conflict resolution in Burundi, Sierra Leone, Rwanda, Nigeria, Liberia and other nations before a path towards democracy was initiated. However, the 2008 power-sharing deals between Robert Mugabe and Morgan Tsvangirai in Zimbabwe followed by Kibaki and Odinga in Kenya were a substitute for the voices of the people on the ballot. A similar situation is building up in Ivory Coast where Laurent Gbagbo is holding onto power after losing the election to Alassane Ouattara.
Other leaders have mastered the art of swinging elections in their favor accounting for the frequent land-slide victories. The autocratic regimes often put in place a hostile environment for healthy opposition manifested by arrest without charges, intimidation, indefinitely detaining prisoners and limited freedom of assembly. Such conditions were prevalent in the recently fallen regimes that employed Emergency law to sweep out any pockets of resistance. These conditions have crippled the opposition and many simply resort to whispering their discontent and others stay out of politics or show loyalty towards the regime rather than risk their livelihoods.
There is a common trend among nations under autocratic regimes that large sections of the population live below the poverty margin while the elite class live lavishly. National resources and wealth are often used as bait for the hungry and poverty stricken masses. These exploitative financial mechanisms make it impossible to have an equal playing field in establishing a robust competitive opposition to these regimes. The impact of financial resources on elections is not only evident in the developing world. Democracy as a whole is under-assault by the invisible arm of financial power. Ballots are increasingly bought rather than fairly won. The rules of the game are rapidly changing and the ballot which once meant to our civil liberties that “all animals are equal,” now reveals that—“all animals are equal but some animals are more equal than others.”