HomeOpinion & AnalysisBuilding democracy: responsibilities of the electorate

Building democracy: responsibilities of the electorate

THE citizens of Zimbabwe will go to the polls on March 29 to choose their representatives for public office. Despite concerns about whether conditions in Zimbabwe are propitious for free and fair elections, I urge all Zimbabweans to exercise their rights and vote.

Effective democracy places demands on citizens as well as on governmental institutions. The Sadc Principles and Guidelines outline what governments of member states must do to hold democratic elections, and include such critical factors as assuring freedom of association, equal access to state media, equal opportunity to vote, and independence and impartiality of electoral institutions. On the other side of the equation, though, democracy requires that citizens participate. Democracy cannot flourish unless at election time the people educate themselves about their choices and express their preferences by voting. Democracies rest upon the principle that government exists to serve the people; the people do not exist to serve the government. The people are citizens of the democratic state, not its subjects.

In an immediate sense, voting is the means by which citizens hold government accountable and make their views heard on matters of policy. In a broader sense, though, the act of voting is an important element in the defense of liberty. In the American Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson set forth a fundamental principle upon which democratic government is founded when he noted that “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

Governments in a democracy do not grant the fundamental freedoms enumerated by Jefferson; governments are created to protect those freedoms that every individual possesses by virtue of his or her existence. But unless citizens vote, government can assume the consent of the governed and arrogate unto themselves powers above and beyond those necessary to secure the rights of the citizenry.

It is understandable that voters in Zimbabwe may find obscure this linkage between liberty and the act of voting. Past experience may engender scepticism. Moreover, a growing chorus of voices is expressing doubt about the coming poll. My government shares the concerns expressed in recent weeks by a wide variety of organisations about the pre-election environment, including reports of voter confusion and inadequate preparation, evidence of irregularities associated with registration and inspection of the voters rolls, and concerns that the violence of the past year will inevitably affect the campaign and election. Despite all these ominous signs, however, we urge all Zimbabweans to vote. While the Zimbabwean people do not have the power alone to ensure that democracy prevails, it will surely not prevail unless they play their part.

By James D McGee

*James D McGee is the Ambassador of the United States of America in Zimbabwe.

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