Voting, an irrational use of citizens’ limited resources?

In both Mexico and the UK political apathy seems to be on the increase, on general trends at least. If citizens see little tangible connection between their vote, their wishes and public policy, voting comes to be seen as a waste of time.

Jose Angel Garcia
25 April 2014

Flickr/Cameron Nordholm

Democracy, a much contested concept, is currently at the core of any political speech. Politicians and citizens associate it to the existence of a plural or--now so called—“big society”, accountability and civic engagement (McBride, 2013; Stoker, 2013). In other words, democracy has become, paraphrasing David Cameron, the tool for the solution to problems (Cameron, The Guardian, 25th May 2009). Having said this, one of the main channels by which democracy is exercised is through contested and regular elections, where citizens vote for a change or continuity of government and therefore public policies that affect them. However, as Flinders noticed in the UK case, electoral participation has stopped being a citizen’s priority. In fact, different from what seem to be its main objectives, modern democracy is surrounded by political scepticism and disengagement, if not cynicism; a fact that can be noticed even in recently constituted democracies like Mexico.

In 2000, Mexico, considered for decades “the perfect dictatorship” (Vargas Llosa, 1990), achieved what O’Neil (2011) and Krauze (2006) considered the ‘pivotal’ or ‘first truly democratic national election’. That year, and for the for the first time in more than 70 years, PRI’s (Partido Revolucionario Institucional) presidential candidate was defeated by the opposition. Although this democratic achievement was praised as a citizens’ victory, its popular glamour and the accompanying dreams of a future full of unlimited possibilities for positive change started to vanish as corrupt practices continued to appear and problems of rising violence, crime and insecurity emerged. In this vein, despite democracy being intrinsically linked with the instruments of elections, elections by which citizens have the capacity to bring public policy in line with their preferences, an increasing section of the population in Mexico is now disentangled from the electoral process.

Whilst in 1997, 77.16% of the registered voters exercised their right to vote, this level of political participation has never been achieved again. Even in 2000, when citizens faced the decision to ‘vote for the devil they knew rather than the devil they didn't’, the electoral turnout was below 64%, a figure still higher than that achieved in the presidential elections of 2006 (58.22%) and 2012 (63.08%), when Mexico’s society decided to bring the old regime back into power. Although this demonstrates that the government in power is still a ‘legitimate’ one, as more than 50% of citizens in the national electoral roll participated in the elections, Mexico’s level of political engagement--at least through vote--has been historically lower than that found in developed and mature democracies. In the UK, for instance, notwithstanding that British confidence in democracy has been “crumbling” in the last decade, the general election of 2010 achieved an electoral turnout of 65.1% (the third lowest in almost 70 years).

More importantly, as in Mexico, voting is not compulsory; the exercise of voting, one of the main democratic features, seems to have stopped being a mechanism of civic, even national engagement. Despite citizens aged 18 (the minimum legal age to vote and be voted) seeming to be more interested in voting in their first elections, voting engagement is well below the national level in citizens aged between 19 and 39 years old. According to the Federal Electoral Institute (currently under a “restructuring process”), although in 2009 the population aged 18-34 years old represented nearly 40% of the total electoral roll, the majority of them (60.3%) did not vote in that year’s elections. A circumstance that contrasts with the voting activity of citizens aged 35-80, from which more than 50% voted. This then validates those arguments stating that the younger generations are becoming more disentangled from politics, but also from essential democratic activities like voting.

Unsurprisingly, citizens’ attitudes towards politicians in Mexico are not that different from those found in the UK. On the one hand, a few months ago Russell Brand, a “junkie and a cheeky monkey” (as he described himself) but still a relevant public figure, stated it does not take too much to realise that “politicians are frauds” and that citizens “deserve more from a democratic system” (The Guardian, 5th November 2013). This opinion was quickly echoed by the social media, tabloids and international news corporations, and reaffirmed by TNS-BMRB public polls showing that the percentage of the population who trust their MPs has falled from 31% in 2004 to 20% in 2012. On the other hand, citizens’ perception of civil servants’ performance in Mexico is not good either. In fact, it may be argued, political cynicism is entirely pervasive, and one of the reasons why citizens’ vote for PRI’s return to power was based on the popular and generalised assumption that “all politicians steal; those who make it and don't steal are fools. The difference is that the PRI also share with the people" (Carroll and Tuckman, 2012). 

The above mentioned demonstrates that citizens are now tired of (and unfortunately used to) ritualized election campaigns and empty promises. This is the reason why a political disenchantment is gaining terrain at the same time that politics has started to be considered “the most denigrated and devalued of all enterprises” (Boggs, 2000). Consequently, citizens are increasingly turning away from public concerns toward their more private life style; giving place to a greater cynicism and passivity in and towards the political arena. Having said this, it is required that political parties and political research institutions not only pay attention to public opinion towards politics and politicians, but mostly, to the way in which public policies are perceived by their customers: the citizens. As stated in a previous post, as long as public policies are –or are just perceived to be– inefficient in tackling public worries (i.e corruption, insecurity, etc.), citizens will continue considering any political activity (including voting) an irrational expenditure of their limited resources.

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