Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Netherlands’ municipal election... democracy as a journey

I accompanied Maaike Westra and Gitty Petit (Picture below), my colleagues at the African Studies Centre, University of Leiden, to Stemdistrict 100 where they cast their votes in the municipal elections that held all through the Netherlands, yesterday, March 3, 2010. This was the equivalent of what, in Nigeria, we call the local government elections. But there is not much else that this election shares with Nigeria’s. Not with the orderly campaigns that preceded the elections, the courteous distribution of handbills, careful pasting of posters only in designated spots, the order that accompanied the voting, the speed of voting—and most importantly, the complete absence of tension and the atmosphere of safety under which voting was done. All of these set up what we experience in Nigeria as antithesis.

The electoral officers were friendly and relaxed (Picture right). They allowed me right into the polling booth (Stemdistrict 100) and gladly allowed me to take pictures including theirs! There was not a single policeman within the vicinity. And party agents? None! Voting without party agents and armed party thugs arm-twisting voters or screaming blue murder! And without armed policemen! The queues were short; in fact, there were no queues. Voter verification took about a minute per voter (Picture below). Maaike and Gitty finished voting within six minutes.
Voting had begun at 12 midnight in The Hague, Rotterdam and Groningen. At Groningen, about 1,200 people had voted by 1 am. People actually went out in the night to vote: they weren’t afraid that the ballot boxes would be snatched or they would be mugged. In Groningen and The Hague, festivals were organised to draw out young people to vote. A colleague at the University of Leiden, Erik Bäher told me that young people were apathetic about voting: as it was in the US (until Obama) and as it is increasingly becoming in Nigeria! Hans Baijens (former deputy Mayor of Leiden) told me that the frequency of elections might be responsible for voter fatigue.
Dutch people are very practical: they go for what is practical and useful, not what is fashionable and prestigious. Yesterday’s voting was manual, not computerised. Computers had been used in the past and they had raised issues of confidentiality and reliability. Yesterday, red pencils were used. (Nigeria is planning on electronic voting by 2011: is anyone thinking of electricity for the voting machines?) (Maaike casts vote: picture below).

In the Netherlands, you could vote on behalf someone else. Such is the level of trust. When I accused Erik of not going to vote, he said his wife would be voting for both of them! Jans-Bart, another colleague of mine, is away from the country—but someone would vote for him. All you need is an attestation from the person on behalf of whom you are voting; but you could not vote for more than two others. Erik told me that in the past, young people had gone to old people’s homes and collected several attestations. They then voted on behalf of scores old people but not necessarily for the parties of the old people’s choice (Young people! You can always trust them to do things like that. But it also shows me something: democracy is about learning to improve. That loophole by young people has been identified and blocked. Now you can vote on behalf of only two people and that’s all! The Dutch keep learning, adapting and adopting. Nigerians...also keep learning, I want to hope!)
There were elections into 394 councils in the Netherlands; 8,700 council seats were up for the grabs. These excluded the position of City Mayors: Mayors aren’t elected, they are appointed by Her Majesty, the Queen. Some of the people I spoke with thought the local elections had some critical link with the national elections coming up in June this year. The government of the Netherlands had “collapsed” on Saturday, 20 February, over intention to extend the stay of the Dutch Army in Afghanistan. By ‘collapse’ is meant nothing as disastrous as what we are going through in Nigeria over our sick and kidnapped president. Dutch government is run on coalition because no party is ever able to win enough votes to form a government (Talk of deliberately built checks and balances). The leading party, the Christian Democratic Party (imagine such a name in Nigeria) wanted to extend Dutch stay in Iraq but Labour Party kicked and protested. Led by Woulter Bos, the Party pulled out of the coalition: those left could no longer form the needed quorum—‘Things fell apart’ but the Centre still holds! The country still marches on as if nothing happened. Her Majesty, the Queen is sorting all that out. (Again, democracy must not wear the same colour everywhere. The Queen ultimately holds things together here. She even single-handedly appoints the mayors. No one performs such a role in the US or in Nigeria?).
Finally, less than 12 hours after the elections, the results were out. The ‘ruling’ Christian Democratic Party lost several seats: most Dutch people are tired of that Afghan misadventure. But the Prime Minister, Mr Peter Balkinende, doesn’t think so. Through this voting, the Dutch people may be voicing their objection loud enough for him to hear: the Dutch word for voice is stem, the same word vote.

Importantly, since the results were announced, I haven’t heard of threats of litigations. Nor have I heard of women marching naked in protest against vote theft. Edith and Hans, two people whom I knew, were electoral officers yesterday; they are both home—neither is wearing a bandage or carrying POP.

My uncle and friend, Anthony Olorunnisola, likes to say: “democracy is a journey, not a destination”. Democracy is about identifying new possibilities in the system and exploring them; it is about identifying loopholes and blocking them quickly; it is about making a positive use of defeat by actively including seeming losers in coalition and governance; it is about sensitivity to aspects of a culture that work rather than swallowing foreign concepts hook, line and fisherman! It is about people submitting to the letter and spirit of the constitution even when that hurts! I’m just hoping that Nigeria is on that journey.

(Some coincidence: I was an unofficial observer also at the Obama elections in the US in November 2008. My report of that unusual election here.)


Anonymous said...

Nice read!

The comparison to Nigerian elections is almost shocking: it shows me once more how important our democratic standards are, and of course I hope, once they will be yours, and Nigeria's.

I must correct one thing: the Queen does not appoint the mare of a city or town. Mares are selected in a complex procedure in which the town or city Council, the Provincial Governor, and the Minister of national affairs are involved.

The Queen does not hold any real executive power.

"Democracy is a journey, not a destination." True words: I hope Nigeria's journey will be more pleasurable in the future!

J.B. Gewald said...

Ayo, what fun to read a description of elections here in Holland, what a pity that you will not be here for the elections on 9 June.
Hey why did you say nothing about the party for the animals? I am sure your colleagues in Nigeria would be stunned. Stay strong, Jan-Bart

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