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Out of the Binary: The ins and outs of not voting — Maryam Lee

OCTOBER 1 — There has been much debate going on whether youths should be spoiling their votes in the upcoming general elections. Both sides have made compelling arguments, even though the side of the spoil-votes camp gets much heavier criticisms.

The pro-voting camp is right in a lot of ways. They’re right that one spoiled vote is a vote for Barisan Nasional. And there is no debate when it comes to not letting Barisan Nasional win its 2/3 majority again.

The repercussions of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition winning its 2/3 majority again are dire. They could go back to their way of bulldozing policies in the parliament without much challenge. Parliament becomes the rubber stamp that it was before GE13, when our representatives don’t represent the interests of the people, but the interests of the ruling party.

There is no doubt that the votes of the youth are crucial to make sure BN doesn’t win the popular vote. So why does this topic emerge again at a time when voting is more crucial than ever? Especially now when BN is in concert with PAS to lay threat to the secular nature of our democracy that must be defended?

It’s because we are not listening to the youths on the ground.

A lot of these debates revolve around the emotional argument of the privileged bourgeoisie to protect the economic interests of the middle-class. They are detached from the everyday young people between the age of 18 to 30 who are suffering from low wages, crushing debts and high cost of living.

These are youths who are too busy from the burden of everyday survival to even think about politics, let alone to be involved in the democratic process.

The democratic process, which goes far beyond electoral politics, already excludes the vast majority who 1) don’t have the time to care about politics, because 2) all their time is consumed to the low-paying jobs that youths have to take up just to make a decent living. When a democracy excludes the involvement of a large part of society, how is it then a functioning democracy that truly represents the interests of the people?

This leads to the perceived apathy of youths who refuse to vote. We keep calling these youths apathetic or dumb or idiots for not being involved, but have we ever asked why? Have we ever asked what the youths really want out of politics, especially the bottom 40 income group?

I keep close tabs on the topic because it is a matter close to my heart as a politically involved youth. I personally do not condone spoiling our youth votes or abstaining in the upcoming general elections, but I understand why we’d do it. As a matter of fact, we’ve done it before.

Campus politics as a reflection of national politics

It’s the campus elections season in public universities right now and most university campuses have already announced their new batch of student representatives for their faculties.

When I met a bunch of students in UiTM recently, I asked them the same questions we had asked when we were still students back then.

“Are anti-establishment candidates allowed to participate in the elections?”

The answer to this is no to UiTM students, as per usual. It is no secret that UiTM is the only public university that bans pro-Mahasiswa candidates to run for the elections. This is already a very undemocratic move for a tradition that claims to be democratic.

“How many schools (faculties) were won by default (menang tanpa bertanding)?”

When I was in involved in the campus politics then, it was 53% in 2013 and 64% in 2014. We were so outraged by these figures that we organised a campaign to boycott the campus elections because obviously, the elections were rigged. The system was corrupt. We refused to recognise representatives that were never elected because the establishment bans our candidates from running for the positions in the first place.

And the boycott worked. The campaign was named “Black UiTM” to symbolise the death of democracy in campus elections.

Students wore black to school during campaign and elections period. While the candidates (who would have won anyway because nobody else was contesting against them) campaigned for all sorts of false promises, we campaigned for students to be involved in the democratic process by abstaining our votes in protest of a rigged democracy.

We wore face masks and held impromtu speeches at Speakers’ Corners, because we had to run away before the school authorities catch us in action. Sometimes we would announce our protest speeches in advance, and the school would have roadblocks to block us from entering the campus. Traffic would be horrendous and there were spot-checks at the entrances and exits of the school.

We would distribute protest flyers in the middle of the night, nervously avoiding school guards. Stickers would emerge the next morning, “DEMOCRACY IS DEAD” posters up on school hallways in various faculties.

Those were really hard times but students became so curious by the campaign that they wanted to know more. Conversations about the campaign made the school lively with political discussions, something of a rare sight before the boycott campaign.

When the students understood how the system really worked against them from inside out, it posed a significant threat to the authoritarians of the school.

So many students were not voting that they had to bribe students to vote, and when that didn’t work, they threatened students who refuse to vote with academic penalties.

As for active campaigners of the boycott like me, I could only lay low for so long. Eventually the school authorities identified called me in for questioning and threatened me with suspension to get me to stop my involvement in campus politics. The threat worked and I finished my final year with as little trouble as I could.

Looking back, a large part of what made the boycott worked was the fact that the students were not boycotting for nothing.

There were explicit demands for transparency in the elections, which means the students demanded that the whole process of candidates selection was exposed for the students to judge for themselves.

64 per cent of unelected student representatives being formally introduced as our representatives was outrageous enough to make us throw the entire system into the can. The students demanded the Student Affairs Department to butt off, to stop intervening in the elections as they have done since 1974.

Many of the students recognised that the student representatives were no more than mere puppets of the school authorities, and that all these while they were never a part of a functioning  democracy.

They have chosen the representatives for us, and we were supposed to “choose” those who have already been chosen by the top management of the university.

It was the one thing that the students finally recognised when it came to their place in the system: their alienation and exclusion from the democratic process.

In a way, this is similar to the youths today when it comes to general elections. Voting only empowers those who are recognised by voting. Low-income and marginalised youths are already alienated and excluded from the votes that were supposed to “empower” them, so why then are we chastising these youths for not voting?

When democracy is so corrupted, so entrenched in money politics and the system is so rigged beyond repair, is it still really stupid to not vote?

Abstinence from voting is not for all situations

For the most part, most people don’t really have to resort to vote-spoiling or abstaining during elections. Because our democracy, however flawed, is still a democracy.

But to say that all the youths who refuse to vote, for whatever reasons, are stupid and dumb, is just lazy analysing. Those who accuse others of binary thinking must always be careful not to be binary themselves.

Like all social interactions, the reality is far more complex and there isn’t a specific social theory to explain any specific phenomenon at any given time.

Vote spoiling is something that I think could happen, not necessarily something that should, unlike the vote spoiling naysayyers who insist that vote spoiling is simply unacceptable at all.

In grave situations where all the candidates in a constituency are truly bad and unacceptable, by unacceptable I mean they are regressive in the ideologies that inform their action i.e. racist, sexist, corruption apologists etc, and that there really is no other alternative than these candidates, a voter must have the right to spoil their vote in protest of such a situation.

My argument is simple: the aim of election is to choose a public representative that would bring about change. Not just any kind of change, but change for the better. But if voting in one racist out of three racists in a three-corner fight means still electing a racist, in what “practical” manner then are we voting for change? It defeats the very purpose of elections to begin with.

I abhor the idea that as a liberal, one must allow for anyone and everyone to have a place in public office. I definitely do not want a representative of the people who believes in race supremacy and neither should I want that, no matter how much “less of an evil” that candidate is.

Vote spoiling nay-sayyers keep telling the vote spoiling camp that vote spoiling is not practical. But what is so practical about electing the very same bullshit that we want to change, over and over?

Where is the practicality of choosing one racist candidate over one less racist candidate? Where is the practicality of choosing one corrupt official over one less corrupt official? Still racist and still corrupt.

I guess by “not practical” what they mean is that our spoilt votes are not considered into the statistics of the elections to send a clear message — this is true. Which is why the votes must also reflect spoilt votes as society evolves into understanding that spoiling your vote is legitimately a political move. Make it a part of the elections statistics, which turn into real consequences in the parliament. For this to happen there needs to be a change in the system that allow spoilt ballots to be reflected in empty parliament seats.

Alternatives to voting must also come with clear demands. Just like how students in UiTM protested a dead democracy by not only boycotting the rejected process, they also demanded an alternative process that they wanted to see.

Obviously I only have the concept and the idea but not the details of such a system. However, in theory, democracy also has the capacity to evolve.

The youths are not stupid and they do not deserve to be pushed aside as such just because certain narratives don’t fit the image of the elites, whose background and privilege allows them to be involved in the democratic process with or without elections.

As for myself, and other friends who think alike, we focus our efforts to create a meaningful movement of political participation, beyond electoral politics. We create a movement of people who care not for politicians until they are worthy of care, and for that to happen politicians must change up their attitudes and policies. If that is not a pragmatic move towards change, then I don’t know what is.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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