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The dance of democracy

I was in Jordan once during an election. I knew nothing of the the parties or Jordan’s constitution but there were huge posters of the faces of the candidates, including women without hijabs. I got the impression of a lively democratic dance, unlike Syria across the border, where the only bill-boarded faces were chinless dictator Assad and his hard looking father.

Notes at the time:-

The passengers were all fairly quiet until we got to a town where the air was filled with election posters hanging from every pole and house. Suddenly everyone started talking, presumably about what candidate they favoured. …

(At Petra):-

Bus back – through people electioneering – painting their cars election colours and sticking posters to them – messed up the paint job I would have thought. The young blokes were dancing on the cars and trucks and blowing horns while the women looked at them from balconies. This was very jolly and like elections in the nineteenth century here. [Including the ladies keeping away from the male throng.]

There’s an election in Scotland on 5 May for the Scottish Parliament. Nary a poster. They have been banned from Council property eg street lamps, and this has happened right across Scotland. A visitor wouldn’t realise a Government with tax-raising and considerable spending powers was being elected.

The number of councils passing legislation banning political material on their property has increased dramatically since the last general election in 2010.

….

The main reason cited for the bans is the expense of removing election material from council property after the country goes to the polls.

But an expert fears that the lack of posters could contribute to lower turnouts and have a deleterious effect on Scottish democracy.

“People often don’t pay attention to politics. They need every reminder they can get (to turn out to vote). One way of reminding people is by posters in localities. It is important for democratically getting people out to vote and mobilising them,” says Alistair Clark, senior lecturer in politics at Newcastle University (link).

All right, I hated the ubiquitous blue Yesses and less frequent (vandalised) purple Noes that covered the country before the referendum, and which took a long time to finally disappear. You will still come across a fresh Yes sticker. But that’s because of my hatred for referendums, not to mention Scottish nationalism. Visitors took it as vigorous democratic debate, and visitors’ impressions are superficial, as mine of Jordan were, no doubt. Still, it reminded the citizens that this was an important event, and that they should get out and vote. Posters before the vote show hope, and afterwards the poignancy of a time and an opportunity passed, and lost.

Labour Party Poster - Five Years to Finish the Job 1966 Election

My own city of Edinburgh has banned them:-

Labour Councillor Ewan Aitken also voted against the ban.

He said: “This is not a ground breaking decision on democracy but it is a sign that political parties have fewer and fewer resources and so are looking to reduce the demands on their teams. I voted in favour of keeping them as I think they add mood and colour to elections.

“Democracy is about how people feel and that is always an environmental as well as an intellectual thing. Posters don’t win elections but they help make elections.”

Compared to, say, massed ranks at a Nazi rally or synchronised North Korean leader-worship, democracy’s ceremonies are dishevelled and haphazard and often enough make for cynicism eg the pointless leaders’ debates. And it’s true that much political activity takes place on social media these days. People don twibbons and change avatars and pass around simplified-to-idiocy memes.

Still, though we can’t get back the time when an election was an event dominating a town as in the nineteenth century, politics should come into the physical space – the street, the wall, the lamp post, and not be considered as litter. That includes attendance at a hustings and the walk to the poll booth (a curse on postal voting, and anathema on voting on line). The bookies changing the odds and the long night watching the results roll in* add to the drama and suspense and catching a moment, like seeing a band live.

A sign of a free society is a poster of the First Minister with added moustache and fangs. Assad’s chinless mug covered Syria and had not once been touched up with spray paint.

*The Beeb replayed the 1966 election on the 50th anniversary, and it was watched by those interested in politics and British history as drama as well as social history.

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