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10 March 2017 Editorial

 

10 MARCH 2017

Voting with our feet

Voter turnout estimates are often revised for a final tally by the Election Commission, but by all accounts the current round of Assembly elections has witnessed deepened participation. In the final, and seventh, phase of the Uttar Pradesh elections on March 8, the turnout for the 40 seats was initially estimated to be 60.03%, an increase of more than 2% over 2012, and hovering near the average for all the seven phases. In the second phase of Manipur’s election the same day, for 22 of the total 60 constituencies, the turnout in three-quarters of the booths was reckoned to be more than 86%. In Punjab, which went to the polls on February 4, the turnout was 77.4%, marginally less than the 78.2% registered in 2012. In Goa, which also voted on February 4, it was about 83%, indicating a marginal increase since 2012. And in Uttarakhand, which voted on February 15, early estimates put the turnout at 65.64%, against the 2012 turnout of 67.22%.We must await the final estimates, though it is clear that none of these States has come close to matching Tripura’s Assembly election turnout of 90-plus. Even so, the voter participation in these elections has once again proved to be farfetched the ever-hovering anxiety about voter fatigue, if not cynicism. Indeed, in comparison to other mature democracies with their problem of low voting by the young, the so-called millennials, in India voter enthusiasm cuts across class and age. And as the 2014 Lok Sabha election turnout indicated, it has also bridged the gender gap, with the EC reckoning it has come down to 1.46 percentage points, from 4.42 in 2009.

At first glance, these figures are a repudiation of the worries about voter choice that keep afloat ideas such as deepening the None of the Above (NOTA) option on voting machines to include the right to reject. In fact, ethnographic studies suggest that the Indian voter perceives voting day to be a special one, with a celebratory camaraderie at the polling booth reflecting a determination to make her vote count. And with turnouts generally rising as one goes from parliamentary to State to local polls, it is clear that personally felt outcomes matter most to voters. Besides, as the higher turnout in the Malwa region compared to the rest of Punjab this year indicates, where the party competition is keenest, voting is higher. Nonetheless, the old thumb rule about higher turnout meaning an anti-incumbent vote is a thing of the past. Psephological (study and scientific analysis of elections) data are rich with the reasons that motivate a vote, and each verdict must be read separately. The decreasing gender gap is one to particularly celebrate. From the first election in 1951-52, when millions of women did not figure in the electoral rolls as they would not share their names, to the conversations on the sidelines of these elections, with women asserting they’d vote differently from their husbands, India has come a long, though not long enough, way.

 

Open gates

The ruling of the European Union’s top court giving member-states the right to grant or deny asylum has come as welcome news for populist hardliners hostile to the surge of refugees desperate to escape the humanitarian catastrophe in West Asia. In a defining verdict this week on the immigration crisis, of a magnitude not seen since WorldWar II, the final judgment of the European Court of Justice of the 28-nation bloc overturned the opinion of its prosecutor, which is rather unusual for the institution. Its prosecutor had said in February that governments should issue humanitarian visas to people at risk of torture and degrading treatment, consistent with their obligations under the European charter on human rights. In overruling that stance, the common judicial arbiter for the bloc held that member-states were not obliged to issue visas to people from third countries who had no prior links in Europe. Under the Common European Asylum System, as with similar international mechanisms, countries are expected to process asylum requests humanely once refugees arrive. A not inconceivable consequence of the verdict is that the mass of migrants who embarked upon those dangerous journeys on the high seas may find no realistic alternative in their attempt to flee conflict zones than continue to undertake those risky ventures. 7 March 2017 development is also a shot in the arm for eurosceptic political parties that have remained steadfast in their opposition to the jurisdiction of the Luxembourg court over national governments.

This controversial case, concerning a Syrian family from Aleppo seeking asylum in Belgium, also brought into sharp focus the politically divisive and hateful campaign witnessed since the beginning of the migration crisis. While their plea was upheld by domestic courts on humanitarian grounds, the strength of right-wing opposition led to a senior legislator being fined for defying the order, culminating in the challenge in the European Court of Justice. Given the appeal of anti-immigration political parties in three of the founder-member states of the EU that go to general elections this year, the Netherlands, France and Germany, the setback for a more orderly and legal immigration system could not be greater. Mainstream liberal political forces across the bloc face the biggest challenge in decades to their conception of an open and humane society. This is their moment to stand up for the so-called European values the continent’s leaders have emphasised since Donald Trump’s ascent to the White House. A perception that western nations are turning their back on the rest of the world is the last thing mature democracies can afford at a juncture when the rules-based global order is under increasing attack. Action on the commitment given at the UN last year to put in place legal pathways for migrants and refugees would mark a beginning.

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