KYIV POST, September 2, 2004
What’s the Armenian word for soup, bozbash or kutap? Don’t know the answer? Would it help if we voted on it? No, a vote wouldn’t help, because we don’t know the answer to the question. Democracy gives people an opportunity to make a choice, but making a choice is only meaningful if you are qualified to make it. In Armenia, soup is bozbash, and kutap means trout.
In Ukraine, the electoral choice is crystal clear, and can be made based on the issues that the entire population understands. In America’s election, the issues are so obscure and technical that only a miniscule percentage of the population is able to make an informed choice. And that means, just as the headline says, that the Ukrainian presidential election is more democratic.
Democracy came about in ancient Greece so as to avoid a general melee while deciding what color to paint the city gate. We now live in the 21st century, a century of tremendous technological advancements that leave many of us behind. I use a cell phone even though I am completely clueless as to how it transmits the sound. My mother cannot even use a cell phone because she’s confused by the menu. What kind of voters does it make my mother and I on questions related to short-wave (or whatever it is) technology? Now, a real democratic vote would allow my mother to choose a candidate only on issues of healthcare (as she is an expert on that) while I would qualify on social issues.
George W. Bush and John Kerry both say that the main issue of the upcoming United States presidential election is the economy. But how could the U.S. economy be the subject of public choice if no more than a thousand people in the entire world are qualified to intelligently talk about it? Could we at least limit the number of “decision-makers” on the U.S. economy to those who know that Keynes is not a new brand of ketchup? And, by the way, what is the total number of Americans who can intelligently talk about Keynes (an important British economist, as every U.S. newspaper would be obligated to point out)? Ten thousand people would be a very generous estimate.
Everyone should have the right to vote. Fine. Make out a list of ten main issues and make the voters prove that they are qualified to cast a vote on any of them. That would mean that a very well-rounded individual could cast three, five, or even ten votes in total. Democracy needs to become more informed and needs to take into account that some people have made themselves much more influential and knowledgeable than others.
Another example. George W. Bush wears an American flag on his lapel. I resent that, and feel that some American voters could have made an informed decision on that alone. And then I saw John Kerry wearing an American flag on his lapel. So, in the United States, the best image-maker will win, as there are no issues on which an average voter can base his informed choice. And that’s why American presidential election, by definition, is not going to be democratic.
In Ukraine, it is very different. One of the pleasures of following the politics here is the ability to predict the future, such as a Ukrainian UT-1 channel news broadcast. Here is a broadcast for, say, next Thursday: An important person meets with Prime Minister and presidential candidate Viktor Yanukovych to express his tremendous respect. Yanukovych comes up with another initiative to better the lot of Ukrainian people and, thanks to Yanukovych, great improvements are evident. Elsewhere in the world, life is difficult. A catastrophe has occurred. Supporters of presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko started a drunken riot, but the police put a swift end to it.
This is interrupted by political commercials by any of the 24 independent candidates. One such candidate runs for president because Yushchenko’s wife is a U.S. citizen, which means Ukrainians will soon need U.S. dollars to buy bread. Another candidate runs for president just to say that Yanukovych is the best there could be. There is also a Yushchenko political commercial which just says, “I am still around.”
Now, what else do you need to make a choice? You either vote for a person who authorized and lent his name to this deeply offensive spectacle or you vote against him. Since all Ukrainians older than the age of one can recognize overt unfairness when they see it, all Ukrainians are fully qualified to make a choice, and have all the information they need to do so. And that means that an upcoming Ukrainian election would be a truly democratic one.
Now let me tell you a story about my Ukrainian friends, Lisa and Eugene. They loved each other a great deal, but from time to time Lisa would fall into a depression and begin to doubt Eugene’s love for her. Lisa had attempted suicide in the past, and as a result, the situation was a delicate one that required a swift and decisive response.
So Eugene would, with great reluctance, go into Lisa’s room and slap her across the face. Lisa would scream and weep looking in the mirror at her bruised face, but then she would come out to say “I know how you love me, dear, and I love you too, so very much.”
One misconception is that democracy is about making a “choice” no matter how ill-qualified one may be to make it. Another misconception is that in a democracy people are voting for the better option. Well, the reality is that smokers, overeaters, accountants (just kidding), or people with pierced tongues have made their choice, and this choice does not appear to be a good one. When I describe one candidate’s decidedly disrespectful approach and another candidate who is opposed to that, I am not implying that people will vote for the good guy: People will vote for themselves, and in Ukraine, unfortunately, the lowbrow approach is one that the public accepts because, unfortunately, it corresponds to their own behavior.
Every time I am served with the smile, every time I see a Ukrainian making a good, useful product and being proud of it, I know that it would be hard to turn this person into a Yanukovych voter. But such people are still in the minority. When Ukrainians move into a new apartment building, it takes them about a week to burn the elevator buttons and to put ugly graffiti on freshly painted walls: and it is not that someone does it to them, they do it themselves, and they do it to feel “at home.”
And that means that Viktor Yanukovych is a truly democratic politician. People want to be slapped across the face, and reluctant or not, he slaps them. They may resent it, and many do, but they are not opposed to it. In fact, it meets their expectations. As a result, Yanukovych is well positioned to win the popular vote.
And just in case Ukrainians are no longer like Lisa, there will be any number of tricks to invalidate, postpone or falsify the election. After all, Yanukovych is exactly what he is presented as being, a lowbrow candidate.
The time will come when Ukrainians will cease to actively seek to suffer in order to achieve psychological comfort. The time will come when the tactics used by Yanukovych will be met with scorn. For now, though, Ukrainians are not ready to vote for a person who appears to be too good for them.