Last Monday, tens of thousands of people boycotted work and classes in Poland to protest against proposals for a blanket ban on abortion, including in instances of pregnancy as a result of rape or incest. The result? The politicians who had proposed the policies backed down, and were forced to reconsider their proposal.
Last year, the Republic of Ireland voted overwhelmingly to legalise same-sex marriage. Ireland is the first country in the world to legalise same-sex marriage through a popular vote. In a historic referendum, more than 62% of the population voted in favour of amending the country’s constitution – and that is in a country where homosexual acts were still criminal as recently as 22 years ago. The Irish Prime Minister Enda Kenny said it was a “small country with a big message for equality” around the world.
I had the pleasure of attending a wedding celebration in Dublin over the weekend, of two men, committed to each other and happily in love for more than 20 years, who decided to marry in Ireland. In part as a sign of commitment to each other and their shared values in life, and in part as an endorsement of the progressive politics that enables them to marry in that country. They don’t take that for granted, nor should we, since in most countries around the world their marriage would not be possible.
Poland and Ireland may not otherwise have much in common. However, as these two actions have demonstrated, when it counts, people have taken to the streets and demanded progressive and human rights affirming policies and demanded accountability from their politicians.
In the USA, people will vote to determine the next President. In the UK, people have the opportunity to influence the priorities on the table in the Brexit negotiations. In South Africa, people will vote with their feet about the relative strength or weakness of the ANC under President Zuma’s leadership. Such is the power of democracy – for those who have it.
According to the latest Democracy Index, even a flawed democracy is a distant hope for the 61 countries classified as authoritarian. The Index notes that 79 of the 167 countries ranked have a functioning democracy. Of these, only 20 are considered fully democratic against a series of 60 indicators. On the list, Ireland ranks 12th and the others follow: the UK (16th), USA (20th), South Africa (37th) and Poland (48th). Yet in terms of functioning government and political participation, South Africa ranks the highest of this group. It depends on the markers that are given priority as a measurement of success.
With important changes in the political landscape at the moment, it is a chance for us – the people – to regain power and shake up politics to make our politicians more progressive, more human rights affirming, and ultimately more accountable.