Many smart and engaged people harbour ideas about making their community, country or even the world a better place (and if you’re reading these pages, you’re probably one of them). Despite this, few of us – myself included – are ready to put our ideas to the test in the ultimate forum of public opinion: elections.
Sticking one’s head above the parapet can be a nerve-racking business, but on Friday a select few in the UAE will take their next steps as would-be or returning politicians. A preliminary list will be published of citizens who want to run for a seat on the Federal National Council in elections scheduled for October. Council members are drawn from the UAE’s seven emirates and represent the views and concerns of the electorate on important issues.
Anything that leads to greater consultation, communication and consensus, whether here in the Emirates or overseas, can only be a good thing. When this process leads to better decision making, so much the better – but it’s a process that firstly requires people to put themselves forward as candidates. Plenty of ink has been spilt in many countries about whether or not to exercise the right to vote, but not as much attention has been given to those often perfectly ordinary men and women who step up and take on the challenges that can come with running for elected office.
Those challenges are many, and vary from country to country. In many instances, standing for election can be a distinctly unglamorous and unrewarding business. For every politician who secretly feels they are living out a real-life version of House of Cards, there are many more who pound the streets, put up their own election posters, deliver leaflets and knock on the doors of complete strangers to ask for their vote. This is not for the faint-hearted and candidates often face the wrath of voters who have a few things to get off their chest. This is particularly true in the digital era where legitimate public scrutiny frequently descends into online trolling and abuse, particularly in countries without strong online laws, dissuading many decent people from standing.
Globally, some of the obstacles to running are financial and logistical. It may take brains, conviction and determination to run for office, but it also takes time, money and networks – resources that many independent candidates and smaller parties lack. In some countries, successful candidates for municipal seats at the local level also have full-time jobs, meaning that council meetings and helping constituents must take place outside business hours and on top of a heavy workload.
Despite the graft put in by many diligent candidates, grumbling about politicians and elections remains a popular pastime. This often comes from people who wouldn’t have the courage or inclination to stand themselves. At least three acquaintances of mine in Ireland and the UK – all decent people – have stood in elections, some repeatedly so and without much hope of success, instead aiming to reduce the incumbent’s majority a little more each time. All have my admiration. Anyone who thinks that someone being driven around town for hours while manning a megaphone and repeatedly calling for their neighbours’ vote is on some kind of power trip has a strange idea of self-aggrandisement. Sure, there are often bad candidates, parties and causes but plenty of those who run for office are public-spirited people who are motivated by civic duty and a desire to make a difference. They should be encouraged and supported.
In some countries, help and guidance are available. The UK’s Electoral Commission has a non-partisan guide for prospective candidates that explains the rules and legal procedures of standing. Similar guides are available for those running in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The US Federal Election Commission offers training, webinars and conferences for candidates – particularly when it comes to campaign funding.
Sadly, however, figures suggest that in some countries relatively few people are choosing to run. Only a little more than 3,300 candidates stood in the UK’s 2019 general election – less than 0.1 per cent of its 46.5 million electorate. This is much less than polling that found about 8 per cent of Britons had considered running. Reasons given for this disparity were the cost of campaigns, would-be candidates’ lack of experience, and a perception – rightly or wrongly – that politics are too corrupt or dysfunctional.
This lack of trust has taken hold in arguably the world’s most powerful democracy. Findings published by the Pew Research Centre in the US last year revealed that 65 per cent of respondents – including nearly identical shares in both the Democratic and Republican parties – said that those who seek office at the local, state or federal level did so to serve their personal interests. No system is perfect but this corrosive cynicism about elections and public service is troubling.
It is true that running for office is not for everyone, and in many democracies power is wielded by professional politicians who have spent years building the right connections, finances and networks to enable their rise. Some people choose to make a difference in other ways, such as volunteering or campaigning. Nevertheless, participation in elections remains important – decision making benefits from having a diverse range of voices and experience. This extends beyond the world of politics to professional associations, student unions and similar bodies, which work best with the active participation of as many people as possible.
Campaigning has its ups and downs, but it is an experience that offers challenge and fulfilment. For those putting their names forward for the FNC today – good luck – and enjoy the ride.