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Sick of politics? Then read this...

Brandon Hamber

"Look South" Column published on Polity, 22 April 2005

Politicophobia is the fear or abnormal dislike of politicians. Common symptoms include, according to US-based phobia experts CTRN, panic attacks, irregular heartbeat, sweating, nausea and overall feelings of dread. Now I know what you are thinking: is your dislike of politicians abnormal or about average? At this moment, mine feels severe. Elections are everywhere. South Africa has just come through municipal by-elections, Mugabe just pulled off another fast one, there has been the Papal election, and the UK is in the grips of election fever. I suspect I am not the only one feeling queasy at the sight of too many grinning politicians kissing babies and pressing the flesh with the masses. Do I suffer from politicophobia? I suspect not. Phobias are serious business but, certainly, I am feeling the first pangs of distress here in Northern Ireland that accompany the arrival of election posters on lampposts. I imagine I am not alone.

Elections seem to create as much apathy as interest these days. About half of the young people in the UK under 25 voted in the 2001 election. In contrast, ten-million people, mostly under 25, voted in the Big Brother reality TV show. The problem is not as acute in South Africa, but apathy is growing. The turnout of registered voters in 1999 was 89% and in 2004 it had dropped to 77%.

So what is the problem? There are many factors, but political campaigning as it currently stands is certainly one of the biggest turnoffs. I read most elections like this: they are 25% about real issues, 25% about worthless promises, 25% about taking media pot shots at the opposition and 25% about self-promotion. On top of this, elections imply choice, but political conservatism is slowly robbing the electorate of this. If you are lucky enough to live in a democracy, your ‘choices’ generally range between the centre-right and the right wing, and perhaps the odd lunatic on the fringe. In 1966, UK Conservative politician Quintin Hogg noted that the moment politics becomes dull, democracy is in danger. I seldom agree with a Conservative politician, but how true! In many countries, elections must be re-energised. But how does one do that? Certainly, it does not involve Bill Clinton playing a saxophone or TV ads showing politicians in open-neck shirts and baseball caps trying to look average. Here are my ideas: politicians should be fined 10 000 votes every time they use the word ‘promise’ or slate the opposition; all politicians should be compelled to live with a poor family for a month prior to the election (while being filmed); no political party should be allowed to use a public relations company; there should be an option on the ballot where you can make your mark if you do not endorse any candidates; and, finally, politicians should not be allowed anywhere near babies or hospitals while campaigning (unless sick or suffering from politicophobia themselves).

Now, do not get me wrong – I am not apathetic. Voting is important and we should all do it. Look at the US as an example of where every vote counts. But politicians must realise they are part of the problem and part of the solution to voter apathy. They have a responsibility to transform the plastic distrustful world of politics.

As for the rest of us, if we are feeling a little bit overdosed with politicians right now CTRN offers a 24-hour fear-of-politicians programme with 100% money-back guarantee. And, remember, it could be worse – you could live in Zimbabwe.

Brandon Hamber writes the column "Look South": an analysis of trends in global political, social and cultural life and its relevance to South Africa on Polity, see http://www.polity.co.za/pol/opinion/brandon/.

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