Virgin vote at the ballot box
Photo: ©K. Diab
I am almost 33 years old and I finally lost my electoral virginity on a sunny autumn afternoon. It was a beautiful day for it: a lazy Sunday, 8 October 2006 to be precise. We walked through the front gates of the local school where I was about to come of age. We joined the queue of veterans who wore nonchalant looks of ‘been here before’ on their faces and I tried to assume the same sort of blasé attitude so as not to give my inexperience away.
Inside the polling station, I approached one of the mysterious voting booths for my secret liaison. I stepped into the anonymous, bare cubicle carrying the white sheet upon which I would rub in the stain of my electoral virginity.
Like a fumbling teenager undoing his first girlfriend’s bra, I picked up my ballot and hesitated for a long moment before I decided on which party to embrace. I knew which parties I would not touch with a barge pole, but resolving which one to climb into bed with was a harder matter – my heart told me that certain parties had admirable principles; my mind told me that the gap between reality and ideals was a large one.
Organised politics, like organised religion and sport, has never held massive appeal for me, mainly because I find it hard to make the full commitment partisanship requires. Being a passionate relativist and compulsive nitpicker, I can’t help but find fault – and virtue – with different sides. I usually prefer detached non-alignment. This is one reason why I never considered the diplomatic service – there would be too many indefensible issues for my tormented soul to handle. ‘But…’ is my favourite grammatical construction, so I will indulge the reader’s patience and exercise it yet again.
But on gaining Belgian citizenship last year, it became compulsory for me to vote – and it just so happened that my first ballot would be for regional, rather than national, elections. Earlier that morning, Katleen had asked me innocently: “Do you know what to do when we go to vote?” I had to admit my ignorance and she walked me through the process.
I decided that Gent was a safe enough seat for the socialist SP.A and so decided to go green and cast a vote of confidence for diversity by selecting the Groen! leader Vera Dua and another of the party’s female candidates, this time from an ethnic minority. With a blue pencil, I coloured in the appropriate Groen! circles.
A short moment later, I was a little surprised that my political deflowering was over so quickly and painlessly. There was no loud rumble of excitement, no sudden Etna surge of adrenaline as I dropped my ballot into the box. This is perhaps unsurprising given that the issue of the moment for the election campaign had been road safety, an issue which does not even cause the faintest echo or blip on my political radar.
Photo: ©K. Diab
Nevertheless, these regional elections were widely regarded as a dress rehearsal for the national elections in six months or so – which provided a convenient way for me to be broken into the electoral process gently. And the question on everyone’s lips, particularly the international media’s, was how would the far-right Vlaams Belang party fare in this latest contest.
In this election, nothing much changed, but everything changed a little. The VB, which had been widely expected to make steady gains across the board, stagnated in its traditional stronghold, Antwerp and the socialist mayor Patrick Janssens won a spectacular victory in what the press described as a ‘presidential’ campaign. This has been interpreted as a sign that the party may have finally reached its peak at just over 20% of Flemish voters. The more hopeful see it as heralding an imminent retreat for the prophets of intolerance.
Just before the vote, thousands of foreign journalists descended on Antwerp, the VB’s main stronghold, to await the result with baited breath. I persuaded a BBC Scotland programme, Eòrpa, which wanted to interview Badra Djait and myself, to come to liberal and progressive Gent the day before the election to see that there was more to the fragmented and polarised political landscape than far-right extremism.
The Flemish lions may roar from the sidelines, but once they get well and truly into the ring, they will look more like feral cats. Of course, the general swing of Flemish politics to the xenophobic, intolerant right – as is the case in much of Europe – is a serious issue of concern but not one to lose sleep over for the time being, especially since more progressive forces are regrouping.
Before the interview, Badra was a little nervous about speaking English and was relieved to discover that she would be able to speak Dutch. Seconds before my interview, I got a little edgy when I realised that, this being a Gaellic programme about Europe, they also wanted me to speak in Dutch! Luckily, I managed to find the right words to answer their questions.
Colin Mackinnon, the interviewer, asked me if I believed that the VB were a threat to democracy. I thought they were a nuisance and problematic, but not a threat. There are currently too many checks and balances for such a small party to overcome. If they had an overwhelming majority, then they would become a threat. He also asked me if they would cause Belgium to split. I told him that I doubted it very much, at least in the short to medium term, because they did not have enough of the Flemish vote and would need a partner on the Francophone side, and no Walloon party wants to divide the country.
I have long had what you can call an immaculate conception of my political stance. In Egypt, electoral chastity was an important protection mechanism against the usual corruption of the political system. Last year, I was going to go against a lifetime of habit and wanted to vote voluntarily in the country’s first-ever multi-candidate presidential race. While I knew that it was nothing more than an “electoral piece of theatre”, as one Egyptian campaigner put it to me, I felt I wanted to register a vote against the status quo. My youngest brother managed to do it, but I was unable to be in Egypt for the vote and the Brussels embassy did not, unsurprisingly, allow expatriate Egyptians, who tend to be anti-regime, to vote.
It is difficult to say whether compulsory voting is a democratic practice or not – equally valid cases can be made either way. Personally, I am glad that my first ever vote may have served in some small way to further the cause of tolerance, equality and concern for the wider world we live in.
Democratic reform in Egypt is a one step forward, one step back, two to the side kind of experience. It is sometimes exciting and promising, often frustrating and depressing, and too often stagnant. This special focus section explores the issue of democracy in Egypt. Read on
September 2006 – Describing the intricacies of culture is like mapping the human genome – pitted with difficulties. Khaled Diab spoke to a number of Belgians to find out what makes the country tick culturally. Read on
May 2006 – A racially-inspired
shooting spree in
The language placebo
– To hear some politicians speak, one would think that language and culture
were the panacea for all
March 2004 – As one of the original six
founders of the European Union,
ã2006 K. Diab. Unless otherwise stated, all the content on this website is the copyright of Khaled Diab.