If a decision to stand as a candidate in an election is an expression of optimism or frustration, of ambition or dissatisfaction, or as it seems at its simplest, a declaration of enduring faith in the political process, then the 59 Irish candidates who declared for the European elections before yesterday’s noon deadline suggest that a healthy belief in politics capacity to change or protect our world endures. That many hundreds more will offer themselves as local representatives on the same polling day — May 24 — suggests that despite everything, despite social media tsunamis of half-informed but molten anger and unacceptable abuse the idea of participatory democracy seems in a reasonably healthy state. The outcomes of that process are, however, a different matter.
The turnout at our last European elections — 52.4% — was hardly an overwhelming endorsement but it was far, far better than the dangerously low 43.87% turnout in the recent presidential election. Maybe we, like someone need exceptional motivation to play our part. Such a smell-the-coffee moment came in last year’s mid-term elections in America when more than 47% of the eligible population cast a ballot. By American standards that was a huge turnout; it was just 36.7% in 2014, and 41% in 2010. That turnout did little enough to curb President Trump but it did suggest that those who hope to depose him next year need to do much better, to be more focussed and indeed hopeful. Whether the fragmented Democratic party can unite around that single purpose, and identify a candidate strong enough to bring regime change remains an open and worrying question.
Hope is in equally short supply in Europe as the forces that created such a dark legacy are in the ascendant. Expert after expert, even if like Brexiteer Michael Gove you’ve had enough of them, predict May’s elections will record a shift to right not seen for generations. Despite that, and amid Brextremism, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán and the others opposed to enlightened liberalism, there are straws to cling to. The global protests by young people outraged by inaction on climate change were one and as hopeful as they were angry. In a more specific instance, Slovakia’s president-elect, Zuzana Caputova is an example of how a person who challenges corrupt or dysfunctional administrations can win office. She was, if this term can have its older meaning, radicalised during a campaign to block illegal landfill dumps. Recognising that her campaign succeeded because of EU oversight and rulings in the European Court of Justice, she has become an ardent supporter of the European project.
It may seem imperceptive — at the very least — to argue for greater participation in our political system a day after the CSO reminded us that we pay €5.2bn a year — €14m a day or three national children’s hospitals a year if you prefer — in interest to service the national debt and that a decision on how to bring high-speed internet access to rural Ireland has been deferred again but as Margaret Thatcher, one of the most successful politicians of her age used to say: Tina — there is no alternative or at least no palatable one. Making the system we have work better seems by far the best option.