Next Friday, four constituencies vote on who might replace Dáil deputies elected to Europe. It is unlikely there will be a record turnout. By-elections in Cork North Central, Dublin Fingal, Dublin Mid-West, and Wexford observe a formality but they are very much a curtain-raiser for an approaching general election. Those elected might be wise to wait until after the 2020 election before buying a Dublin apartment. They will need a second endorsement if they are to have a Dáil seat this time next year.
Even if that taking-for-granted is understandable, it is in stark contrast to the situation faced elsewhere. Just yesterday, the people of Hong Kong turned out in unprecedented numbers for local elections seen as a proxy referendum on months of anti-government protests. Hour-long queues stretched outside polling stations and by midday more than 1.5m people had voted, exceeding the total in elections four years ago. Their wishes may not be honoured but no one can be in any doubt about their determination to be heard.
The huge turnout is significant as Hong Kong’s councils are seen as bit players entrusted with modest powers, indifferent budgets and a reputation for corruption. Previously, elections attracted a low turnout because they were regarded as part of a rigged process. Pro-Beijing groups, funded and controlled from mainland China, won control of almost all councils. However, after months of protest against Xi Jinping’s autocracy, the elections are a platform for Hong Kong to speak to the world and try to win support. How that support might be manifested is an open question as Xi Jinping has shown himself as indifferent to the political or religious aspirations of his compatriots as he is indifferent to international criticism. To borrow a phrase from another strong leader: “The man is not for turning.”
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protestors might not enjoy the comparison but they might look to Bolivia, where there has been a right-wing coup, one enforced through mounting chaos and violence. Jeanine Áñez, a conservative Catholic widely accused of racism, usurped Evo Morales after a campaign involving the burning of officials’ houses and kidnapping of relatives. Just yesterday, her hardline government vowed to jail Morales for life, accusing him of inciting protests. Áñez’s regime has been accused of “the worst human rights violations at the hands of the military and the police since ... the early 1980s”. And, just as the case in Hong Kong, appeals have been made to the international community to bring its influence to bear.
A similar drama is unfolding in Colombia, where president Iván Duque has warned security forces will stay on the streets. He spoke as protests continued for a third day. Anti-government demonstrations erupted on Thursday, when more than 250,000 people marched. At least three people have died and a curfew was imposed in Bogota on Friday.
These events may seem remote on a rainy Monday in the south of Ireland but we would be foolish to imagine ourselves immune to those dark forces. The right to vote was hard-won and it would be wrong and stupid not to use it next Friday.