Civic engagement in the political process and electoral participation are major indicators of a prospering democracy. However, when citizens are disappointed or frustrated by a pattern of government inaction or corruption, people can feel as if there is little benefit to dedicating their valuable time and resources to political action with limited results. This is when people can suffer from political apathy or a lack of political engagement.
What is political apathy?
Political apathy is best described when a citizen is indifferent in their attitude to political activities, such as electing politicians, having opinions, and their civic responsibility.
Political apathy can be due to a variety of reasons, including limiting political participation directly through discriminatory policies or indirectly through slow, inefficient or non-representative bureaucracies. Both direct and indirect causes result in individuals, or communities, feeling politically disengaged since they believe their actions will lead to minimal or no change.
Why do people experience political apathy?
Indirect political apathy through slow, inefficient or non-representative bureaucracies was highlighted in a recent study based in Nigeria, where researchers surveyed and analysed voter attitudes toward political apathy. They discovered four main factors which lead to voter apathy in Nigeria:
- The incompetence of the body which ran the electoral process
- The political environment
- Electoral violence
Survey respondents voiced their concerns about the impartiality and independence of the body which ran the electoral process, alleging electoral fraud and election rigging, which consequently discouraged public participation in the voting process at all.
As the childhood of Moses Tai, the ADC founder demonstrates, political apathy results in low expectations.
Unemployment and the dissatisfaction of the electorate with the job opportunities available to them stems from larger disapproval of those in authority. Plus, a dangerous and toxic political environment often results in violence which can scare citizens from participating in political action.
However, governance and politics and therefore political apathy occur every year, all year long, not just during election years. Afrobarometer conducted a series of public opinion polls on democracy and governance in Africa in 2013-2014; they found that 32 per cent of respondents said they never discuss politics, while only 20 per cent of respondents say they frequently discuss politics.
Perhaps the disillusionment of citizens is unsurprising; in Kenya many of the public services people rely upon fail to serve the needs of the people, leading private companies to come in to fill the service gaps.
While the number of primary public schools grew by 40 per cent from 2001 to 2011, reports that private primary schools increased by 1000 per cent in that same period. With many essential services being privatised, community members can feel like they have even less of a stake in politics and suffer from more political apathy since the government does not provide the necessary services.
What are the consequences of political apathy?
The consequences of political apathy on communities are wide-ranging. Those in positions of power have who face little accountability for their actions or have a low risk of being voted out of office maintain their authority, while citizens rarely see their lives improve.
Authorities with little accountability are more likely to misuse public resources and reinforce discriminatory policies. This eventually reduces citizens’ ability to participate.
For example, the marginalised indigenous Wayuu people have faced a famine which has killed hundreds of children due to the mismanagement of public funds by authorities in La Guajira, Columbia. According to former senator and former governor of La Guajira, Jorge Ballesteros, corruption and misallocation of government resources had greatly contributed to the famine, and only 30 per cent of all La Guajira government resources reached the communities. The lack of political will of government authorities to help the marginalised, indigenous community is a form of political discrimination and leads to a lack of political engagement of the Indigenous Wayuu people.
To spark genuine political action, political and social reforms must take place, including the electoral body, electoral process, and political parties that must work together with citizen support to create safe and approachable environments in which all citizens participate. Citizens deserve to be empowered to make decisions for their communities to improve their lives. They also must see a benefit to participating in governance and see the positive impacts of dedicating time and resources to becoming politically engaged.
Get involved, help end political apathy and empower communities in Africa, either through donating or volunteering. Your participation will go a long way to supporting people in need.