Thursday is going to be a pretty heavy day – I’ve got to vote for my choice of MP, mayor and three local councillors. The polling station, which normally hosts a playgroup and evening dance classes, is a fair stroll around the block, so I’m hoping that the weather isn’t too bad. I’ve got Thursday and Friday off work, so I can make time for putting my cross in the boxes then sit back and watch events unfold. Probably I’ll do it multi-media style – a bit of Radio 4, a background of BBC News and the Channel 4 alternative extravaganza, and maybe the odd foray into the Internet to see how things are going online. I don’t mean to be flippant; well I do actually, because we’ve got it so easy.
When I walk to the polling booth there will be no one who tries to intimidate me or force me to vote a certain way; I am not having to make the difficult choice of whether to vote for somone I know is corrupt; nor am I having to decide whether putting my life and that of family’s at risk is worth the vote for change. And on a geographic level, I’m not walking or cycling miles to have a say in my country’s political future.
This year sees elections, not only in the UK, but in many countries in the developing world. The results of the Sudan election are already being disputed, while ballot preparations are ongoing across many other African countries including Rwanda, Nigeria, Cote D'Ivoire, Burundi, Burkina Faso, Ethiopia and Tanzania. Sri Lanka's presidential elections in January led to calls for electoral reform, and Brazil, Colombia, the Philippines and Burma all go to the polls in the coming months.
These elections have in the majority of countries been hard won and the violence, protest and coercion that sometimes accompany the right to vote are testimony to how vital this system is to equality and justice.
New and fledgling democracies are brittle and fragile. CAFOD, through its partners worldwide, continues to uphold and support enfranchisement in general, and of the poorest in particular.
Sudan went to the polls a month ago for the country's first multi-party national election in a quarter of a century. Following 20 years of devastating civil war between northern and southern Sudan, that left two million dead and four
million homeless, the majority of people from the southern regions were voting for the very first time.
Sudanese citizens faced a complicated process of up to 12 different ballots to elect national and regional executives and legislators, yet more than 75 per cent of the population in southern Sudan cannot read or write. And with the country being Africa's largest, access to information was vital to election participation.
The Sudan Catholic Radio Network worked all-out to address this challenge. These community radio stations, in partnership with CAFOD, broadcast election information across seven dioceses in southern Sudan for up to nine hours each day. The programmes addressed voter education, offered impartial news and promoted peaceful polls. As one listener, carpenter Thomas Wiri, from the remote town of Ikotos, told CAFOD: "Without education things cannot stand right."
Where elections have become more established, there is still often back-breaking work to be done on corruption, transparency and accountability. This is a sentiment our Brazilian partners at the Justice and Peace Commission take very seriously. For the past two years they, and others, have collected 1.6 million signatures from Brazilian voters in support of the Ficha Limpa Law to exclude convicted criminals from politics.
In this relatively new democracy, one of the biggest hurdles to more inclusive and equal development is corruption and abuse of power. But imagine trying to get a law passed in a country where the very existence of the legislation would put up to 30 per cent of politicians out of a job. And now absorb the fact that the Justice and Peace Commission, its partners and the 1.6 million signatories are making significant progress on exactly that. It is not expected that the law will be passed in time for Brazil's October elections, but it is certainly now a presidential election issue.
In more than 50 countries CAFOD, through its Catholic partners and others, works towards the idea of the common good, where the social conditions in which people live allow them to flourish. At the heart of the common good is the understanding that all are responsible for all, not only as individuals, but collectively at every level.
On Thursday, we have the opportunity to cast a vote that will affect our lives and those of people in the poorest countries through UK international development policies. Our battle for the right to vote has been won, but some of those developing nation communities are fighting right now to gain their own say in political systems. If we do not act upon our own right to vote, we, at best, disrespect those who risk everything to bring about the germination or flourishing of democracy.
Pascale Palmer is CAFOD's advocacy media officer.