Nothing makes me want to vote less than doing research on this season’s American candidates.
Nothing makes me want to vote more than talking to my Ukrainian roommates.
One of them caught up with me on my way back from putting my absentee ballot application in the mail. “You’re voting from outside the country?” My brief explanation of the American ballot system evolved into a conversation about what little about American politics we both knew. She asked my impressions of the candidates and shared her own; I described what I could out of my own (incomplete) observations and opinions.
The extent of my cynicism became clear even to me as I explained: “I think most Americans are voting for one candidate or the other not because they like them, but because they don’t like the other even more.”
She nodded, and mentioned no one is happy with the government in Ukraine either. But no one is going to vote, because voting isn’t going to change it.
The power structure in Ukraine is corrupt. About a week before putting my ballot in the mail, I and one other American student had sat stunned as we listened to my roommates describe the scandals, deceit and death knolls that plague Ukraine’s election season. The men in power have been in power for a long time, and will probably remain that way.
It’s dangerous to be a political newcomer in Ukraine. At best, your opponents will set you up to look foolish, then use their own paparazzi and media sources to condemn you in the papers. Serving drinks at a party, then leading guests into staged situations where they can’t react as sharply is a common strategy.
At worst, if you still don’t go away, accidents might happen. Car accidents, specifically: “They’re hard to prove it was intentional.” And even if someone did go seeking proof, legal cooperation would be hard to find: The KGB lives on in Ukraine. Under a different name, but with the same sort of relationship with the government—and the people.
And of course, the ballot box is more a prop than a tool for democracy.
“The people are hopeless,” my roommate reiterated. “They have no hope. They know their voting won’t change anything, and they don’t feel like they can change anything.”
I asked her what she thought it would take to change something in Ukraine. She explained the last revolution was in 2005, but it didn’t get very far and with such a “hopeless” population, it would take awhile before anyone could be rallied into stirring things up again.
The phrase “your vote counts” is a popular one in the States. But that phrase never clicked with me until I talked to someone whose vote doesn’t.
The men vying to become America’s new president are not stellar candidates. They’re both tweaking statements to appeal to whatever majority they think they’ve found. They’re both making promises they can’t keep. They’re both making a mess and inheriting a mess, and no matter who wins, they’ll remain entrenched in the power plays and politics that make up running a country (whether in the leading role or as a supporting character).
But they are not tyrants either. American voters are not afraid of their leaders. Our presidents don’t use force to keep the control they’ve seized once their contract is up (and despite the alarmist rhetoric out there, I don’t think they’re about to start). Our candidates are eliminated by primaries, not car crashes.
Our system isn’t changing, but it’s for reasons very different than the ones in Ukraine.
I can’t say I feel optimistic about casting a ballot this season, but I’m certainly more grateful and humble than I was when I arrived in Eastern Europe. Whoever wins this election, it’s at least going to a candidate aware of his limitations, accountability and responsibility to the people.
Not every citizen is that lucky.