The delegates at the National Convention in Canada re-elected every single previous member of their National Spiritual Assembly. These included the two new members that were the result of the 20 December 2010 by-election (Simon Grandy and Dr. Mehran Anvari).
The members of the Canadian NSA are:
So once again, yet another confirmation of the death-grip that incumbency has on Baha’i elections. The longest continuous members are: Judy Filson (+16 years), Enayat Rohani (+16 years), Karen McKye (+14 years) and Susanne Tamas (+14 years). The average consecutive years in office is 9 – meaning that the average member of the NSA of Canada has been a member for 9 years non-stop.
A few weeks before the National Convention and the Canadian federal elections, the Canadian Baha’i News agency (a body of the Canadian NSA) featured a commentary comparing the Baha’i elections and the upcoming secular ones in Canada titled “Innovative electoral model employed by Baha’is“.
The article contrasted the Baha’i election process (devoid of campaigning) with the partisan nature of the political election taking place with its usual mud-slinging. But the article also had an unmistakeable whiff of self-aggrandizement:
Although the Canadian political system reflects well fundamental democratic reforms that have served to advance humanity’s ability to govern itself, it is not without its challenges. Cynicism and apathy about the Canadian electoral system seem to have reached a new high, especially among younger voters. Some political scientists have attributed this apathy to a general decline in interest in institutional democracy.
What happened to humility being the watchword?
Of course, there are very real differences between Baha’i elections and the federal elections. Each one is different in nature and for a different purpose. This does not mean that one is inherently “better” than the other or that one method or process should be adopted in lieu of the other.
The difference that I see between the two goes beyond the superficial ones that the Canadian Baha’i News article mentioned. Whereas Baha’is never discuss or question their own election process or how to improve it, the federal election process is very much discussed. Especially since the recent one resulted in a majority government that did not gain the popular vote. Many Canadians are rightfully asking if they need electoral reform to align the democratic will of the citizenry more precisely with the outcome of elections.
This is open engagement and willingness to both acknowledge shortcomings and to address them is completely lacking in the Baha’i community right now. Instead we are complacent and unwilling to acknowledge the real challenges and deficiencies of Baha’i elections.
The problem of incumbency is probably the most glaring. The very thing which Baha’is are proud of is in fact a cause of this weakness. Because Baha’i elections do not allow campaigning, the current members of the NSA gain a defacto advantage because they are known to the community and their names are often marked with an asterisk or other identifier on the document sent along with ballots that lists the community members eligible for election. The result of the phenomena is evident at all levels of Baha’i election, from the local to the international.
So before we start throwing stones around, let’s first be cognizant that our own dwelling is primarily built out of glass. And let’s start to have a serious and intelligent discussion about how we can improve Baha’i elections. Exhortations of the kind that we’ve seen from the Universal House of Justice simply are not enough to solve deep structural deficiencies. One idea is both simple and effective: term limits. There are others of course. The important thing is to engage in an open and honest dialogue.
Did someone mention cynicism and apathy?
The other challenge facing Baha’i elections is extremely low participation rates. Baha’is may be surprised to learn that the participation rates at this federal election far outnumber the participation rates of Baha’i elections. This has also been the case historically. Talk about cynicism and apathy! Baha’is are not engaged with the election process because they do not believe that their vote counts. The same people are re-elected year in and year out.
So again, before you throw stones…
A brilliant example of the dichotomy between the two approaches is that today, UK voters are going to the polls to vote on a referendum about their voting system. Say what you will about “partisan politics”. Whatever the outcome of the referendum, the fact that it was held shows an admirable willingness to be flexible and attempt to change and improve. As a Baha’i, I wish these were characteristics that were evident from Baha’i communities with regards to elections (and other community matters).
It is also important to note that the Baha’i election, in contrast to the myth believed by most Baha’is, is not “set in stone” but can be adapted and improved upon. The current election process that we employ at Baha’i communities around the world is markedly different from that first put in practice at the time of Baha’u’lah or Abdu’l-Baha. They of course share certain principles, such as secret ballot and no campaigning, but many other things are different.
So it is not true to argue that we are unable to make modifications (such as term limits or changes like the UK proposed AV+ voting system). Personally, I don’t have a single solution that I’m advocating per se. The more important idea is that we should consider these ideas seriously and once informing ourselves, begin to engage in a meaningful conversation about it in true Baha’i consultation.
In case you’re curious, there are literally dozens of method we can use for elections. Here is a simple list and description, each with advantages and disadvantages. For more information on the proposed AV+ system being voted on today in the UK, see this.
Here’s a video that explains it quite concisely: