It is vexingly difficult when ruminating on the frailties and contradictions of democracy to avoid the Churchillism that it is the worst possible way to govern a country—except for all the others. Yet the quip has an under-explored corollary that most countries that aren’t real democracies feel obliged to pretend they are. Dictators enact the charade of elections. Totalitarian prison states style themselves as democratic republics.
This has rarely been expressed with greater clarity than in a new song called Le Vote, by veteran Senegalese musician Ousmane “Ouza” Diallo. The thesis of his protest ditty: If, as seems reasonably likely in the lead-up to Senegal’s runoff presidential election on March 25, some importuning representative of one of the contestants offers you money for your vote, take it.
Some context is required. Senegal, by the none-too-stringent standards of West African governance, functions tolerably well. Although such skullduggery as vote buying does occur, this at least confirms that the votes of the Senegalese are actually worth something. And Diallo’s song also cheerily suggests that, having trousered whatever bribes may be on offer, Senegalese people vote as they would have anyway. The song specifically cautions against handing over, for any amount, the voter card that must be presented at the polling place for ballot papers.
Diallo’s intent in composing Le Vote is clearly satirical, but he might be onto something with exciting transformative possibilities. Most electioneering tax cuts, infrastructure projects, or any other sort of state-mandated pump-priming is essentially an offer to bribe people with their own money, and that’s before candidates have started asking for still more lucre so they can advertise their own virtues in greater detail.
Tyranny and colonial occupation are by definition oppressive, but they tend to be stable (at least until they collapse, which they usually do, messily). Democracy is unreliable, capricious, and corruptible, to the extent that we are.
Outright vote buying is relatively honest, probably cheaper, and certainly less time-consuming. As far as voters are concerned, any amount of cash, however derisory, is worth more than what they’re usually promised as an election looms.