by Paula Akugizibwe
Jose Saramago’s Seeing is no Arab spring. Revolutionary rhetoric is merely seasoning to the brew of drama stirred up by a government after residents of its capital city paralyse the democratic system by casting an avalanche of blank votes.
Politicians are perplexed by this deplorable disregard for democracy. A cascade of paranoid plotting ensues behind closed doors, through which Saramago walks the reader with deadpan humour in a string of run-on sentences that seem at once impossibly blasé and unbearably neurotic.
But outside, on the streets among the blank voting populace, a curious calm sets in, as eerie in its quietness as it is threatening in its solidarity. A rerun is staged – the government’s attempt to redeem its prodigal voters. In the spirit of redemption, the second election enjoys far better weather conditions than the first. But the proportion of blank votes increases from 70 per cent to 83 per cent.
Compounding the mystery, security agents planted throughout the rerun election’s queues fail to weave intelligence from the threads of voters’ conversations:
“Simple, ordinary expressions, such as, I don’t generally bother to vote, but here I am, This is just like the lottery, I almost always draw a blank, Still, you’ve got to keep trying, Hope is like salt, there’s no nourishment in it but it gives the bread its savour, for hours and hours.”
Simple, ordinary expressions confound an increasingly desperate government, provoking hostile suspicion in the interrogation chamber:
If you don’t normally vote, why did you vote this time, If hope is like salt, what do you think should be done to make salt like hope, How would you resolve the difference in colour between hope, which is green, and salt, which is white, Do you really think that a ballot paper is the same as a lottery ticket.”
Saramago’s blank voters are a radical work of fiction. But in the world where this story unfolds, their actions seem like a perfectly rational response to an irrational system of governance. And while their responses may be futuristic, the system is not. Their epiphany is poised on the final edge of the era of democratisation – an era currently in its heyday but which, as the prime minister puts it, “carried within it, right from the start, in its vital nucleus, in the voting process itself, the seeds of its own destruction”.
Disillusionment with electoral democracy has long been part of the furniture, and it is an open secret that control over state machinery is more about money than votes. Still, grand gestures of civilian participation maintain their pull even when, as in Egypt’s 2012 presidential elections, half of the voters who turned up did so to abstain. “[A] just stance”, writes Saramago, “given expression through the ballot box, the simple right not to follow any consensually established opinion”.
In fact, as the interior minister points out: “[I]t’s rather a good thing that there should be a few doubts, that way people can’t say they’re all speaking with their master’s voice.” But when doubts eclipse hope, the state is presented with a conundrum – how to coerce people into affirming its legitimacy, when its claim to legitimacy rests in people’s freedom to think as they wish. The coercion, Saramago writes, cannot be violent in democratic states that are “skilful enough to achieve the same ends without resorting to such rudimentary, medieval methods”. Instead, the government draws on an entourage of institutions to pursue the desired end through social, financial and political means.
The strategic deployment of institutions in power struggles is a familiar scenario. Kenya’s 2013 presidential election was framed as a race driven by ethnic tensions, unfolding on the egg shells of violence that surrounded the previous election. However, as Mahmood Mamdani pointed out, Uhuru Kenyatta’s electoral victory was secured not by factors of ethnicity, but by popular backlash against the International Criminal Court indictment hanging over his head. This added layer of winner-takes-all tension polarised Kenyan politics in a way that superseded some ethnic divisions, drawing in support for the man who, if he did not win, had everything to lose.
Institutions established in the name of upholding justice, human rights and other democratic ideals double as tools to indirectly manipulate political processes. In the US’s infamous 2000 election showdown, it was the Supreme Court that ultimately appointed George Bush president, and even the most sceptical of citizens had no choice but to eat the choice dished out to them, because democracy is always above the law and sees no distinction between what is legal and what is legitimate.
That distinction was firmly drawn by Mali’s anti-globalisation movement in 2012, which spoke out in support of military junta rule, preferring it to the “flawed democracy” that most of the country’s politicians were eager to return to. Supporters of African Solidarity for Democracy and Independence (SADI), a political party known for its attempts to reform the oppressive economy of Mali’s cotton industry, gathered on Bamako’s airport tarmac to physically block the landing of a delegation of West African heads of state, which had come to steer the country back towards democracy.
The action elicited support from prominent intellectuals in Mali, including former Minister of Culture, Aminata Traoré. The biggest threat to Mali, they argued, came not from military rule but from the self-interested system of democracy that was being imposed on the country by outside powers: a system shaped by “geopolitical, economic, and strategic stakes about which the ordinary citizen has no idea”.
Their critique was censored from most media and political fora. “It is an unvarying rule for those in power,” writes Saramago, “that, when it comes to heads, it is best to cut them off before they start to think, afterwards, it might be too late.” Soon enough the military junta handed over to an interim government that has remained in office through the turbulent year that ensued, holding the door open for the French military and a deluge of aid money. Some of this money was directed towards the long-awaited election of July 2013 when, against the backdrop of a murky war over which Mali’s government has little if any control, Malians were invited to participate in the defining ritual of democracy.
Elections, ‘free’ and ‘fair’ and non-violent in the CNN sense, are the holy grail of politics today, the password to legitimacy in global corridors of power. In the space between them, age-old troubles drop into the stomach of democracy like stools into a pit latrine, until the next election when voters line up to dig fresh holes.
Still, it’s the same old shit. The blank voters of Seeing are not outraged by this vulgar trick. These are people who not so long ago experienced the world at its most perverse, having survived a devastating epidemic in Blindness, an earlier Saramago novel. With sight fully restored, theirs is not an emotive resistance, simply a matter-of-fact mass withdrawal from a charade that they have no more interest in sustaining.
They are not asking for more democracy, if such a myth can be measured. They have no demands of government, not even for its continued existence. When government agencies leave the city en masse under cover of night, destined for a newly appointed capital where voters comply with democracy, there is no dismay over their departure.
A state of emergency is declared and the offending city cast into quarantine. With all authorities and services withdrawn, a discordant cabinet of ministers anticipates, and on occasion facilitates, calamities strong enough to bring stubborn electorates to their knees. But to their frustration, the city keeps moving. Crime does not surge in the absence of police. Things do not fall apart without authorities to hold them together.
On the contrary, the government uncovers a threatening development, “the birth and growth in the capital of an atmosphere of social harmony… doubtless machiavellian, doubtless politically motivated”. Even a mysterious bombing in the train station fails to plunge the city into chaos. Instead, people stage a demonstration.
“What on earth do they hope to achieve by that,” wonders the prime minister, “demonstrations never achieve anything, if they did, we wouldn’t allow them.”
The demonstration culminates in an anticlimactic, chilling silence. There is no sense of drama or heroism among the people described by the defence minister as “degenerates, delinquents, subversives… a depth charge launched against the stability of the system”. In chambers of power their action is romanticised and vilified by the people whom it threatens the most. But on the streets, the only force driving blank votes is a universal, irrefutable logic. As Fela Kuti sang:
As time dey go/ Things just dey bad/ They bad more and more/ Poor man dey cry/ Rich man dey mess/ Demo-crazy Demonstration of craze./ He pass redeem/ He pass corruption/ Which kind election be dis?/ People na go vote/ Dem come get big big numbers/ Thousands to thousands/ Millions to billions/ Which kind election be dis? Boba la nonsense.
The city’s inhabitants consider explaining themselves, approaching the government to make it clear:
that the people who cast the blank votes had not done so in order to bring down the system and to take power, they wouldn’t know what to do with it anyway, that they had voted the way they voted because they were disillusioned… that they could have staged a revolution, but then many people would undoubtedly have died, something they would never have wanted, that all their lives they had patiently placed their vote in the ballot box, and the results were there for all to see, This is not democracy, sir, far from it.
Their disillusionment is not portrayed as particularly profound or exceptional, even among those who punish them for taking it to its logical conclusion. When in private conversation, the prime minister encourages continued confidence in democracy, but the president is unimpressed: “My dear fellow,” he replies, “you can reserve that speech for the television.”
Saramago portrays government not as a monolith, but as a calculated system of actions designed by a small group of men, to whose intimate thoughts and conversations we are privy. They act as an institution, but think as individuals, and Seeing deftly picks at the inner conflict that arises when personal beliefs clash with the demands of institutional power. The deepest spiritual anguish that we come across in the novel is not from disillusioned voters, or even persecuted scapegoats, but from government agents tormented by this conflict.
Several ministers and senior officials who were tasked to deal with the city resign, some announcing that they too cast blank votes. Many stay on, troubled by their complicity but used to doing what they’ve always done – protecting power and keeping in line. Even those at the highest levels of government appear to feel trapped: “I don’t think I’m as bad as the worst,” confesses the president to his cabinet secretary, “but sometimes I’m suddenly very conscious that that isn’t enough, and my soul aches more than I can say.”
There is a deep, dull ache stitched throughout the novel, without a trace of sentimentality. Brutal tragedies, bureaucratic absurdities, espionage and media tricks are all covered at the same matter-of-fact pace. The reader is offered no space to indulge in a psychological disconnect between the violence that lies at the core of systems described as democracy and the civil façade that engages voters to legitimise those systems. In the absence of votes, this façade crumbles, leaving the naked emperor shivering in fear and rage. Not believing in democracy is understandable. Not playing along? Unforgiveable.
Paula Akugizibwe is a writer and contributing editor of Chimurenga.
This text features in the August 2013 edition of Chronic Books. To read the full edition, which also explores self-help writing in a myriad forms, get a copy from our online shop (in paper or as a PDF) or visit your nearest stockists.