Holy Smoke: The symbolic nature of voting processes

Pope FrancisThe election of Pope Francis illustrates the symbolic nature of the voting process deployed by the Catholic Church in the selection and election of its spiritual leader. But how different is it to the practices of decision making found in many other Organizations?

In a papal election the symbolism is evident. The conclave of Cardinals assembles in Rome from around the world and its members are prepared for their elective duties. Through dress, location and traditional rituals they are reminded of their sacred duties. The process combines periods of prayer, periods of intense discussion cut off from the ears and eyes of the world. The votes are recorded anonymously, each Cardinal adding a single name to a simple voting slip. these are scrutinized to assess if the required majority has been reached. In either case the slips are ritually burned to provide one of the most famous of signs, the smoke emerging over the Sistine chapel, black for an inconclusive result, white for the awaited news that a new Pope has been elected. [Incidentally, the chemicals now used to achieve the dark and white plumes are pretty noxious...]

Unique and Universal

The ceremony is unique. Yet I suggest it has near-universal aspects which can be noticed in leaders appointments elsewhere. This week, for example, election results were announced in The Falkland Islands and in China.

More symbolism in voting

In each case there was a heavily symbolic component. The Falklands have remained disputed territory between Britain and Argentina which the ‘Thatcher war’ did little to resolve. In the Falklands referendum-type vote, , 98.8% voted to remain British. Three votes were cast against. In China, the electorate voting for President Xi returned an almost identical 98.86%. I will spare you lengthy political analysis. There was one point I found interesting made my commentators in each. On the Falklands, a spokesperson said the result was good because a 100% vote might have seemed suspicious. A Chinese blogger said it was Xi himself for reasons of modesty returned the one vote against, not wanting it be seen as voting for himself.

My unreasonable view of voting

Like many citizens around the world, I value the symbolism of participating in voting. But part of me carries a suspicion that many ballots are more about symbolic process through which a contested election appears to be ‘the will of the people’. Too often, the voting conceals the power behind the ballot box, for example in the choice of candidates or voting procedures. This applies to decisions of corporate boards as much as to those made in the election of a parliamentary representative or a President.

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