March 10, 2008

Election Violence in Poetry and Music: From 18th-Century England to Bob Marley

Megan Reif

Over thirty years after Bob Marley and his wife were shot and injured in election violence during the One Love concert in which Marley tried to bring the two main opposition politicians together on stage, many musicians in Jamaica still sing at events like the Red Stripe Reggae Sumfest about Jamaica's lingering problem. Despite its long history of election violence, Jamaica is considered a democracy by most political scientists. Recent election violence in Kenya and Pakistan, including the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, have made people increasingly weary of registration, campaign, and voting processes that are often a matter of life and death. Violence during elections has been characterized as a sign of the failure of democratic transition. Well-known international organizations, artists, and deejays have commissioned anti-election violence songs and concerts, including Common Ground Indonesia (see example below), Artists for Peace in Sierra Leone, the United Nations Development Program in Liberia, the Center for Multiparty Democracy and National Music Copyright Society in Kenya, and Kan Eye in Ghana. These songs are reminiscent of the satiric poetry and songs about election violence by writers in 18th-century England (see example below). It is important to keep in mind that, unfortunately, violence has been a part of democratization in many contexts, and is nothing new. Things might get worse before they get better as more and more countries make the transition to democracy, but, as a collection of satire on England's early election record indicates, violence does not necessarily signal the impending demise of democracy.

“The Hustings.�

Now, hail ye, groans, hurras, and cheers,
So grateful to electors’ ears,
Where all is riot and confusion,
Fraud, friendship, scandal, and delusion;
Now houses stormed, and windows broken,
Serve as a pastime and a token
Now greeting, hooting, and abuse,
To each man’s party prove of use;
And mud, and stones, and waving hats,
And broken heads, and putrid cats,
Are offerings made to aid the cause
Of order government, and laws.
While blustering, bullying and brow-beating,
A little pummeling, jostling, and cajoling,
And all the jockeyship of polling,
And deep manoevre and duplicity,
Prove all elections fair and free;
But that elections to the mob
Might prove a right good merry job,
And, thus, with open-handed fee,
Meant as a check to bribery,
Each new-made Senator is willing,
By many a sixpence and a shilling,
To compromise for thumps and bruises,
For broken heads and bloody noses;
For damage done by sticks and stones,
For pockets picked, and broken bones.�

- Anonymous, “Election Day-A Sketch from
Nature�, England, 1837
(Grego, Joseph. 1886. A History of Parliamentary Elections and Electioneering in the Old Days: Showing the State of Political Parties and Party Warfare at the Hustings and in the House of Commons from the Stuarts to Queen Victoria. London: Chatto and Windus, Picadilly.)

Are not a place for fighting.
Different religion or race
The important thing is we participate

Different vote choices aren’t forbidden
But don’t force anyone
We choose who we each like
Of course we may…

As long as we choose the peaceful way.�

-- Radio song to discourage electoral violence, commissioned by Common Ground Indonesia, 2004

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