30 Sep 2015

Game of Thrones

This week, I have received my instructions to vote. Twice.

The election in question does not take case in some banana republic, of course. But in two different countries, one day apart: On October 18, the Swiss elect their next national parliament. And on the following day, Canadians do the same.

Not only are the two forms of democracy different, but the rules of the game are, too, as the documentation in my mailbox illustrated.

The packet from Switzerland included a leaflet that said in bold letters No e-voting. Turns out that the Federal Council has rejected the electronic vote system that a coalition of cantons had been planning to use. Thus, it was back to paper for everyone, including citizens voting from abroad. At least, this time around I was able to receive and return my ballots by mail in time. Four years ago, the paperwork sat unused in Montréal while I was in Chile.

The Swiss system works on proportional representation, and elects both a lower and an upper house of parliament (hear that, Canada?) In each canton, a panoply of parties, both established and less so, compete for votes. The two newly elected chambers then pick the 7 federal ministers who form the executive branch, distributing seats roughly according to the share of votes each party got. A compromise-bound coalition ensues.

Each citizen has as many votes as there are seats to give out in his canton, either by simply picking the list prepared by the preferred party or by randomly assembling candidates from across all parties. The Swiss can even double their vote for the same individual. The system offers so many twists, it would not be out of place in a game show.

More straightforward, e-voting glitch aside, is how a citizen casts his vote. From birth, every Swiss citizen and his current residence are on file with the civil registry office. To this address, both the privileges (voting documents) and duties (tax forms, military marching orders) are being mailed. And the Swiss are perfectly aware and comfortable with continuously updating their records as they move around the globe. One of the first things I did after my arrival in Canada was to register with the Swiss consulate in Montréal. And ever since, I have received my ballot papers for elections and referendums in the mail.

Like the vast majority of Swiss residing in the home country, I cast my vote by return mail - all I have to do is fill in the ballots and sign a card. (Since I live abroad, I also have to stump up for postage in the absence of e-voting.) Signed, sealed, elected.

Compare this to the Great White North. “I can’t travel to see the client on the 19th”, said my boss. “It’s the election.” I looked confused. Would planes not fly on that Monday? Would there be a curfew and police roaming the streets?

Nothing of the sort. But as it turns out, in this vast and sparsely populated country, elections still take place like they did decades ago: On Election Day, citizens are requested to show up in person at their local polling station, stand in line to wait their turn, disappear into a little cubicle to fill in a ballot paper, and cast it right there and then. Since most people have other stuff to do on a Monday as well, employers are required to give employees a block of 3 hours of paid time to go to the polls. And while advance polling and polling by mail now exists, I have yet to meet somebody who has used these services. (Government figures suggest that only 14% of votes were cast through alternative means at the last election.)

Should a Canadian have moved since the last election, the responsible government body will not have been advised of this fact by the tax agency or the local municipality. Instead, it is up to prospective voters to re-register in their new district. And to prove that he is indeed an eligible citizen.

So while the process to cast a Canadian vote may be more cumbersome, the actual choice is dead simple. In each riding, there is precisely one candidate to elect, from a choice of 4 or 5: Each major party will present one contestant. In picking a person, you vote for the individual, the party’s platform and also for a prime minister, as it is understood that the leader of the party with the most elected candidates nationwide will become the next head of government. If you like your local MP but not his party leader… well, too bad.

I have learned all this despite not being allowed to play the game: Since Elections Canada has no idea where registered voters live, they send their documentation to everyone in Canada. And what about Canucks outside Canada? A controversial law was recently upheld on appeal, limiting voting rights to Canadians living abroad for less than 5 years and having an intent to return to reside in Canada. Everybody else has no say.

If Switzerland applied the same rules, I’d be completely without a voice in this fall’s political season. As it stands, I can vote for the clowns providing the next four years of entertainment in Berne, but not for the gang running the show in Ottawa.

Is it more likely that by 2019, I will be allowed to show up at the polling station in Canada, or to vote electronically for Switzerland? With these odds, perhaps I'll just go play the lottery instead.

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15 Sep 2015

Cruise control

My German friends would go nuts. Here we have the second largest country in the world, with miles and miles kilometers and kilometers of roads through wide, open, flat and unpopulated tracts of land. This land just calls for a German-syle autobahn system without speed limits. 

Instead, the fastest one can legally go in Canada is 100kph (give or take a few exceptions in the wild wild West, where 120kph are on occasion allowed). It makes for long dreary drives and, unless you care to earn demerit points, a time-tested appreciation for the cruise control feature to relieve the heavy foot.

Fortunately, there are roads that are more exhilarating. Or more scenic, like the 860km we took in last week down the coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles. Having resisted the urge to upgrade to a not-so-subtle Mustang Convertible, we nonetheless found ourselves rolling down the windows of our rental car and turning up the Beach Boys soundtrack soon after leaving the city by the bay behind us. We embarked on the famous highway 1 south, the winding road along the Pacific that would lead us on for the next few days.

Once we had cleared the Tesla-infested redwood forests around Silicon Valley, the view opened up to the ocean, and the breeze infused our car with a tangy salty scent that was much more authentic than the one out of air freshener sprays. The sound of waves crashing competed with the roar of the occasional passing Harley - for highway 1 is firmly in the hands of pleasure drivers these days.

Along it, iconic towns such as Santa Cruz with its old school boardwalk, Monterey with its 17 mile peninsula drive, and Santa Barbara with its Spanish colonial style architecture awaited us. Between them, the coastline kept changing: From rugged coves to wide beaches, to dunes and sheer cliffs. Deserted stretches such as Big Sur alternated with coveted residential areas, where villas loomed behind commanding gates.

It is true that we were hardly alone: On this long weekend, the roads were busy with RVs, muscle cars and even cyclists, the latter living on the edge in more than one sense. But no matter: We were not in a hurry, and still able to find an uncrowded turnout from which to watch the sunset.

When stopping in cities, we set ourselves apart from the hoards by walking a few blocks to downtown (and thereby availing ourselves of free parking to boot!), using the opportunity to stretch our legs while strolling in the California sun. And when we hiked up a hill a few miles inland, we had it all to ourselves. The typical highway 1 road trip, evidently, does not include unmotorized activities.

And that's perfectly understandable, given the beauty and joy of the road. Yes, I hardly went faster than 100kph on the entire trip. But why would I? Even the Germans would have to agree that when you cruise along the Pacific coast, you don't need cruise control. You just coast.

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