Toronto, Ontario, 19 April 2011 (CBNS) — While Canada’s political parties vie for voter support in the coming federal polls, Canada’s Baha’i community is preparing for its own local and national elections. While both elections are democratic in nature, the character of the two electoral processes could scarcely be more different.

Although the Canadian political system reflects well fundamental democratic reforms that have served to advance humanity’s ability to govern itself, it is not without its challenges. Cynicism and apathy about the Canadian electoral system seem to have reached a new high, especially among younger voters. Some political scientists have attributed this apathy to a general decline in interest in institutional democracy.

They correlate it to a disconnect between what politicians are saying and doing and the way people, and especially youth, would like to see democracy operate. Ethical scandals, attack ads and the heightened acrimony between parties sour the public’s attitude toward politicians and government.

Such practices are perhaps inevitable characteristics of political systems founded on a competitive, partisan approach. These systems often tend to work in the interest of those with the influence and money required to mount and finance electoral campaigns. The ethic of partisan politics fosters divisiveness and immoderate rhetoric which reinforces the voter’s sense of disillusionment.

The Baha’i community employs a different model in electing local and national councils, called Spiritual Assemblies. Each year on the eve of April 21st—the First day of the Ridvan Festival that marks the 1863 declaration by Bahá'u'lláh of his mission to found a new religion dedicated to uniting humanity—Baha’is in communities across the country gather to elect local Assemblies.

The spirit of these elections is unique. There are no nominations, campaigns, or promises; the electors cast their confidential vote for those adult Baha’is in their community they think best qualified to serve in this capacity. What is more, the elections take place in an atmosphere of prayer and contemplation, and are motivated by a vision of service. Assemblies operate according to a consultative model that favours consensus building.

Similarly, the National Spiritual Assembly in Canada, as in other countries, is elected by delegates selected in democratic elections by local electors in the same manner, free of partisanship, nominations and campaigns. National Assembly members in turn use the same process to elect the members of the Baha’i community’s international governing council, the Universal House of Justice.

Canadian Baha’is have been using this electoral model, learning how to apply it over many years. The first local Spiritual Assembly was elected in 1922, in Montreal. Today, there are 239 of these local councils charged with overseeing the affairs of Baha’i communities within a given local area.

The Baha’i Faith has no clergy; local activities are driven by a high degree of individual initiative supported and guided by various institutions, including the Spiritual Assembly. The primary concern of the elected institutions is to develop the capacity of the Baha’i community to enable growing numbers of people, in their locality, to take control of their own material, spiritual and intellectual development.

While the Baha'i electoral model is practiced as yet in relatively small communities around the world, the fact that it is global and has been carried out in regions of the world unfamiliar with longstanding democratic traditions shows just how promising it is. Worldwide, there are 184 National Spiritual Assemblies and approximately 12,000 local Spiritual Assemblies. As Baha'i communities are growing in size and complexity, considerable learning is taking place among the members of the Baha'i Faith as they strive to apply the appealing principles of the Baha'i electoral model to new and more challenging contexts.

© 2011 Bahá’í Community of Canada