LEADING ARTICLE : Yes, quite a long embrace. How was it for you?

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Finally, it's over. The foreplay has been strenuous and perhaps a little laboured, but today at last comes relief. Today you get to do your civic duty, to have your way with the politicians rather than the other way around. Or (since you have the choice) you might not. You might choose to pass up the once-in-every-five-years chance to tip your weight into the balance. Today we'll set aside how you vote (or not), and instead consider whether it - this slightly more protracted than usual date with democracy - was good for you (or not).

It has been a campaign where many people got their ennui in first. Issues, personalities, party formations could all have been equally well displayed within three weeks. Even if an informal contest had not been running since last autumn, six weeks is too long. We do not need to test politicians' stamina, or their capacity to leap in and out of helicopters, buses and automobiles dozens of times in a day. Yet fixed-term parliaments - a demand of electoral reformers since the Chartists - would not get round the problem, because then the whole parade drags on for a couple of years, as the constant campaigning that goes on in the United States shows. Would a future prime minister be tempted to extend the formal period again? It's unlikely: if he becomes an ex-prime minister, John Major will have to live with his regrets.

But the length of the campaign has not been the only complaint. Some people are worried that democracy is being tainted by the slick professionalism of modern campaigning. Spinners have been busier than spiders, and people are moaning that the whole business has been so packaged and controlled and pre-fixed and sound-bited that it's not real. Oh no, the lament goes up, American superficiality has finally destroyed our fine old hustings traditions.

That is an understandable anxiety, but mostly, thank goodness, unfounded. Professional campaigning is a natural result of multiplying media outlets. And multiplying media outlets have given voters more opportunity to listen to, challenge, question, laugh at, weep over what politicians say and think than at any time in the history of our parliamentary democracy. John Major's complaint yesterday that the media did not allow him to get the message over would be laughable if it were not pathetic. The truth is that people have been soaked repeatedly from head to foot with the issues for the past many months, and forcibly ducked and drenched for the past six weeks.

For all the stage management of events, the campaign seems at times to have been nothing but the aggressive quizzing of leaders. It has not just been the public's proxies in the shape of television and radio journalists asking lively questions in real time. The public themselves have had direct access in a variety of phone-ins and audience participation shows. All the right questions have at one time and another been asked and, more or less adequately, answered.

The idea that somehow the system has conspired to deny access to the "real issues" is thoroughly disproved by the energetic presence of the single-theme parties. Sir James Goldsmith has done the electorate sterling service in one sense, at least: that portion of it that thinks Europe the great matter has an opportunity to exercise its choice. Anarchists, clowns, anti-abortionists, and levitators have their choices, too.

A fashionable cry lately has been "none of the above". We worry about the apathy of our post-Thatcher youth, the ones who slump back and say they don't want to vote, oh no, because it's all a lot of cojones. A set of self-appointed generational spokespeople has proclaimed its disaffection. What's new? Young people always have registered less and voted less and doubtless always will - for the good reason that they have more pressing calls on their time. There has been detectable, none the less, an uncomfortable whingeing tone in the vox pops collected by us and other media from young people. It suggests elections are like a visit to a burger outlet where, when a triple-decker with fries is not on the menu, a keening note of self pity is sounded. But parties are more than hucksters, just as citizens are more than consumers. If none of the above, where are the new parties that would reflect what young people say are their concerns; where are the youthful advocates of those institutional reforms that would allow new political formations to flourish?

Modern Britain is not Aristotle's Athens, where the citizens can be expected to gather, figuratively, on the hillside to debate and decide the fate of the polis. Yet enthusiasts for gadgetry suggest there are ways in which people can, from the comfort of their armchairs, zap into democratic participation. Government by plebiscite is on our doorsteps. (All parties favour a referendum on a single currency. Labour picks up an old Michael Heseltine suggestion that local authorities conduct polls before they decide their budgets. Promising, this, isn't it?) Meanwhile, nearer home, one of the results of the reforms in public service management in recent years - by no means all of them of Thatcherite inspiration - has been to encourage local political activity around schools, hospitals and housing estates. In other words, there is no shortage of democratic opportunity.

What about democratic will? The acid test is election turnout. In most parts of the country, the forecast is for a sunny spring day. Last time round, in 1992, some 78 per cent of eligible voters turned out, a magnificent figure considering the proportion of people on the electoral rolls who are aged, infirm or just plain indifferent. Our prediction for today is that that total will be exceeded. British democracy can certainly improve, but it's alive and kicking. Give it a go.

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