The Algerian authorities are very busy preparing for the next legislative elections which are due this Spring. One of the major themes which crops again and again in televised programmes is how to tackle abstention. In Algeria, this means low voter-turnout and not simply casting a blank vote. The authorities seem intent this time on ensuring that voter-turnout is adequate (whatever adequate means). This is understandable of course as even a 100% vote doesn’t mean anything if only one person cast a vote (the candidate him/herself). In this video, which shows a part of a programme from the Algerian national TV, we see a legal expert urging citizens to go to vote and he does so by using very peculiar arguments:
I have not watched the entire programme, so it might be that this bit we see here being out of context, the impression we get from what this guy is saying is not accurate. Because if we take it at face value, this guy is basically advocating a fascist approach to promote democracy. Let me summarize the points he makes:
- First, he says that it is not difficult to pinpoint who has voted and who hasn’t. The ink which is used on the voter’s finger to keep their digital imprint takes 5 days to fade and so presumably, one is to infer from this that it would be possible to inspect the population fingers to catch those guilty of abstention.
- Second, he says that in the Algerian law, there are only a few cases where abstention is legal (criminal charges, unsound mind) and so the real question is why do those who don’t have these legal restrictions imposed on them choose not to vote? Here, the way he expresses his point leads one to believe that he is calling for prosecution of those millions who do not go to vote. I think it’d be easier to find criminal charges for them or produce certificates of unsound minds in order to make the whole abstention thing legal in that case. Some Algerians already resort to such measures to avoid the compulsory military service for example. And with Algeria making good progress in
criminalhuman rights, serving a prison sentence is becoming a lucrative option for many.
- Third, even if we suppose a citizen doesn’t like any of the candidates, he says, they can still go and cast a blank vote. The person who posted the video commented with: “and will this blank vote remain blank or will it be filled-in later?” I am not sure if this is a valid comment as it should be possible to cast a blank vote whilst ensuring it won’t be tampered with later (eg. crossing the entire ballot or selecting ‘None of the above‘ if such an option exists on the ballot). There are also theoretically more effective and democratic ways one can protest by voting (protest vote), than not turning up at all.
I think that the point being discussed here, despite how it might seem, is the reasons for low voter-turnout and how we can address them. The speaker has not done a good job of presenting his argument, but this is a communication problem many Algerians suffer from. I also think he misinterprets the law when he infers that anybody who doesn’t fall in the category where voting is illegal is bound by law to vote. It is like saying that anybody who does not have an amputated leg is obliged to run. A legal ‘expert’ shouldn’t make such fallacious deductions. A citizen is bound by law to turn-up to voting polls if and only if the law explicitly states so. I have downloaded the 2012 Algerian Electoral Code and have not found any mention of voting being compulsory. However, many people say that registration on electoral lists and obtaining a voter card is recommended in order to avoid bureaucratic complications.
Declining Voter-Turnout: A Common Problem in Democratic Systems
Low voter-turnout is a problem even in more established democracies. For example, in 2006, a research report published by a British think-tank days before local elections were to take place, found that the last two general elections had the lowest turnouts – 59% and 61% – since World War I. It was suggested that those who do not vote should be fined to combat low turnout at the polls. Another example, the US voter-turnout has been fluctuating between 49% and 60% in the last 50 years (in 1996, the turnout was the lowest since 1924). The 2000 US presidential election is also a case in note, where voter-turnout was one of the key factors in the results and the controversy which ensued. Numerous analyses have been conducted on this issue, and voter-turnout has been considered not only on quantitative terms but also on socio-economic and demographic terms (eg. voting patterns in light of socio-economic considerations, correlation between apparent enthusiasm for a particular election and actual voter-turnout…etc).
What do I retain from these examples?
- First, that the decline in voter-turnout is a general trend and hence, on its own, it is not a reliable indicator of the ‘health’ of a political system. How it is dealt with and proposed ways to address it are however more reliable indicators.
- Second, that, when considering ways to tackle this problem, other factors than sheer numbers of active voters need to be considered such as turnout patterns, demographics of active voters and how the various socio-economic, political and cultural contexts of a particular election have impacted on election results.
- Third, that in Algeria, we severely lack such data (let alone analyses) and the focus on voter-turnout seems thus a little bit creepy. I mean, I can understand that voter-turnout is an important factor in a self-professed democracy, but the legitimacy of such a concern heavily depends on the context and the way it is expressed. With a total lack of genuine and scientific attempts to understand the phenomenon, an out-of-the-blue panic about it seems comic at best and sinister at worst.
Why It is Important to Address Low Voter-Turnout in Algeria
Regardless of whether our authorities are pressured by the West to introduce political reforms and boost their legitimacy, or whether our authorities have a great ability to adapt to new circumstances (Arab Spring) and anticipate eventual threats to their power (hence spontaneously rush to introduce ‘reforms’), I think we Algerian people have a great opportunity to consolidate the democratic process in our country. We must make the most of not only interior changes but also exterior changes in power balances. Algerians just seem to wait till the entire ‘regime’ somehow disappears to start voting! But I can tell you (min had el minbar), that even if we somehow wake up one day in an ideal democracy (not that such a thing exists), the voter-turnout will remain the same as the current one. Why? Because we are lazy, like most people in other established democracies who suffer from the same problem. Yes, one core reason of low voter-turnout is that human nature tends to become apathetic or complacent (this is why marriages experience problems).
We must address this and at least make a point of voting if only to get in the habit of doing so. Like going to the gym in order to keep healthy. One must get into the habit of doing so, regardless of whether after one week, one month or one year, not much weight appears to have been shed. The most important thing is to get into the habit and keep fit. Same with voting – if we want to work towards greater political awareness and a functional democracy that is. The bottom line is, it is people’s participation which builds a democracy. Politicians can only follow the tide in order to secure election. In other words, nobody apart from the people themselves has any real stake in a true democracy being in place. It’s therefore silly to expect politicians to hand us democracy on a silver plate. I’d go as far as suggesting that it is still worth voting even if elections are said to be rigged, because no votes means no proof either way. Like they say, there is no foolproof way of stopping thieves, but we can at least make theft harder for them.
Possible Reasons for Low Voter-Turnout
Some would argue that, even if human nature tends towards apathy, it is the responsibility of politicians to ‘keep the passion alive‘, but my response to that is, maybe but what incentive would they have to do so if a turnout of 50% is as valid as a turnout of 90%? It is clearly nonsensical to lay the blame on politicians for low turnouts. Diversity and richness of political programmes and parties might however contribute to capturing the interest of more sections of society, but then again what would be the incentive if the prime objective of a party is to get elected? In some societies, it is rather easy to secure a landslide vote, democratically. Such that there isn’t even an incentive to do politics properly. This might be the main reason for uninterest in politics in Arab countries. But as I mentioned above, this is changing thanks to the Arab Spring and we must seize this opportunity to push for a more democratic process via civil means.
On top of inherent characteristics of human nature (and perhaps even of some variant of democratic systems), the structural features of an electoral system are also very important to explain low voter-turnout and also to address it. Facilitating access to polling stations and making voting as hassle-free as possible is one way of boosting voter-turnout, why not make Election Day a public holiday for example, increase the number of polling stations or consider alternative ways such as electronic voting or postal voting. OK this last one is a bit rich I concede.
The point here is, Algerian authorities would do well to address the logistical problems of the electoral system before blaming the citizen for not taking elections seriously. From the TV coverage of past elections, I get the impression that long queues on election day are used as an indicator of high turnout, because we are always shown long queues of citizens eager to get in and vote. This is ridiculous of course, because having to queue for hours before getting to cast a vote might actually discourage voters. What is even more hilarious, is that people themselves would respond to such broadcast scenes by things like: “This is rubbish, when I went to vote this morning, there were only two old ladies and nobody else. I wouldn’t be surprised if the participation rate is around 1%”. People also take queuing as an indicator that elections are going well. This should be challenged, even though I wonder if there is some psychological boost to finding oneself in a long queue of voters who are all eager to vote and if the reverse is true. It might actually be that in countries where unemployment is rife and gossip a national sport, queuing to vote becomes a good opportunity to socialize and maybe even find a suitable husband/ wife?
One other reason I often hear Algerians provide is that all politicians are the same, so what would be the point in voting for any of them. This is also used as a justification by many people in more established democracies. I think it is another manifestation of apathy, because the democratic process does (should) make provisions for protest voting.
In part II, I will talk about possible ways to address low voter-turnout and in particular, making attendance of polling stations compulsory by law. I will attempt to explore whether this measure (which seems to be hinted at in the above video) will be effective in the current Algerian context. But meanwhile, I welcome your comments and insights on the problem of low voter-turnout in Algeria.