When I was a teenager, I was a big fan of detective books and series. Columbo was one of them. I loved the way he seemed to flair the culprit right from the beginning and then the entire episode was a sort of subtle psychological battle. I loved the way the culprit was always confident he would get away with it, that he has committed a perfect crime, the way the culprit always underestimated Columbo. But of course, Columbo always had the last word. Brilliant. I think that Algerian elections, the whole ‘democratization process’ in fact, are analogical to the series Columbo – the culprit is the incumbent system; it displays all the superiority complex symptoms mentioned above. The people are Columbo, seemingly insignificant, clueless, but having the right flair and of course the last word eventually. So, in this second part of my previous post, I will borrow Columbo’s famous catchphrase: “There’s something that bothers me”: if the Algerian government is so concerned about low turnout in elections, why the hell do they not make voting compulsory?
The answer to this question is not easy and it has no real interest outside of political science. Compulsory voting would increase voter turnout to near 100% and it has been applied in Australia since 1924. But why is turnout important?
Well, there are two ways to look at it: (1) from the incumbent system’s point of view and (2) from the voters’ point of view. High turnout is argued to contribute to legitimation of a political system, but this will not be the case if the majority of voters cast blank votes. In addition, not all voters have the same interest in politics and the weights of different votes are not the same. And this is an argument against the actual worth of compulsory voting with respect to promoting active popular participation in political life. Knowing how the average Algerian voter chooses who to vote for, I think we can say with confidence that high turnout would change nothing as far as actual democratization is concerned. But even for the politically savvy Algerian who takes an interest in politics and wants to use democratic means (i.e. voting) to express protest and discontent – the question is what would a protest vote be worth? It is an interesting question because elections’ circumstances differ and even electoral laws keep being changed by the government.
I came across an academic paper where the authors (Americans) proposed a mathematical model to predict the onset of civil wars in Algeria since independence. I found the idea of modeling something as complex as a civil war (and in Algeria on top of that!), absolutely fascinating. It made me wonder whether it would be possible to model the outcome of an election. Not the big winners who are known in advance of course, but the entire outcome by resorting to mathematical models. Why would that be useful? Well, wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to have a software which will allow any Algerian citizen to calculate the worth of a particular protest vote by entering simple data about a particular election? Like what these American geeks managed to do, we could imagine a model which would predict when a particular protest vote would result in a completely unexpected (by the regime) outcome! I think this is a route which is worth pursuing and it would be brilliant. Algerians would really enter history again from its widest doors if we manage to come up with such a scheme. Neat, civil, modern, not a single drop of blood shed. A revolution worthy of the Digital Age.
But let us not stray away too much from reality (even though it is wonderful to dream). From the incumbent system’s viewpoint, high turnout would give a popular legitimacy to the results, which are largely engineered in advance to give a predetermined repartition of political actors (quotas logic masqueraded as representative democracy*). The blank or spoilt votes are reported officially by the government, but they are not taken into consideration when counting the percentages. In this configuration, a blank vote is worthless as a protest vote. And voting for the fringe parties is also worthless because there are too many of them and it is statistically improbable that any one of them would get a big chunk of the mass protest votes. Look at the officially reported figures for the 2007 election, which I find interesting because the turnout was embarrassingly low (the lowest officially recorded in Algerian history) and thus apparently not inflated (click on image to enlarge):
So the more parties there are, the better chances you will have to scatter the potential protest votes into worthlessness. In the figures above, 35% (45% if you include the independents) of the total votes go to the sum of the fringe parties. So I guess it’s good news ten new unknown parties have been agreed by the Interior Ministry recently. But to be fair, one must acknowledge that it would be undesirable to get a system where you consistently get no distinct majority in Parliament as this will complicate decision taking. However, this is a minor concern here compared with scattering votes into worthlessness.
So, what is the conclusion? It is as follows:
– I have unfortunately not managed to answer the question which bothers me, which is not surprising because am no Columbo.
– Going to cast a blank vote is pointless as these are not taken into account.
– Any protest vote for the fringe parties will likely get diluted and would thus be worthless.
– It is a shame we don’t have a model which predicts the actual worth of a protest vote for the fringe parties and hence guides us on what vote and in what election would result in a ‘surprise’ outcome. But the American paper I mentioned seems to suggest this is feasible. There is therefore a glimmer of hope…
And to end, some brilliant quotes from Columbo, to the culprit:
…One more thing, there are a couple of loose ends I’d like to tie up. Nothing important you understand. Why the hell didn’t you enforce compulsory voting and gave yourself popular legitimacy as well as the historical one you already have?
I don’t thinks it’s proving anything Doc, as a matter of fact I don’t even know what it means. It’s just one of those things that gets in my head and keeps rolling around in there like a marble.
But, I must say I found you disappointing; I mean your incompetence. You left enough clues to sink a ship. And for a man of your intelligence, you got caught in a lot of stupid lies.
* In Algeria, parliamentary deputies are elected by the proportional majority list system. There are 48 electoral constituencies or provinces in Algeria itself, and a further six electoral constituencies for almost a million Algerian nationals who live abroad.
Post amended on 21/02/2012