Would Compulsory Voting Solve the Abstention Problem in Algeria? Part 2

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


23 thoughts on “Would Compulsory Voting Solve the Abstention Problem in Algeria? Part 2

  1. Great post as always. What I find quite astounding is that while elections are rigged, the numbers for voters’ turn out do not seem to be. How utterly baffling (for me).

    I am beginning to wonder if the entire exercise is not just to put off voters – voters who would (perhaps) otherwise decide to go vote en masse, were they left to choose in peace.

    • NG

      Thanks. I know yes, I mean at least the 2007 figures do not seem to be rigged. If we assume this is not a one off (outlier) which resulted from some unaccounted for event, we might conclude that the rigging occurs more upstream – meaning in the actual electoral laws and how to constitute parties. By imposing the right kind of restrictions, it is possible to engineer the results of an election towards a desirable outcome.

      What I don’t get is how they stuff ballot boxes – I mean on what basis they decide on the quantity of ballots to stuff boxes with. Perhaps this is why they worry about turn out, because if the expected turnout isn’t met, the numbers won’t add up? I don’t know, could be many things and incidently, I think these things are meticulously planned but there is always room for things going against the plan I guess.

      I agree with your second paragraph – obviously if the silent majority turned up to vote and voted for the same party (a fringe party), the results would be completely ‘unexpected’. It’s a tough call between apparent legitimacy and a surprise result. It seems that the FIS victory in the 90’s took them by surprise too. Since then, the electoral rules have been much tightened.

  2. So that’s why one might well say that Elyoum Elli Ivoti Ma3andouche Ennif. The Electoral system in Algeria is locked. Faqou men bekri!

  3. But what would Mrs Columbo have said? She would have asked some questions (with relatively obvious answers):

    – Why does Algeria need a parliament since all its members support the president’s program and approve whatever the government says without discussion?
    – Why does Algeria have a majority and opposition since all of them approve the president’s program, and the majority says it is implementing it?
    – Why are some of the newly created parties, the ones which could have been used for a protest vote, RND offsprings or parties created by supporters of Bouteflika?
    – How does the population react to the fact that two co-founders of two newly parties resigned on their first congresses?
    – Why do some of the independent or small parties’ elected deputies join the bigger ones after they have been elected?
    – Why is the position in the parties’ lists bought b shkara?
    – How did Zerhouni predict the turnout and even Bouteflika’s result on the 3rd term election before the election? And that in the absence of polls.

    And her TV show started so she stopped here. Ma yenfa3 ghir essah.

    It’s not Columbo that we need here. I am not even sure Specteur Tahar mesteklef b li afirates ta3 srikate w ta3 ktilate would do. Algerian politics are only understood by Makhlouf El Bombardi.

    PS: Belkhadem, Ouyaya and Soltani already gave as an estimate of the results of the upcoming legislatives. That software may exist after all and they may have acquired it.
    PPS: The president appoints 1/3 of the senate (madjliss el ghoumma).

    • MnarviDZ

      Very pertinent questions! I am tempted to have a go at answering them when I get inspired. But you’re mistaken I think – Americans seem to understand our politics amazingly well, so well they make good predictions! And it seems that the situation is generally the same for all Arab countries (‘republican’ systems that is).

      For the software, it should be easy for them to get rough estimates I should imagine given that most people don’t vote and the profile of those who go to vote are more or less easy to work out. The challenge is to get a software which looks at the entire thing from the masses who are desperate for change point of view.

      Thanks for the PPS, I will amend the post.

  4. Looking at the table above, I feel that the results make sense. Why do people keep talking about electoral fraud? I understand one could dispute the presidential election results, but not the above results. I remember in the nineties the FIS was complaining about the drawing of electoral boundaris, which apparently favoured the ruling party: FLN. This was their way of tampering with election results.

    As for conducting a poll, one could get an idea from comments in echourouk and elkhabar.

    • Pandora

      You’re probably right. What legislature elections inform us about (the outcome of them I mean), is really what clan of the ‘Pouvoir’ happens to be more powerful at the time of the election. It is therefore more difficult to rig a legislature election or at least more difficult than a presidential election.

      Rigging an election isn’t just about stuffing ballot boxes or inflating numbers (I think this is avoided as much as possible because you don’t want to find yourself in this situation, or worse the situation which occured in the 90’s where they had to cancel the election completely). Now they seem to control things further upstream.

      PS: Apart from the Boutef – Benflis duo, all other presidential elections were a one candidate race if my memory serves me right?

  5. Great post. Is the “American” paper you referred to available online? To answer Mrs. Colombo’s first question, I would argue that the Algerian parliament is mere window dressing. A bit like people who never read, but may have an impressive collection of books on the bookshelf (I don’t want to call it a library). Especially through bound religious books with a title that spreads across multiple volumes.

      • By “impressive” I was obviously referring to the quantity not the quality. A long time ago one of the libraries in Algiers had tons of books (those Russian books) on “Rachitisme”. They filled an entire row with just that book. The book was actually skinny. With the announced increase in the number of seats in the National Assembly I wonder how we rank worldwide in the number of representatives/capita.

  6. if the Algerian government is so concerned about low turnout in elections, why the hell do they not make voting compulsory?

    I don’t think this question will bother Colombo. How the algerian government can make voting compulsory? Prosecute those who don’t vote? Put them into jail? Since arab uprisings, the government has been very cautious with algerian people instructing police not to withdraw driving licenses from people etc… Algerian government is not afraid to bother Colombo. He is afraid to bother algerians, yes… Making voting compulsory is a provocative act… In addition the elections are supposed to give algerian their rights and algerians are supposed to be so happy that there will be a massive participation to the elections…

    In fact, I think that Colombo will be so bothered by the mystery of algerian political system that he will ask his question in arabic : “Wayn rayah bikoum rabbi?”

    • Qatkhal

      I think your answer is probably the closest to the truth. The government has generally gone lax about the voting thing. Before the 90’s, I have the impression things were more rigorous and people felt ‘obliged’ to vote.

      True also that Algerians are more sanguine and fearsome than Columbo (a lot more!), but only if you push them to the edge. Otherwise they’re incredibly apathetic – politics-wise at least. But it is still wonderful to dream, sha7 sha7!!! Isn’t it funny that our government acts its age now, it just feels like a tired old dog who just wants to be left in peace beside the fire. Very cunning though – years of experience you see.

  7. On the subject of ‘how’ they stuff ballot boxes, Mohamed Benchicou depicts a very funny scene in his book on Bouteflika. Granted Benchicou can’t be relied upon for cold facts (Benchicoued-investigative journalism is really fiction, but rather good detective fiction, and isn’t fiction based on facts with name-changes 🙂 ). It goes as follows:

    “Jeudi 15 avril 1999, 14h. Abdelaziz Bouteflika pique une gross colere. La scene se passe, en ce jour d’election presidentielle, dans la sompteuse villa Aziza qui abrite la fondation Boudiaf, a El Biar. Le “candidate du consensus”, a quelques heures d’etre sacre president de la Republique, fulminant de rage, informe Mme Boudiaf, epouse de l’ancien president assassine, qu’il pliait bagage pour partir le soir meme pour Geneve et qu’il ne voulait plus du fauteuil de chef de l’Etat. Motif de son gros chagrin : les “decideurs”, venait-il d’apprendre, n’allaient le crediter que de 53% des voix, et ce score, peu flatteur pour un postulant seul en course…. “Pas question que j’accepte ce chiffe inferieur a celui de Zeroual !” ”

    It goes on to say that Mediene had to intervene so that Bouteflika would be awarded, by 17h that evening, with 73,79% “des suffrages exprimes … soit 353 521 bulletins de plus.”

    So the rigging would be happening after the real count, where they actually do know and need to know the real numbers, as they discover them to be, before fiddling with them (it got me thinking because I always imagined pollbox stuffing to be a very hasty and messy case of shoving a whole bunch of papers with the right tick on it – France does it the messy way).

    I am rather fond of this image of a Pouvoir who, for all its cunning and cruelty, is embarrassingly dense in that it hasn’t twigged it can just mess with ballot numbers regardless of how many come to vote…

    • NG

      Thanks for this amusing story. I can see Boutef doing this, the man has an ego the size of the Milky Way (wa roubbama akthar!).

      Aaaah, that’s the link between abstention and rigging then. I thought there was some link because the way they go on about it is just suspicious. So it determines how many ballots they need to stuff boxes with. Like you, I thought they could just compeletely make up figures. But now, I think if they could just tamper with actual ballot numbers directly they would have done it (I don’t think they’re dense in these matters, they only live for keeping their privileges and all their mental and physical energies are focussed on this and only this). It appears that they can’t for some reason or that it would be more complicated than the way they do it (i.e. wait to get turnout figures then make the right adjustment – the political equivalent of ‘quantitative easing‘ LOL)

      On the other hand, everyone knows they stuff boxes with ballots so why go through all this trouble to make it look like they don’t? Makes you realize just how twisted in their mind they are lol The surgical precision of it all is quite creepy.

      But what do you mean France does it the messy way? Detail please.

  8. Moi aussi j’étais fan des séries policières (Columbo bien sur 🙂 mais en matière de littérature j’aimais beaucoup Agatha Christie (pour ses enquêtes et sa manière de les mener et non pour ses idées). Agatha Christie contrairement à Columbo nous menait du crime vers le coupable en mettant devant nos yeux, plusieurs suspects qui tous avaient un mobile “valable” et “acceptable”… ce qui rendait bien difficile l’enquête et nous leurrait souvent.. comme cela a été le cas dans “Usual suspects” un chef-d’œuvre (à mon avis) en la matière…
    Concernant, Agatha Christie, j’ai lu un très grand nombre de ses livres. Et mes préférés restent : “Le meurtre de Roger Ackroyd” et “Le crime de l’Orient-Express”
    Dans cette histoire, le coupable va s’avérer être…. vous l’avez lu? Vous l’avez peut-être vu en film? La victime dans cette histoire, aura été assassinée par douze coups de couteaux… qui a pu commettre ce crime abominable? La réponse est….

    • Oumelkhir

      Big fan of Christie as well, but my favourites are ‘Dix petits negres’ (And then there were none), ‘Mort sur le Nil’, ‘Mr Brown’, ‘Rendez-vous à Baghdad’ and ‘La mort n’est pas une fin’. ‘Le crime de l’Orient Express’ also is great. I prefere Columbo’s way though, dear Agatha cheated a bit and sometimes it felt like she purposefully misled the reader to prevent them from working out the solution. Agatha was always on the side of the murder, she was his invisible accomplice lol …Columbo however is simple, ordinary and just methodical, no hidden agendas with him!

      PS: I sense that your comment is full of subtle metaphors but am sure I didn’t get all of them lol

      • D’accord avec toi à propos de Agatha Christie, et de Columbo aussi 🙂
        Pour les métaphores, non pas tellement 🙂 juste une je crois… je me suis juste souvenue que dans “Le crime de l’Orient-Express” on recherchait un coupable, alors qu’ils étaient en réalité plusieurs, tous coupables au même degré.
        Pour Usual suspects c’était juste un souvenir au passage… un film extraordinaire, bien construit, bien ficelé… Ce film s’adapterait très bien à l’actualité, et au rôle que jouent les médias aujourd’hui dans la fabrication des mythes…
        Mais tout ça est parti de ta réflexion au sujet des séries policières et des histoires de détectives…. sinon, le pire dans l’abstention (pour ceux qui s’abstiendraient de voter pour des raisons toutes personnelles et non partisanes)… c’est l’interprétation de l’abstention. Les gens n’ont pas voté, donc logiquement, et selon l’expression consacrée : ils ne se sont pas exprimés. Et pourtant il y aura toujours des “calculateurs” pour interpréter cette “non-expression”…. ils sont forts en boulitique, très très forts 🙂

  9. In this article, DOK explains why there must be a high turnout in the upcoming legislatives :

    la mission de la prochaine Assemblée est sacrée et importante, les députés étant appelés à amender la Constitution


    Je ne souhaite pas que les abstentions soient importantes compte tenu de toutes les mesures prises pour accorder le maximum de crédibilité à ces élections.

    So yeah, they’re making so many efforts to make the elections look credible and the people must at least ackowledge this effort and do not ruin everything by not showing up.
    I won’t even comment the first comment about amending the constitution…

  10. Thanks Algeriana. You’re quite right they are not dense 🙂 (my mind needs to belittle them to function when I think about Algeria). Loool, quantitative easing versus qualitative freazing, we could make a rap song, the phonotactics of vote casting tricks… or something.

    On France you might enjoy this: ‘La fraude a la chaussette’ (2008) http://bit.ly/snyTCn. The guy happened to get caught (way too brazen) and the local elections were annuled and reconducted in 2009. It is not an uncommon practice though, just a discrete one usually.

    As you say, we will soon see what they concoct or not for this election’s turnout numbers and what magic will be conjured up from see-through ballot boxes 🙂

    • NG

      Brilliant idea about the RAP song! LOL Lotfi Double Canon could sing it for us.
      You’re right, this upcoming election promises to be exciting! They are really à fond in it, they’re oblivious to everything else!!!

      That French guy is just stupid! Stuffing his socks with ballots when he should have stuffed the boxes after the turnout figures were known! But then again, not every human being shares the brilliant two brain cells of the Algerian system! Completely geared towards rigging elections.

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