The boring right to vote

Patricio Navia

Buenos Aires Herald, December 10, 2013


Two decades after democracy was consolidated as the only game in town, Latin Americans are increasingly uninterested in taking part in it. However, high abstention rates are not necessarily an indication of an impending crisis. In some countries, low turnout indeed reflects discontent. In others, it is an indication that elections are more about pilots than about the road the country will follow in the coming years.

Electoral participation is on the decline all over the world. The European Union will see the highest abstention ever in the elections for the EU Parliament to be held in May. Though the US saw a rise in turnout in 2008, Obama won reelection in 2012 with fewer votes (66 million) than he received in 2008 (69.5 million). Fewer people also cast a vote in 2012, confirming suspicions that higher turnout in 2008 was a response to the economic crisis more than a sign of a revitalizing democracy.

In Latin America, turnout has also been on the decline. In mid-November, Chile had its highest abstention rate in a presidential election since democracy was restored. The adoption of voluntary voting can be partially blamed for the decline. However, since automatic registration added more than four million people to the electoral rolls, the fact that four out of every ten Chileans did not bother to vote disappointed those who see Chile as one of the strongest democracies in the region.

Even fewer people are expected to show up for the runoff this coming Sunday. Former President Michelle Bachelet’s centre-left coalition is more concerned with mobilizing its sympathizers than with rightwing candidate Evelyn Matthei.  The rightwing coalition is betting a very low turnout could upset Bachelet’s victory.

Since Chilean presidential candidates who campaigned on radical transformation received marginal support in the first round vote, we can safely conclude that Chileans reject radical transformations. Sustained growth and expanding opportunities — despite the high levels of income inequality — might be the reason why a majority of Chileans does not vote. After all, just as it happens when condominiums or social clubs are ran fairly well, members do not make the effort to show up at meetings.

The fact that Chile has experienced street protests in recent years — with students’ demands for equal access to free quality education sending shockwaves in 2011 — should be sufficient proof that not all is well in Chile. Yet, younger Chileans have higher abstention rates than any other group. The perception that, regardless of who wins, the government will do little to address their demands has led many to believe that democracy is better exercised in streets protests than in polling booths. Unfortunately, a street march is a far less effective way to channel and aggregate demands than elections. Moreover, though the principle of “one person, one vote” can be achieved in elections, street protests end up benefitting those who are better organized or have more resources.

Venezuela has also experienced declining turnout in recent elections. Unlikely Chile, Venezuela has not experienced sustained growth and stability in recent years. The country is politically polarized and economic problems abound. From high inflation to rampant corruption, Venezuela is going through a very unsettling period. The high abstention in the municipal election this past Sunday cannot be attributed to complacency or satisfaction with the direction the country is taking. Venezuelans are unhappy with their government, but the opposition has also failed to earn the trust of the people. Venezuelans might want to change their roadmap, but they do not seem to believe that there is a trusting pilot that they can turn to to lead them in a different direction.

Voluntary voting also plays a role. Supporters claim that parties must attract voters to the polls when voting is not mandatory, but parties can also win by mobilizing supporters and discouraging opponents. Rather than fostering turnout, parties dissuade voters who will likely vote for other parties from taking part in the process. Low turnout is not bad if those who do turn out are your voters.

As extremists are far more likely to vote than moderates, voluntary voting polarizes the electorate. In Venezuela, the government won by inducing turnout among supporters and by putting to work a populist scheme. In Chile, the rightwing coalition’s only hope is to have such a low turnout that the upper class and heavily conservative vote tilts the runoff election in favour of Matthei. In turn, the centre-left Concertación coalition trusts that its larger militant support base and Bachelet's appeal among those who received subsidies in her first administration will suffice to carry the day.

For representative democracy to work, elections must be meaningful. Though it is true that fewer people vote when things go well, there are several signs that Latin American democracies are malfunctioning. Even among democracies that are performing well, the likelihood of corruption and ineffectiveness increases when people stop paying attention.  The biggest and most troubling news coming out of the most recent elections in Latin America is that while it remains the only game in town, democracy is failing to attract the public.