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Be Careful What You Wish For – A Short Comment on “Mandatory Voting as a Tool to Combat the New Populism”

–Ursus Eijkelenberg, International Institute for the Sociology of Law

In a recent piece on ICONnect, the question was raised whether mandatory voting could be a potential “silver bullet” to dethrone autocratic populists. According to the authors, “new populist forces would face electoral defeat if the large number of generally disillusioned but politically fatigued and inactive voters were obliged to enter the polls.” In this comment, I will raise doubts about the effectiveness of this “tool” in combating the new populism.

A contradictory feature of Hungarian and Polish politics lies in the fact that despite a significant proportion of the population being in a state of political apathy and disinterest in public affairs, the society is nonetheless highly politicized and divided.

Although seemingly peripheral to the main argument, the above statement from the recent piece leads to an assessment of the proposed measure in two ways.

First, it seems that that the contradictory feature of a disinterested yet highly politicised population is not specific to Hungary or Poland, but can be detected in many liberal democracies, albeit with various levels of intensity. More importantly, one could question whether this ostensible contradictory feature is really that contradictory if one determines that both elements emanate from a common source, namely the inability of a demos to effectively engage in practices of self-government.

The constitutional design in CEE reflects a (distrust-based) reinvention of liberal democracy in which the constitutional rather than democratic component is dominant. Fragile democracies, so is argued, require a “vertical” democratic template, wherein decision-making power is distributed and institutionalized in an ascending line, residing more and more at distance from the demos. In this, non-accountable yet almighty courts occupy the paramount stratum, followed by appointed or elected government officials, and elected members of parliament, while at the bottom of the structure resides a demos, empowered solely to perform ex post review of elected members once every few years. Such a vertical set-up extracts fundamental issues from the political community’s sphere of action, it depoliticizes  and constitutes a condition of “political impotence.” This undermines (the inception of) a democratic culture on a foundational level, and not only contributes to initially suppressing the activity of a demos — apathy — but bolsters the negative forces of reactivity at moments political potency is most desired — frustration (the contradictory elements).

Non-voting indeed reflects disenchantment with democratic politics. It comprises more than just a story of apathy, as it also concerns the voices of silent protest and frustration. To some it provides a way of protesting against the structures in which one is asked to function and can be seen as “a safe expression of aggression against the dominant figure that serves as a substitute — albeit a second-best substitute — for the real thing: direct aggression.” [1] Such safe expressions are most common when the system does not allow for a potent means of resistance within its own framework. In this, political withdrawal can be understood as a way of challenging a rigid, status quo endorsing liberal democratic framework.

In addition to non-participation, consequences of political impotence and the institutionalized distancing between system and its foundation (democracy – demos) are also visible in active members of the electorate. Frustration, or resentment with regard to a position of powerlessness expresses itself in a “no” against an outside world. It needs an outside orientation, an external stimulus, to act, and even more so, it needs the “other” to determine who the “I” is. “Divide et impera”, the successful formula of contemporary populism, is exactly that; it is anti-politics in its purest form: positive action transmuting into negative reaction. Frustration-induced anti-sentiments provide a fruitful soil for populist anti-forces who emphasize reinvigorating the “vox populi”, stress the “no”, and promise to break with existing structures.

Accordingly, the successful rise of new populism relates to structural deficiencies of liberal democracy itself. One of the main reasons why both liberal ideologies and democratic mores have not only lost ground but were in some places barely incorporated in the foundational stratum, is because of systemic misconfiguration and deliberate civil disempowerment for the sake of superficially consolidating an ideology. The subsequent disillusionment makes the success of populist leaders comprehensible, for it is here voters regain some form of potency in an attempt to force an abrupt and “violent” break with the resented system. Here ideological self-preservation turns into self-annihilation. The authors, in my opinion, pay too little attention to the root of disenchantment before proposing a remedy.

In this light we can evaluate the adequacy of mandatory voting as “tool in combatting new populism”. Does mandatory voting undo some of the aforementioned deficiencies?

Partly, this question needs to be answered positively, in the sense that, if established, mandatory voting fosters democratization of democracy, wherein the electoral process becomes more comprehensive, i.e. inclusive, thereby functioning as an effective equalizer. Maximum inclusion and (wider) participation undermine democratic segregation, help revitalize legitimacy of state authority by institutionalizing political equality amongst its subordinates, and contribute to the cultivation of — albeit limited and superficial — a democratic culture. In this sense it is a “horizontalizing” tool for its equal distribution of (weak) political potency.

However, even if political potency is distributed equally, how much more does it elevate the political efficacy of the citizen body at large? Does it “de-verticalize” the liberal model that produces impotence and disenchantment, and hence challenge the roots of new populism?

Here mandatory voting does not live up to its desired potential. First of all, one should not forget that populist rhetoric is most effective precisely in a setting of electoral politics. Electoral representation provides charismatic leaders with an instrumental framework to reiterate, nourish and reinforce frustration. A more menacing development, however, is that mandatory voting annihilates the route of indirect aggression and silent protest. Non-participants compose a crowd rejecting a system in which it has lost belief. Salvation is no longer to be found within the existing structure; therefore attempts are made to undermine it by exploring the extra-systemic route of non-participation. In annihilating this route, mandatory voting re-establishes and reaffirms the boundaries and dominance of a denounced framework.

So what will happen when voting becomes mandatory in the given situation? Since the essential systemic features and conditions producing dissatisfaction remain in place, that is, the source of frustration itself remains unchallenged, and extra-systemic routes like silent acts of aggression and protest are simultaneously diminished, a disenchanted people — already with their backs turned — will look for intra-systemic alternatives that provide resistance against the established political structure. In this pursuit, new populist forces provide that much desired “no”; they promise the return of the “vox populi” and the demise of a status quo, and hence are capable of exploiting the fruitful soil of frustration. New populism thus (re)presents the most viable alternative in light of those sentiments. This viewpoint makes it highly unlikely that mandatory voting can be depicted as a silver bullet in combating the new populism. Indeed, even the opposite holds true; that obligatory participation of a disillusioned demos potentially generates support and legitimacy for those forces it seeks to oppose. Used as such, it might well prove to be a self-defeating initiative. For a proper panacea, or silver bullet, we should steer away from symptomatic treatment, focus on root causes, i.e. rethink democracy more radically. In this context, however, we may wish to remember that when playing with guns and bullets, most fatal injuries are self-inflicted.

Suggested Citation: Ursus Eijkelenberg, Be Careful What You Wish For – A Short Comment on “Mandatory Voting as a Tool to Combat tbe New Populism”, Int’l J. Const. L. Blog, May 19, 2017, at http://www.iconnectblog.com/2017/05/be-careful-what-you-wish-for-a-short-comment-on-mandatory-voting-as-a-tool-to-combat-new-populism


[1] J.C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts, London: Yale University Press 1990, p.185.

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Published on May 20, 2017
Author:          Filed under: Analysis
 

One Response

  1. Thank you for this insightful and inspiring comment. Most of the points are well taken, with the following further remarks or, rather, clarifications.
    We generally agree with the diagnosis of the causes of the rise of new populism, but differ on the starting assumption that the majority voters are unreasonable. Yet, our intentions were limited to the question of what to do with democratically elected governments which in fact do not represent the majority, while only a minority of voters is actually concerned about public affairs.
    We never claimed mandatory voting to be a panacea for all the crisis representative democracy is facing. We simply offered a potential tool to combat populist, and in most cases authoritarian populist parties and governments. Facing the root-causes for disenchantment, corollary important as it, was not part of this project, and this claims to be no more than a symptomatic treatment.
    While silent protest and frustration without doubt are among the causes of non-voting, we believe that the preponderance is of this is vastly overestimated, as in most cases non-voters are simply disinterested and lack any sort of (moral, intellectual or pragmatic) incentive. Furthermore, there are several non-aggressive means to channel frustration and protest in a mandatory voting scheme as well: conscientious and conscious invalid voting, including writing messages, drawing obscene images, etc.
    We also believe that there would be several marginal benefits of mandatory voting: it would radically change the political campaign by not only extracting additional financial resources from the hegemonic populist governments which usually control public media and a dominant segment of private media, especially the ones that actually reach voters beyond the already critical urban intellectual middle-class, but also by broadening not only the scope, rationale (and rationality!) of political debates, but also in effect accentuating and empowering marginalized political opinions. And let us not forget: constitutional democracies strive just as much on civil society and the potential for new, emerging, alternative (civil) voices as institutional arrangements.
    These perilous constructs of new authoritarian populisms can only be destabilized from within: the very legitimizing pillars: popular elections and referenda – institutions that should not be allowed to be used as a camouflage, lacking actual fair and free choice in managed and hegemonic elections. Electoral regimes are already tainted: gerrymandering, biased schemes for suffrage, campaign finance, and captured media. A silver bullet may have been too optimistic a term: it may be a last cry and hope to stop the march towards authoritarianism and democratic decline.
    Based on the reasonable presumption that mainstream protest-parties and in particular far-right extremist parties have already been able to mobilize most of their potential supporters, we do not believe that they would gain significant further support. More importantly, our proposition had been triggered by the conviction that nothing can be worse than the current trend: a steady dismantling of constitutional democracy, disguised in popular democracy and a façade of constitutionalism. In other words, we don’t believe we have much to loose.

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