The Abstainers

The election is round the corner; the various parties are busy aligning themselves for the final kill as the valorous swordsmen would have done in the battles of yore. But here it would not be, or is not supposed to be, a life or death situation. Most of us would make a move to go out and accomplish the sacred duty, yet there would be some who would play absentee: the non voters.

To the patriots, gaining universal suffrage was a worthwhile life achievement, so it is not easy to understand the negative attitude of absentees. Do they have a valid reason for abstaining?

In some countries non-voting is a strategy against the Establishment employed by various radical libertarians and anarchists to promote a free society; they view and adopt the non-political strategy of abstention, so as to whip up a mass movement of protest. Claiming that non-voting is more practical they don’t believe in the social contract between individuals and the state. They constitute an active group, not to be mistaken as apathetic Yet they want liberty without its attached responsibility!

Then there are the ethical non-voters who reject voting outright, looking at it as an ineffective tactic for change and an act of granting consent to be governed by the state. Imposing illegitimate control over the voters is looked upon as violating the non-aggression principle. Herbert Spencer, a classical political liberal theorist, noted that whether a person votes for the winning candidate, or abstains from voting, he would be deemed to have consented to the rule of the winning candidate. So why should the individual consent be regulated by the state? Some may have the feeling that giving others the power to rule over them would be too much of ego sacrifice.

In the USA, non-voters express very little interest in politics or the election. A third of them say they are registered to vote. But they are far less likely than voters to give a lot of thought to the election and follow public affairs.

However, in many countries serious groups of non-voters refuse to participate because they want to boycott the electoral process due to lack of transparency, or because of serious fraud in the electoral process itself – and hope to draw the world’s attention to the irregularities in their countries.

Some do not go voting out of frustration ; they have been watching the political scene for decades and they would vent their disappointment that the political class have led them down the garden path, and are sensitive about being taken for granted. Too much of double- tandard has been used to please everyone, so they prefer to keep aloof.

The Poor and the Educated

There are the chronic poor – from the cradle to the grave – who have given up hope for no matter what, elections or no elections, their fate has never changed. In India there is a poor people movement in places like Singur and Nandigram where parliamentary politics is rejected. Worse, some people even believe that election is not their responsibility – it is the business of the ‘rich’ who are planning how to get richer; in fact the belief is that they are the ones who are fielding the various potential heads of states as an investment in future kick-backs.

But what to say of that section of the educated electorate who are convinced that the politicians are not sincere: they make use of the public facilities to feather their own nests. Year in year out, they are told that the rich are becoming richer and the poor poorer, but where are those who had promised to redress that inequality? To protest against that, they want to draw the attention of the other voters to their disagreement; they refuse to be drawn into a semblance of sacred duty – and willingly ‘boycott’ the polling stations.

In the US about half of non-voters (52%) say the government should do more to solve problems, while 40% say the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals. The balance of opinion is reversed among likely voters: 56% say the government is doing too much, while 39% say the government should do more to solve problems.

But in most countries non-voters have the freedom to abstain from voting (barring some countries where voting is compulsory- as in Australia) – to express their protest against abuse by the head of state. One wonders whether such passive protest is really effective; we must not forget that if the majority of us refuse to vote, then we may end up having a very inexperienced or dictatorial leader to run our country — and we would be worse off under a dictatorship.

Every five years or so, a majority of people go to vote, yet they get it so wrong every time: witness all the scandals that crop up ad nauseam during each mandate. So the non-voters argue and ask themselves: will their votes make any difference?

Men and women at the helm of power have to make difficult choice at times: whether they have to act purposely for the individual or for society. Consider the extreme cases of alcohol prohibition: it was difficult to control bootlegging, so prohibition had to be lifted. Similarly for substance abuse like soft drugs: must it be legalized or not? What to say of prostitution? Some analysts say that legalizing it may contribute to stable societies, but many individuals consider this to be abhorrent. Who will agree to his mother, sister or daughter joining that trade?

Non-voters should discriminate between the ability of the men in power to cater for the benefit of society at large and for the individual. But hat may be good for society may not be good for the individual! We must realize that, whatever we do and whatever the outcome, we will always need a group of individuals to run the affairs of the state; we’ll need the police to safeguard our safety, the health authorities to look after public health… It is therefore quite logical that we make use of our freedom to elect who we want to take responsibility for accomplishing these duties. Should matters worsen and the people get totally dissatisfied, then the people in any country (e.g. Hong Kong) may go for civil disobedience and protests. We can wonder how many of the usual non-voters will then participate.

The Fence-sitters

Are those non-participants just like that Indian king’s subjects? The king had requested his people to donate some milk for a feast; a big tank was installed at night in the village, with a white cloth wrapped all round it, in which the milk could be poured. Sure enough, the following day the tank was full, but with water diluted with milk! Most subjects had donated some water in the dark of the night, hoping and relying on theirneighbours to donate the milk. The king had on that day discovered the true nature of his loyal subjects!

Fortunately in democracies most people go out and participate, but it is quite possible that non-voters could be gifted with a similar mentality and ‘loyalty’as the king’s subjects — always hoping that the others would be ‘voting’ for him while he would himself sit back and enjoy the benefits of a Welfare State and democracy without going to vote. If things go wrong, he could always say that he did not vote for that government. The fence-sitter may be an opportunist after all…

These non-voters should not be mistaken for the undecided – those who until the last minute are still debating the merits of all the parties and candidates listed and keep on weighing the pros and cons till such time when they are likely to give in to some biases that they were always prone to: they vote in favour of what they had always wanted to vote for. It seems that there are thousands of such undecided people in the USA for each presidential election – and they may be the most important section of the electorate – they are always courted by the potential president as they are the ones who generally decide the outcome of the election. Statisticians and social scientists have worked out that a certain percentage of them will vote, but the majority will finally give the poll a miss.

Come election time, every five years, the dopamine effect starts to work its miracle within us. Most of us are happy to be taken in by the high promises made to us; maybe it humours our sense of idealism. Yet all of us know from personal experience that we will not be gratified because so many promises will need huge financial inputs, which we do know that our country cannot afford. We choose to suspend our rationale and allow ourselves to be part of this cyclic five-year magical fun, knowing quite well that the magician is mesmerizing us. Maybe the non-voters, quite allergic to double standards, are highly suspicious and refuse to play that game of life. They have totally lost the capacity to believe in Santa Claus.


* Published in print edition on 7  November 2014

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