Why do we go to the polls?

Galal Nassar
Wednesday 21 Mar 2018

Compulsory voting should be considered in Egypt, to ingrain democratic practice in the citizenry

Due to their historical and political experience, Egyptians know that casting their vote in the presidential elections, which began overseas this week and will start inside Egypt on 26 March for three days, is not about making one candidate beat another.

Any observer, expert or even layman, knows that the outcome of these elections will be a win for President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi, because there is no real competition or contenders.

The challenge here is voter turnout. It is a challenge for a people who defended their democratic rights when they began the 30 June 2013 Revolution to remove a regime that detoured the state to an unknown path and made satanic alliances with dark forces that wanted to instantly erase the heritage of the oldest civilisation on earth.

It is a challenge for Al-Sisi and his campaign because he wants to see sweeping popular feedback and support for his achievements in development, mega projects, war on terror, Egypt’s regional and international stature and military might on the world stage.

All while facing persistent domestic and international media campaigns calling for boycott under claims of human rights abuses, a vacant political arena, absence of real competition, and “delusional” mega projects used by the regime to strangle political rights and freedoms.

I want to impress on everyone the importance of political participation for all Egyptians to differentiate between the political reality and the fact that people who want to make progress and change must assert their democratic constitutional rights, even if there is dissatisfaction with this reality because it does not change except through more participation, creating a culture of participation and engaging this reality in order to avoid the possibility of random change which handed Egypt over to the dark forces of political Islam under a deceptive banner.

This was the polar opposite of democracy and true political participation.

The Chinese proverb states: “The desire to heal is part of the healing process.” So, are we desiring this and practising it? I believe elections are a way of preserving and insisting on progress, to protect our ship in rough waters and prevent saboteurs from steering it into the rocks and drowning us all. At such a time, it will not matter who is above or below deck.

In the presence of legitimate concern about low voter turnout and always leaving our fate to the unknown in a nascent democratic experiment, we must ask ourselves: do we as Egyptians need a law to enforce voting, as some major democracies have done to address low voter turnout, such as Belgium, Australia and Argentina?

In Australia, if you do not vote you receive a letter in the mail asking for an explanation, and if the reason is not acceptable, like illness or overseas travel, then you must pay a small fine.

What is important here is not just voting but going to the polls, registering and casting your ballot.

The privacy of the ballot makes it impossible for the authorities to prevent a citizen from spoiling their ballot or leaving it blank.

Although voided ballots are slightly higher in countries with mandatory voting, this is not equal to the large difference in turnout.

When voting is voluntary and the possibility that one person’s vote will make a difference is very low, the very process — going to the polling station, waiting in line, casting the ballot — feels like a waste of effort. But if too many people feel that way and don’t vote, then a small portion of the population will decide the future of the country and the majority will become resentful.

Poland in recent times is a good example of this. In the 2005 national elections, voter turnout was almost 40 per cent, which is the lowest since the overthrow of the communist regime there.

This allowed  to become prime minister thanks to support by a coalition of parties that won majority seats in parliament, even though they only won six million votes out of 30 million registered voters. When Kaczynski went to the polls again less than two years later,

it was clear that many of those who did not vote in 2005 were discontent and voter turnout rose to 54 per cent, mostly due to younger and educated voters. As a result, Kaczynski was strongly defeated at the polls.

If all these considerations do not compel people to vote, mandatory voting is a real option because it is a successful tool in overcoming low voter turnout. The small cost of not voting makes it logical and reasonable for everyone to cast their ballot.

This ingrains the practice among citizens, and I think after the current elections and voter turnout rates we must think as a society and through parliament how to draft legislation that enforces democratic practice, making voting standard practice for Egyptians in all future elections.

*This article was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly

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