Following the results of several elections in western democracies, they reveal alarming matters and raise serious questions: (a) if in fact, modern democracy actually represents the people and (b) if those elected governments do actually listen to the wishes of the majority once in office!
Before it’s examined, one has to define the political philosophy in its simplest form and analyse the notion if “majority rule” does actually work in the interest of the population. Logically, a democratic system that fails to represent the aspirations of the majority cannot be called a democracy but an autocracy! A classic case of analysis is the absence of recognition of the blank-vote where it is totally ignored in the electoral process. This practice provides governments with the ability to govern under a pseudo-democracy that borders on elected dictatorship. It pretends to be a fair and democratic form of government and yet chooses to ignore an ever-increasing number of abstentions during elections. Abstention from voting indicates people’s expression of discontent with bad politics and government and yet those alarming figures have no impact on the political establishment whatsoever. In most countries, there are no plans to deal with abstention or to legitimize the right to a blank-vote. The decision to cast a blank-vote (other than abstention) is an important factor that provides the people with a powerful veto to influence government and politicians to clean up their act or be ousted! The legitimacy of the blank-vote used as a catalyst can generate better politics as opposed to a rotating power-sharing political-party system of convenience. As a result of this, modern democracy appears to have distanced itself from the people and has encouraged massive corruption in an egalitarian society to the cost of the country!
Democracy in Peril
Unlike the far-reaching Athenian direct democracy (508 until 322 BCE) where people had a say and influence on the affairs of the city-state, did the noble principle of direct democracy worked well – amidst its own flaws and failures! In contrast to autocracy, archon rule and especially the tyrannical rule of the times, democracy was a godsend – although short-lived. The introduction of democratic rule by Solon in Athens was indeed revolutionary for the era and quickly spread to other parts of Greece. Citizens took direct interest in the affairs of the state and those that chose to abstain from voting, were shunned by all others – not so different today! The motto of the times was clear: “We do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say he has no business here at all.”
Exercising their democratic right Greek citizens voted directly on legislation and executive power by casting a ballot of “Yes” or “No” (White or Black lot). In fact citizens under direct democracy had the power to reject the entire assembly (government) and start anew. Unlike modern democracy the privileged Athenian officials elected, were held accountable for their actions and could be removed from office for wrong doing at any time the assembly met. Their respectable status could easily turn into public humiliation and could face imprisonment and in extreme cases the death penalty. If the accused were found guilty of stealing money from the state, the embezzled sums were recovered from their own estates by confiscation. Hence, assembly elections in general favoured the aristocratic class where wealth was virtually a prerequisite on the presumption that the rich had no need to steal!
Direct democracy no longer exists but is replaced by political systems invented to accommodate modern political party organisations and not necessarily in the interest of the population or even the country!
Thomas Hobbes of Malmesbury (4 April 1588 – 4 December 1679) a political philosopher introduced political party representation by secret ballot (vote). Eligible citizens could only vote for a parliamentarian from a list of names offered to them; they had no influence on the selection process of candidates! The idea of elected representation gave birth to modern politics where dogmatism and social opportunism for power helped to divide society into an array of political parties based on dogma, self-interests and social status. The infamous “divide and rule” played its part even in those days; divide the people – you control the people! Hobbes advocated that people’s representatives: “are elected by a substantial part of the subject population and legally empowered to impose any rules and policies they decide to make.” An overwhelming statement of supreme power indeed! The election of party candidates of the times, were meant to act in the best interest of their voters – a principle that still exists in modern systems in theory, if not in practice!
Hobbes’ introduction to a multi-party-system – revolutionary as it may have been at the time – was also somewhat flawed. He misguidedly believed that elected representatives of the people were honorable men and as pillars of an elitist society would always act honorably in the “best interest of the people”. The world knows differently today! Unlike Solon’s Athenian democracy, Hobbes made one fundamental mistake in his political concept; he never considered the notion of casting a “No” vote during the elections! Was this omission intentional or simply a misguided error in judgment aimed to serve plutocracy and the establishment?
Albert Venn Dicey (4 February 1835 – 7 April 1922) also another British Constitutional expert, jurist and a theorist attempting to analyze the democratic principle, came much closer to understanding the real essence of Athenian democracy. He stated that: “The people elect the parliament, the parliament makes the law, the judiciary interprets the law, and the executive governs within the law. Ultimate control rests with the people who elect the parliament and therefore indirectly control the government and all executive powers. A true democracy is a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people empowered by the people’s veto.”
That statement more or less says it all! No one can argue against it; that’s what democracy is all about!
Citizens today are also compelled to choose from a selection of party candidates nominated by the political establishment without a say in that decision – just like Thomas Hobbes did. All the electorate has to do is to vote “Yes” for one of the contenders but are not offered the option to say “No” or “None Of The Above”. Abstentions and blank-votes during elections are simply ignored. Under those terms, modern democracy no longer represents all the people equally but conditionally instead!
It is encouraging however to note that in some countries the electorate is offered the opportunity to show their disapproval of candidates, by casting a blank-vote. This is considered as a peaceful Revolution of the Mind and a mechanism for an active rejection of a political entity, policy or political agenda.
Citizenship in disarray
The rising abstention rate and declining voter turnouts has reached disturbing levels.
Electorate apathy and mistrust of the established order has created a new phenomenon in the life of politics; an elected minority now governs countries in direct contradiction to the fundamental principle of democracy!
France recently experienced the greatest abstention since 1969 with 58.36% abstention and 4.20% blank/spoilt votes. Over 47% of the French electorate stated they would cast a blank/null vote if recognized at the ballot box! In Cyprus the same results were repeated with 33.26% abstention and 3.08% blank/spoilt votes. In Greece abstention reached over 37.0% with 2.36% blank/spoilt votes. The Eurozone experiences similar rates of abstention while in Velvendo in Greece abstention reached 95.77% and at Ayios Efstathios recorded 72.3%. There are other examples around the world that confirm similar results and yet, governments refuse to make electoral changes. Should the current trend continue, it could lead to rebelliousness spilling into the streets and that’s the stuff revolutions are made of!
There are encouraging signs that the blank-vote is starting slowly to surface in the electoral process. The 2008 London Mayoral and Assembly elections did just that and set a precedent in the right direction; it offered citizens the option to cast a blank-vote! This was a revolutionary undertaking where citizens for the first time in British politics, voters were given the option to make a choice between two mayoral candidates or to reject them both and if necessary, call for new elections with new candidates! If this trend continues, Britain may be the first country in the world to offer citizens the right to a blank-vote! If that happens, it would perhaps influence other countries to follow suit and that would certainly be a victory for a fairer direct democracy.
In Greece a High Court Ruling could not have made it clearer about the right to a blank-vote: Constitutional Law, Part III, Ch.1, The Organ of State 221, states: The Highest Court has ruled on the role of the blank ballot vote paper, namely the question of whether a ballot paper left blank is an authentic expression of popular will. The court pronounced unconstitutional the provision of the current electoral statute, which stated that blank papers should not be counted as valid votes in calculating the formula for allocation seats. The Court ruled that although the blank paper indicates a rejection of all the combinations proposed, it is not legally defective and is entirely valid. Therefore failure to include the blank ballots in the circulation of the total number of valid ballot papers is an impermissible breach of the core principle of sovereignty and the equal value of each vote (ruling 12/2005 Special Highest Court). However, it was subsequently stipulated in Act 3434/2006 that blank papers should not be counted together with valid papers (Article 1). The constitutionality of this provision is questionable given that the Special Highest Court has already ruled against it.
This is an example how governments prefer to resist introducing blank-vote or People’s Veto in fear of political repercussions.
Political Parties and Government
Hobbes’ political-party ideology was meant to introduce noble candidates that would follow the same line of ethics and ideals in society as the party had established. Those ideals, theoretically, set standards to advance the behaviour of party membership; create a political bond among members; produce better citizens and prepare new politicians running for public office. Today it’s a different story altogether! Political parties not only negated to improve citizenship and political behaviour but instead, have adopted populism undermining democracy itself. The corporate meddling and “donations” received by political parties in exchange for favours are considered the prime suspect for the slippery road to disgrace in political life itself! Yet, governments tolerate the continuation of this dastardly practice of corruption simply to retain political power. In fact, powerful wealthy individuals, foreign and national corporations have more influence on national policy-making that the electorate itself.
A small example of who really influences policies is to take a look at the powerful and thriving existence of lobby groups. According to Corporate Europe Observatory there are over 30.000 professional lobbyists in Brussels – more than all EU bureaucrats put together and second only to Washington! They lurk in “black boxes” working night and day to influence deregulation and policy-making in support of corporate client interests, international trade, global banking and foreign governments including hundreds of other interest groups. Lobbying is nothing new and most of those groups are actually licensed to conduct business under a shroud of mystery and without accountability. The “black box” clandestine decision-making process, it surely poses a threat to open democracy where billions are spent to sway and convince politicians to make decisions in their favour. It has been known that some politicians are quite receptive to lobbying practices and prepared to accept “cash for information” deposited in secret foreign bank accounts.
Under such a disreputable environment, political parties have grown into an entity of their own that draws its lifeline convincing unsuspecting citizens to trust their integrity. In some countries starting a new political party is as easy as changing clothing and career politicians often swing loyalty from one party to another where they can benefit the most. Principles and loyalty has become a rare commodity among politicians and it’s no wonder citizens are dismayed by the behaviour of some elected representatives; representatives that no longer honour their word and election promises! The phenomenon of political mistrust has touched the world over and yet, governments prefer not to cause ripples to a power-sharing system, in case they also sink to the bottom.
It has come to this: a majority of the population now believe that no matter who wins the elections their lives will not change or improve and voting seems just a waste of time.
Abstention or apathy is the only way some citizens know how to punish politicians in a system that has failed their expectations. Unfortunately, abstention exacerbates those same feelings of betrayal and ratifies the one thing they detest the most; the continuance of the current situation! Consequently, apathy is not the way forward and can lead to oligarchy and in so doing helps to destabilize the main fabric of society. Under those conditions a failed democracy simply means a failed country! Does this define real democracy? Obviously not!
In the absence of transparency elections in many countries have become a ritual of sorts. To remove one political party and replace it with another it no longer convinces the electorate that’s the way for a better government. Given the right information, citizens can in fact make well-informed decisions and social media has made it even more possible where it provides a wealth of information to sift through. The Internet has been the mobilizing force of millions of people and has helped to develop peaceful revolutions demanding change, especially among the younger generation. Italy’s 2018 electoral victory by the anti-establishment 5-Star Movement, has clearly demonstrated that the younger generation can no longer be ignored and they demand social changes today and not promises for tomorrow.
Short of rebellion, there are no options available for the people to express their objection to bad politics other than to: (a) abstain from voting, or (b) exercise the right to cast a blank-vote! Yet, one has to wonder whether such a protest has any legal effect on the established order or is it simply a public demonstration without an impact on the electoral process.
While the blank-vote in general is gaining acceptance, it is far from being recognized by governments. Elected parliamentarians and political parties are reluctant to propose amendments to electoral laws and interpret protest votes as a serious threat; the greater in numbers the greater the threat becomes! Conveniently, the abstention phenomenon and blank-votes are swept under the carpet in the hope they will simply go away.
Then what is the point of casting a blank-vote when it has no legal effect on the electoral process?
The importance of voting in a country cannot be underestimated but the right to protest has also a role to play in a democracy. Abstentions from voting are voices of discontent and they are equally important as those voices of mainstream voters. The critical question to consider is: why is there so much resistance to voting?
In repeated cases, the noble principle of voting for a “majority rule” is manipulated by the status quo but today’s citizens can no longer be fooled. An example of vote-manipulation it’s the “creation” of EU Quality Majority Voting (QMV) or weighted voting. This formula has sprung out of the hat and the EU Council of Ministers uses it to pass legislation without democratic accountability. Under this method, no matter how smaller states vote on a proposed legislation, their weighted votes can never outweigh the combined votes of the largest member-states. This system of voting often allows strategic collusion between the more powerful states at the expense of smaller states. In fact, 80% of all EU legislation is decided behind closed doors under QMV and not by the EU Parliament. This is a convenient way to approve and pass legislation into law by a cabal of unelected bureaucrats affecting the lives of 508 million EU inhabitants. QMV decisions are “democratized” and rubberstamped by the EU Parliament without amendments. This shows how easily the principle of democratic voting has been abused and manipulated by wily voting systems to serve hidden motives.
Blank-votes today may have no legal effects on the elections but used effectively for sure have political consequences. Without realizing it, blank-voters and those that decide to abstain are in fact “The Third Power”. Not convinced by the usual political-party persuasion, this group of freethinking citizens offers new hope for better government and the answer on resolving the issue of abstention in a political vacuum of inequality.
An attempt to get the law’s recognition of blank-vote on the ballot papers would be a step closer to a representative democracy. It will require the radical initiative of independent members of parliament to bring the issue to parliamentary committees for discussion and put a motion on the floor;
On recognition, blank-votes can then be tallied like all other votes and do away with the deliberate rejection of “mistaken” or “spoilt votes”. The legitimization of protest ballots at the elections can impel greater voter participation and the reduction of abstentions;
The sheer volume of a blank-vote win would provide calls for extraordinary elections of “no confidence” and the re-scheduling of new elections with new candidates;
The prospect of politicians and government being ousted en-masse by grass-root blank-voters acting as a “People’s Veto,” will eventually produce a better caliber of politicians and a better society;
The influence of voters without a leadership or structured organisation; without party membership or headquarters; without political party ideology but the sharing of a common consensus for better and cleaner politics cannot be ignored;
The recognition of blank-votes can transform politics forever! In fact this could be considered as “The Third Power” acting spontaneously in the national interest of the country and citizenship;
Can blank-votes actually make a difference in today’s politics? The possibilities are not unlikely because never before in the history of mankind have protesters had at their fingertips one of the most powerful tools available – the Internet!
Social Media, Text Messaging, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and other means of rapid transmission of information offer citizens the opportunity to inform and sway millions – President Trump uses Twitter each day without failure;
When online voting becomes available to all, it will further reduce the dogmatic influence of the political party stronghold over the minds of the people and politics will never be the same again;
Amendments to the legislature need to be revised to give validity to the blank-vote, so nobody’s free expression can be excluded from the voting process;
Citizens however, have to decide if they prefer abstention or to use their protest vote wisely by casting a blank-vote to motivate changes for more transparent and accountable politics under the terms of a participatory direct democracy and not an elite plutocracy.
Andreas C Chrysafis is a UK published author of five books and over 400 press articles. He is an advocate of Democracy, Transparency, Equality and Human Rights. His latest books “Aphrodite’s Sacred Virgins” and “Andreas C Chrysafis ART –Volume 1” are both available to the reading public from bookshops, Amazon and Online book providers.