It holds an important place in the French political landscape. With 53.77% of registered voters who did not vote in the second round of the legislative elections, Sunday, June 19, abstention retains its nickname of “first party of France”. The phenomenon is not new, and concerns many democratic countries, as stated in a 2016 OECD report.
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But some countries, such as Sweden, have high participation rates, often above 70%. So does abstention depend on political history, the organization of elections or the way parties campaign? To see more clearly, franceinfo looked at these European states where citizens seem to attach greater importance to making their voices heard at the ballot box.
In Sweden, synchronized elections and a relaxation of postal voting
With 87.2% participation in the last general elections of 2018, Sweden contrasts with the rest of the European continent. Voting is not compulsory, but the numbers remain very high. “It’s a country where, like in Malta for example, we vote en masse because all the elections are held at the same time”notes Filip Kostelka, professor at the European University Institute and specialist in political behavior.
“In five years, the Swedes have voted twice while the French have had to go to the polls five times.”Filip Kostelka, professor at the European University Institute
Every four years, Swedish voters have an appointment on the second Sunday of September to elect both their deputies, their community councilors as well as the members of the municipal assemblies. For the researcher, the synchronization of polls also makes it possible to arouse more interest in the campaigns. “It’s a good way to raise the stakes of an election, explains Filip Kostelka. Whereas in France, the campaign for the legislative elections always starts late, because the parties are focused on the presidential election which is held just before.”
Other reasons are cited by political scientists to explain the high voter turnout in this Scandinavian country. Starting with a postal voting system, that is to say by post, described as “very generous” by researcher Stefan Dahlberg, in a study published in 2016 (in English). In the mid-2000s, as abstention increased slightly, this system was made more flexible and efficient. As a result, the share of remote voters has increased almost every year since, as have overall turnout figures. Finally, the proportional election system and initiatives such as the Järva festival Vecka, which mixes music and politics, keeps Swedes interested in their elections.
In Estonia, widespread online voting
The small Baltic country of 1.3 million inhabitants has managed, in recent years, to keep abstention below the 40% mark for its legislative elections. It is also the only member of the EU to offer, since 2005, an internet voting system which now works for all polls. All with success, because more and more Estonians are choosing to vote online: 43.8% of voters did so during the last legislative elections, in 2019. The system, deemed reliable and secure, is also very accommodating : if a citizen were to vote twice – on the internet then by slipping a ballot into the ballot box – it is the physical vote that is privileged, making online voting obsolete.
However, nothing proves that the digital option makes it possible to attract abstainers, even among young people. “A number of studies done in other countries show that there is no effect of electronic voting on abstention”recalled Véronique Cortier, researcher in computer science at the Lorraine Laboratory for Research in Computer Science and its Applications (Loria-CNRS), interviewed by The world in June 2021.
“Online voting has effects at the margin [sur la participation]for voters living abroad.”Filip Kostelka, professor at the European University Institute
In France, the implementation of internet voting is approved by 78% of those questioned and by 80% of those who abstained during the first round of regional elections, according to a poll carried out in June 2021. But the risks linked to cybersecurity are holding back French decision-makers.
Does the ease of internet voting prevent the electoral base from eroding? “It is possible, but still difficult to quantify”warns Filip Kostelka, who insists rather on the good keeping of the electoral lists in this very centralized State. “As in many places, it is very easy for citizens to change lists when they move house. Sometimes it is even automatic”, he explains. On this subject, “France and the United Kingdom are exceptions, it’s a shame”, regrets the researcher. “Mis-registration” is indeed a major source of abstention. With data from INSEE in support, researchers have been able to establish that there were nearly 13 million not and incorrectly registered during the 2017 French presidential election. “This masks, in a way, the true level of abstention in France”comments for his part Filip Kostelka.
In Belgium, compulsory voting and “citizen suggestion”
Belgium is one of the few European countries to have made voting compulsory. This has been the case since 1893, and participation has since approached 90%. If a voter does not vote, they may be forced to pay a small fine. If this happens four times in less than fifteen years, without any proof, the citizen is then removed from the electoral lists for ten years. A rule that has above all a powerful psychological effect, underlines Filip Kostelka. “In Belgium, the sanctions are not regularly applied, but when you look at the polls, the citizens do not know it and think that they will be systematically punished”, he details.
But the obligation is not a miracle solution. In Greece, where voting is also compulsory, turnout is around 60%. Italy abandoned compulsory voting in 1993. In France, the idea is still defended by certain political figures. Anne HidalgoPS candidate in the last presidential election, had proposed it, like the LFI candidate, Jean-Luc Mélenchon. This choice “easy” and “practice” is a “wrong answer”judge Dorian Breuil, expert associated with the Jean-Jaurès foundation and co-president of the NGO Voted. “It would mark a terrible failure, that of not having succeeded in convincing”, he believes. For him, this obligation would negate the problem of our “breathless democracy” in “based on the principle that the fault lies with the voters”.
“The real problem comes from our institutional architecture which no longer corresponds today to the terms of engagement.”Dorian Breuil, expert associated with the Jean-Jaurès Foundation and co-president of the NGO Voted
If compulsory voting is a track that is not unanimous in France, Belgium could be a source of inspiration in terms of participatory democracy. A note for the Jean-Jaurès foundation of June 15 mentions an innovative device for the inhabitants of the Belgian capital. “A ‘citizen suggestion’ signed by 1,000 Brussels residents of voting age is enough to convene a deliberative committee”, exposes Dorian Breuil. Composed of a panel of three quarters of citizens and a quarter of parliamentarians drawn by lot“it meets to study a specific theme and formulates recommendations transmitted to Parliament, which is responsible for giving them a translation (legislative or in the form of a question put to the government)”he explains. It is in this context that the third “deliberative committee”on the issue of biodiversity in the city, made 21 recommendations, end of May.
Since voting is compulsory in Belgium, it is impossible to know whether these initiatives involving elected representatives and citizens have reduced abstention. But for Dorian Breuil, this type of innovation can be implemented in France to remobilize the population, and restore momentum to the elections. According to him, for “respond to the democratic emergency”it is necessary to“press all buttons at the same time”. In other words, it recommends making registration on the electoral lists more fluid, facilitating access to the vote, but also involving citizens directly in the democratic process.
France did it with the great national debate launched after the crisis of “yellow vests” or the Citizen’s Convention for the Climate (CCC). But these novelties, which aroused a strong commitment from the participants and enthusiasm, were ultimately disappointing. A figure: of the 149 CCC proposals, only 10 have been taken up “without filter” in the “Climate and resilience” bill. Others have been diminished, watered down, or even emptied of their meaning, according to participants in the Convention. The National Council for Refoundation, announced by Emmanuel Macron, must involve “the political, economic, social, associative forces, of the elected representatives of the territories and of citizens drawn by lot”. The prelude to lasting change that will bring citizens back to the voting booth?