'Historic mistake': don't scrap requirement to turn up to vote, experts warn

'Historic mistake': don't scrap requirement to turn up to vote, experts warn
Credit: Belga

On Tuesday, a group of 20 Flemish political scientists warned again that abolishing the obligation to turn up to vote for local elections will weaken democracy, just ahead of the official vote in the Flemish parliament.

Until now, all Belgian citizens who were at one time registered to vote were required to turn up at a polling place to vote at any election. That requirement is now being removed by the Flemish government for the communal and provincial elections, starting from 2024.

"Political scientists rarely agree with each other, but this time it is abundantly clear. Abolishing compulsory voting will lead to less participation in municipal elections," over 20 political scientists wrote in an open letter, published in De Standaard.

They are once again sounding the alarm about the planned reforms to Flanders' local voting system from 2024, when the Flemish government no longer wants to make turning up to vote mandatory for local elections. Turning up to vote for the Regional and Federal Parliamentary elections, however, will remain compulsory.

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The political scientists' concerns are in line with the points that political scientist Johan Ackaert (UHasselt), who is one of the open letter's signatories, already touched upon during a hearing in the Flemish Parliament earlier.

Without compulsory voting, people with a lower level of education and a less favourable socioeconomic position will vote less, according to him.

"People say that abolishing compulsory voting will lead to fewer protest votes (usually for extremist parties), but if we look at the Netherlands, Germany and France, we see that extremist parties there achieve just as high percentages as here," Ackaert and his colleagues wrote.

The effects of the abolition will be evaluated, as requested by the Flemish Christian democrats (CD&V) who are not in favour of it, but that does not reassure the political scientists.

"We can assume that some members of parliament want to ease their conscience with this, but we do not know of a single example of a country that has reintroduced compulsory voting," they said.

"Will 2021 be the year in which it is decided that, from now on, we no longer want to hear all voices, and certainly no longer those of the poorly educated?" they said. "We hope, and ask, that such a historic mistake is avoided."

Belgium is one of the few remaining countries where turning up to vote is still compulsory, but around 10% of Belgians usually stay at home during elections. Officially, people who do not go to vote risk a penalty of €40 up to €80, but in practice, people rarely get fined.

On Tuesday, the competent committee of the Flemish Parliament could already vote on the new electoral rules.

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