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LAHORE: Now that the Election Commission has sent a reference to the Law Ministry with new proposals including compulsory voting, following Supreme Court’s order that steps be taken to legally bind all eligible voters in the country to exercise their right of franchise as early as possible and ensure that the winning candidate bags a true majority vote, time is certainly ripe to have a glance at the 31 countries with compulsory voting systems in place.
Countries that have compulsory voting systems are Austria, Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Cyprus, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Fiji, France (senate only), Gabon, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Mexico, Nauru, Paraguay, Peru, Philippines, Singapore, Switzerland (province of Schaffhausen), Thailand, Turkey and Uruguay.
A study of the World Fact Book of the American Central Investigation Agency (CIA) and the July 4, 2005 edition of the prestigious British daily “The Guardian” reveals that of the 31 countries with compulsory voting system, around a dozen nations (and Schaffhausen, a province/canton of Switzerland) actually enforce it.
If an eligible voter does not attend polling in many of these countries, he or she may be subject to punitive measures by law.But again, people are only penalised practically in countries like Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Congo, Ecuador, Peru, Luxembourg, Singapore, Uruguay and the world’s smallest republic of Nauru.
For those who don’t know, the Republic of Nauru is a rock island situated in the South Pacific that was annexed and claimed as a colony by the German Empire in the late 19th century. It is the world’s smallest Republic.
History tells that in 1777, 10 years before the American Constitution of 1787, the US state of Georgia had made it compulsory for every citizen to vote or pay a penalty of five pounds (not dollars). A reasonable excuse, however, was admissible.
Countries with compulsory voting generally hold elections on a Saturday or Sunday to ensure that working people can fulfill their duty to cast their vote, besides providing postal and pre-poll voting is provided to people who cannot vote on polling day.Moreover, mobile voting booths are also installed at old age homes and hospitals to cater for immobilized citizens in these nations.
Before we examine the dozen countries that have compulsory voting and the ones who actually enforce it, it is imperative to recall that on a petition filed by the Workers Party last year, the Supreme Court of Pakistan had observed on April 11, 2012 that in a number of countries, casting of votes was compulsory by law.
The Apex Court had further viewed that the salaries were not paid to the people who abstained from voting in those countries, and in many cases, the privilege of social security protection was also not extended to those who failed to cast their ballots.
While hearing this petition seeking regulation of election expenses, the Supreme Court had also asked political parties to assist it in finding a way to make casting of votes mandatory.Now, let us examine a few countries that have compulsory voting systems in place and the ones that actually enforce it in the real sense:
Argentina makes it mandatory for citizens between 18 and 70 years old to vote. However, it is non-compulsory for those older than 70 to cast their ballots.About Belgium, “The Guardian” writes: “Belgium has the oldest existing compulsory voting system, introduced in 1892 for men, and 1949 for women. People who do not vote face a moderate fine or, if they fail to vote in at least four elections, they can lose the right to vote for 10 years. Non-voters also face difficulties getting a job in the public sector.”
Belgian voters can vote in an embassy if they are abroad or can authorize another voter in their place to cast their vote.Same goes for the citizens of Singapore, where non-voters are removed from the electoral register until they reapply, providing a reason for their abstention. In Peru and Greece, government privileges (like obtaining new passport or driver’s licence) are denied to those failing to vote.
In Bolivia, if a voter fails to take part in polls, he or she is denied withdrawal of the salary from the bank for three months.
On Australia, the noted British newspaper “The Guardian” states: “The Australians brought in a system of compulsory attendance at elections in 1924. Voters are obliged to attend the polling station but can leave without voting after ticking their names off. Non-attendees face fines of AU$20-$AU50 (about £9 - £21) and possible imprisonment if they refuse to pay their fines (as punishment for failing to pay rather than for not voting). In a nation built on immigration, Australian supporters of the system say compulsory voting is a symbol of the integration of new arrivals into the Australian way of doing things.”
However, the Australian and Brazilian laws do permit non-voters to provide a legitimate reason for not voting. In Brazil, voting is compulsory for citizens between 18 and 70 years old and is non-compulsory for unregistered citizens aged 16 or 17.
It is worth mentioning that in Brazil, a person who fails to vote is barred from obtaining a passport until after he or she has voted in the two most recent elections. Military and Security personnel in Brazil do not vote by law, as is the case in the Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Kuwait and Lebanon.
In Kuwait, all voters must have been citizens of the country for 20 years. In Tunisia, all should vote except for the police and military, people with mental disorders, the ones who have served more than three months in prison on criminal charges and those who have been given a suspended sentence of more than six months.
According to the CIA World Fact Book, the voting age in Austria is 16 years and in Indonesia, it is 17 years.Virginia-based Public Broadcasting Service, voting rights in the Vatican City are limited to cardinals less than 80 years old.
In Saudi Arabia, women cannot vote, though King Abdullah has declared that women will be able to vote and run in the 2015 local elections. The case of Saudi Arabia in the context of female suffrage is a sharp contrast to New Zealand, which had extended the right to vote to all adult women in 1893.
In Argentina, those who were ill on voting day are excused by requesting a doctor to prove their condition; those over 500 km away from their voting place are also exempted by asking for a certificate at a police station near where they are.
In Ecuador, it is compulsory for citizens between 18 and 65 years old to vote and non-compulsory for citizens aged 16–18, illiterate people, and those older than 65.In Peru and Singapore, voting is compulsory for citizens above 21 years old on the 1st of January of the year of election.
In Turkey, according to a law passed by the parliament in 1986, if eligible electors do not cast a vote in elections, they pay a fee of about five Turkish Liras, which is equivalent to about US $3.
Many international political scientists believe that the triumphant political leaders in nations with compulsory voting systems may claim a higher degree of political legitimacy than those of non-compulsory systems with lower voter turnout where only the politically motivated individuals would vote and hence may not represent sections of society that are less politically active.
They contend that compulsory voting prevents vested interests from persuading and luring a fewer number of people in non-compulsory voting systems.
Pro-compulsory voting elements are of the view that since smaller campaign funds are needed to get a large number of voters to the polling stations, the role of money in politics decreases as it also discourages vote-buying in many ways.
On the other hand, sections against compulsory voting feel that forcing someone to vote was against the principles of basic freedom.They do make a valid point that a few people, if they are forced to vote, can still use a blank or invalid vote in anger.
It may be added here that Austria had introduced this concept of compulsory voting in 1924, Holland did it in 1917 and abolished it in 1967, Spain did it in 1907 for 16 years and Chile replaced it with voluntary voting in 2009.
Meanwhile, Venezuela too has also abandoned the phenomenon of compulsory voting. An extensive research has also been conducted by “The News International,” with help sought from various editions of the prestigious European Journal of Political Research and Mark Franklin’s books “Electoral Participation” and “European Elections and the European Voter,” to study the voting behaviours in 23 world countries with high turnouts on polling day.
The average 1960-1995 voters’ turnout figures in the National assembly elections of these 23 countries having 80 per cent turnout and plus show that Malta had a 94 per cent turnout during the period under review, Chile had 93 per cent, Austria 92 per cent, Belgium 91 per cent, Italy 90 per cent, Luxembourg 90 per cent, Iceland 89 per cent, New Zealand 88 per cent, Denmark 87 per cent, Germany 86 per cent, Sweden 86 per cent, Greece 86 per cent, Venezuela 85 per cent, Czech Republic 85 per cent, Argentine 83 per cent, Brazil 83 per cent, Holland 83 per cent, Australia 81 per cent, Costa Rica 81 per cent, Norway 81 per cent, Romania 81 per cent, Bulgaria 80 per cent and Israel had 80 per cent.
There is no second opinion that over 180 million Pakistanis are also hoping against hope that a major chunk of the 84.364 million registered voters in the country cast their ballot for the best possible people in the forthcoming 2013 polls.
In Pakistan, as Election Commission website states, there currently are 84.364 million registered voters (84,364,375 to be more precise).
This number includes 47.773 million (47,773,182) male and 36.591 million (36,591,193) female voters, though not fewer than 687 eunuchs also stand registered as voters.
The December 7, 1970 elections (first-ever ballot stint) in Pakistan had a turnout of almost 63 per cent (as per government claims). The total number of registered voters then was 56,941,500, of which 31,211,220 were from the Eastern Wing and 25,730,280 hailed from the Western Wing.
The March 1977 polls under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto again saw 63 per cent of the 30,899,052 registered voters casting their votes.
Interestingly, as many historic accounts reveal, if 19 uncontested seats were discounted, the turnout was 80 per cent in 1977. Remember, the Pakistan National Alliance (PNA) had opted to boycott the Balochistan elections because of the ongoing military operation at that time.
The November 16, 1988 polls for 217 general seats had witnessed 43.1 per cent of the 46,194,417 registered voters casting their vote.
The October 1990 elections had seen 45.5 per cent of the 47,065,330 registered voters casting their ballot.
The October 6, 1993 elections had seen 41 per cent of the 55,000,000 registered voters casting their vote, though a figure as exact as 55 million in this case is always dubious and difficult to digest.
The February 3, 1997 elections had witnessed 35.2 per cent of the 54, 189,534 registered voters using their right to vote and the October 2002 polling stint had seen 41.8 per cent of the 71,358,040 registered voters actually going to the polling stations and casting ballots.
And the most recent February 18, 2008 election activity in the country had recorded a 44 per cent turnout. Five years ago, the number of registered voters in Pakistan had rested at 34,665,978.