The message of our low election turnout

For a moment there was a bit of a democratic panic due to the low turnout in the Athens municipality during Sunday’s local authority elections. There was no shortage of commentators bewailing the future of our democracy as rumors suggested an extremely low voter turnout across the country. Finally Interior Minister Prokopis Pavlopoulos put us out of our misery: The nationwide turnout had been at around the same level as the last municipal and prefectural elections in 2002. So, if nothing else, we do not have to start mourning the quality of our democracy just yet. The truth is that there was an unusually high level of voter abstention in the Athens municipality. But this is partly attributable to the demographic characteristics of this municipality. The center of Athens is populated by many immigrants who do not have the right to vote while Athenians who do have the right to vote do not live there anymore and so are, naturally, indifferent to the issues of the municipality. But we can hope for support some time in the near future from immigrants, who have rejuvenated our economy and social insurance funds. After all, they will soon acquire the right to vote in local authority elections. In Greece, we have been criticizing low turnout in American presidential elections – probably because our collective subconscious makes a distinction between citizens who exercise their right to vote and those who do not. Or it could be simply because they are American. Nevertheless a tendency toward abstention is evident in Greece despite the fact that participation is, officially, obligatory. But why the big fuss about low turnout in local authority elections? What is so bad about staying away from the ballot box in view of the more widespread withdrawal from public life of most citizens? Don’t get me wrong. Of course the retreat of citizens from public life is not a good thing. But we should not be upset by the symptoms, such as low voter turnout. Compulsory voting comprises an absurd paternalism: The right to vote becomes a duty. But what should really cause concern is the lack of real participation of citizens in public life in general, not just every four years.