Can Abstention from Voting Affect Real Change in a Democracy? – An Analysis in the Light of Regional Elections in France

france elections - law insider

By Athik Saleh

Published On August 20, 2021 17:42 IST

A democracy is a system of governance where the government is the citizen’s choice. The citizens let their choice known through a process called an election. Although the history of elections can be dated back to ancient Rome and Greece, it is in the modern democracies that it took its present form. 

We all have been part of different elections ranging from school assembly elections to national elections. Apart from the difference in gravity, one tiny difference between a school election and a national or a local election is that national elections or local elections do not make casting a vote compulsory. Few countries in the world make casting a vote compulsory in the elections and penalize the citizens for not exercising this duty but they are exceptions.

The absence of compulsory voting makes it possible for people to abstain from voting. We never see voter turnout of 100 percent in countries that do make voting a compulsory duty. The typical voter turnout in large democracies ranges from 60 percent to 70 percent in their national elections. The turnout in individual areas may be higher or lower than the national average depending upon the percentage of the eligible population cast their vote in those areas. 

When an eligible citizen chooses not to vote, it is called abstention from voting. Abstention usually is a part of the electoral process and is often considered as part of how democratic elections works. A minority staying away from casting their vote is not considered an attack on the legitimacy of elections. 

What happens when a majority stays from casting their vote? Does abstention by a majority affect the legitimacy of elections? What does abstention mean for the political class in a country? These questions and more came into the picture after the regional elections in France. According to available data, the rate of abstention in the first round was 66 percent, and nearly the same amount abstained from voting in the second round as well. 

This particular incident has raised doubts and questions about French politics and abstention from elections. This article aims to discuss the reasons for en masse abstention of voters in the French regional election. We must also try to understand whether abstention as a practice can be used to reform and strengthen democracy. 

Why did the French Voters Abstain En Masse from the Regional Election? 

Considered as one of the cradles of democracy along with the United States, France has been going through what can be described as a ‘crisis of identity in the last couple of years. In the last couple of years, an anti-establishment and anti-government feeling has been brewing in French hearts. This can, in short, be attributed to the changing cultural and political landscape of France. 

These anti-establishment feelings reached new heights in 2018 when protesters wearing yellow vests stormed the streets of France. The protest was called Gilets Jaunes or yellow vests, a reminder of the attire of the protestors. What began as a protest against fuel tax evolved into an all-encompassing protest. Their protests were against the tax system, wage system, favors granted to the wealthy, economic reforms, etc. They did not have an agenda, but they all were the victims of one or the other form of issue in the French society. For some, President Emmanuel Macron was the problem. 

Gilets Jaunes has been a constant presence in the French political landscape since then and they have emerged as an important stakeholder when it comes to matters concerning the common people and has proved to be a thorn in the way of Macron. This protest showed and continues to show a general case of disillusionment that has formed in the minds of the French people. 

Political scientists Céline Braconnier and Jean-Yves Dormagen have suggested that France is becoming a democracy of abstention. This is more or less true as abstention has become a trend in French elections. The 2015 regional elections saw an abstention rate of 50 percent in the first round and over 40 percent in the second round. 

Even if abstention has become a trend in France, this election showed a more worrisome side of it. Politicians cutting across party lines have suggested that the impact of COVID might have lessened the voter turnout. This is something that cannot be disregarded considering the impact COVID had on the people and the economy. The French president, Emmanuel Macron, and his movement turned party En Marche had come under scathing criticism from various sections of the nation for their handling of the pandemic. 

One of Macron’s major critics and his main opponent for the presidential election scheduled for 2022, Marine Le Pen and party National Rally was touted to take advantage of the anti-establishment feeling brewing in the country and make a statement before 2022 but they were one of the biggest losers as they took only 19 percent of the votes cast. This leads us to a question – if there is an anti-establishment and anti-government feeling within the people, why did they not come out and vote for the strongest opposition? 

The French political landscape consists of Macron’s neo-liberals, Le Penn’s far-right, and the center-right Les Republicains as the main players. In the recently concluded regional elections, the center-right emerged as the leader in vote share. One of the interesting reasons for this is the abstention amongst the French youth. It was the youth that abstained the most from voting. What does that show us? 

As mentioned earlier in the article, there is a crisis of identity amongst the French people. Many do not feel that they are being represented. A lack of a legitimate left that is not hyper neo-liberal like Macron’s party, is clearly visible in the large-scale abstention of the youth. An ideological gap between politicians and the people they represent could be one of the main reasons why a large number of French people avoided the elections. 

This is where the question of abstention gets interesting. Every democracy has its inherent self-correcting mechanisms. Elections, as such is one of those mechanisms where the people choose to not vote for the incumbent if they are not happy with their performances. However, abstention from elections has never been looked at as a way of correcting the way a country is run. 

The mass abstention of French people was considered by many French politicians as a slap in their wrists. A reminder for them to change the way they practice politics. But is it really so? Can abstention from elections really make a difference in the way a democracy is run?

Can Abstention be a Game Changer? 

In every democracy, voting is considered a sacrosanct right of a citizen. Some have gone the extra mile and made it a duty. The reason for this way of looking at voting is that democracy is a system of government where the power lies with the people, at least in theory. The reality is different though. 

The ultimate power in a democracy lies with the legislators, ministers, and bureaucrats. In a country like India where the line between legislators and ministers is a thin one, the ultimate power lies with the politician. These politicians are more or less elected directly by the people. 

We all have found ourselves in situations where we are faced with a dilemma during the elections. We find it hard to choose between the available candidates. After the 2019 elections in India, it was found out that over 40 percent of the members of parliament elected that year had a criminal record. There have been a number of judgements and directives from the part of the Supreme Court to tackle this issue. However, as we can see, none of them has acted as a deterrent in correcting this political menace. 

It’s not just the case in India that people are forced to choose between candidates who will not otherwise win a school election. More than often, the constituents are put in a position where electing any of the candidates on the list will do more harm than good. In such a case abstention is the way forward. 

Yes, there are other methods of letting the political class know the discontent that exists. The option to choose NOTA or “none of the above” exist in certain jurisdictions. However, the success of such methods is still minimal to nothing. 

Voting is a right that needs to be exercised wisely. It must be exercised in such a way that the future of the country is secured. However, what is one to do when all the available options spell nothing but danger? What is one to do when casting the vote creates more harm? 


We all have heard time and again about how to use our right to vote wisely. Similarly, a case can be made for how to ‘not’ vote wisely. There is no question about exercising the right to vote. It is what differentiates a democracy from autocracy or a monarchy. The right to choose those who will lead the country for the next four or five years. 

The French through their abstention from voting in the recently held regional election has shown that not voting can be used as a way for enriching democracy. When faced with two or three equally bad choices, or choices that do not represent one’s ideology, etc., it is in the best interest of the nation that the voters abstain from voting. 

Various democracies in the world are at a phase where there exists a gap between the political class and the public. This gap is widening with every year. The trend of abstention visible in the last few elections in one of the oldest democracies in the world, France, points to this trend. 

Abstention, when done by a minority of voters does not make any statement and may prove to work against their wishes and aspirations. On the other hand, when all the choices available in an election are equally or almost equally bad, en masse abstention might help in rebooting the democratic process of elections and by extension, democracy itself.


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