Free but not that free: Is forcing citizens to exercise their democratic rights fundamentally illiberal?

Guest blogger Jane Zacharzewski on discussions about compulsory voting in Belgium.

Last month, Belgium’s Movement Réformateur (MR) held their annual conference. As a liberal and conservative party within the French speaking community, MR prides itself on its fundamental liberal traditions, including equality of opportunity and respect for individual freedoms.

Up for discussion: a number of proposed amendments to their manifesto. 

The motion which attracted considerable media attention in the Belgian press and a heated debate on the floor proposed a change to the party’s position on compulsory voting. Belgium, along with Greece and Luxembourg, imposes a legal obligation on those eligible to vote to do so. This results in extremely high voter turnout – but does it lead to better democracy and is it in fact a liberal position at all?

George-Louis Bouchez argued that the MR, as a liberal party, should be calling for an end to compulsory voting.

There was vociferous opposition to the motion, led by veteran politician Louis Michel (the Prime Minister’s father).

Ultimately, the status quo prevailed but Bouchez was still able to secure the support of 43% of delegates.

The case put forward by M. Bouchez can be summarised as:

  • Voters should not only be free to participate but free to choose whether to participate at all.
  • Sometimes no party list/ party position meets your needs or fits with your views, so why should you be forced to vote for those you disagree with?
  • Removing the legal obligation to vote would “responsibilise” the politicians as they would have to work harder to get you to vote.
  • Allowing citizens to choose whether to vote also puts more responsibility on the voter, rather than treating them like children.
  • Liberals should have faith in people. Therefore, this should be the natural position of the MR.

The arguments put forward for retaining compulsory voting were:

  • Universal suffrage is a fundamental liberal value, which encompasses votes for women and the “vote obligatoire”.
  • Without the legal obligation to vote, some people would be insufficiently motivated to engage and their voice would be lost.
  • The principle of one person, one vote, regardless of intellectual prowess, economic status or level of education is fundamental and this is how, as liberals, MR shows its “faith in people”.
  • (Implied) Removing the obligation could result in only the political and intellectual élites voting.
  • The proposed change is, in any case, impractical as there is no cross-party support.

As someone who instinctively bristles at anything “compulsory” even when it’s actually good for me, I found the philosophical arguments for dropping the obligation to vote superficially seductive. Furthermore, Brexit (and the recent Trump victory) has brought out a distrust in the choice of the masses which I hadn’t realised I felt. I suspect I am not the only one to wonder if freedom is wasted on those who hold it lightly and if it might not be such a bad thing if some people who “don’t understand the arguments” (i.e. who don’t agree with me) just didn’t bother to vote.

But ultimately I was not convinced by M. Bouchez’s position. Having grown up in the UK, where there appears to be a generally poor level of political education and relatively low turnout, I genuinely worry that those who are unsure, or not used to being listened to, or think voting is for other (cleverer) people could be further sidelined. Other countries may not be queuing up to introduce compulsory voting but changing the rules here in Belgium is unlikely to send the message that each and every voice counts and, in my view, that’s what matters.


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