Yorick Jansens

Compulsory participation in local elections to be scrapped?

Currently Belgium is one of the few countries in the world in which voters are obliged by law to turn up at the polling station on election day. Although voting its self isn’t compulsory all though on the electoral register are legally obliged to go to the polling station. The rules governing local and provincial elections fall under the emit of the regions and the parties that are negotiating the formation of a new Flemish Government are considering abolishing the legal requirement to turn up at the polling station on the day of the municipal and provincial elections in Flanders. 

The Ghent University Professor of political science Herwig Reynaert was a guest on VRT Radio 1’s morning news and current affairs programme ‘De ochtend' on Saturday morning. Professor Reynaert told listeners that “It is not the case that other countries where an obligation to go and vote is in force are all banana republics or poor democracies”.

The obligation to turn up at the polling station is an issue that is worthy of much discussion.

Professor Reynaert cited the advantages of the status quo as follows "People fought for years so that everyone could be able to vote. In this sense everyone is currently involved thanks to the legal obligation to vote”.

However, the current system also has disadvantages and the liberals and Flemish nationalists favour abolishing the obligation to turn up at the polling station. 

Professor Reynaert cites the advantages of the proposed changes to the rules as follows “Political parties will have to go to more trouble to encourage people to go and vote. It is also said that only motivated votes go and vote and that this, at least in part spares us from voters voting against rather than for something”.

Moreover in recent years despite the legal obligation to turn up there is has been growing absenteeism on polling day. 

"The campaign will look very different"

Professor Reynaert went on to say that "It may seem remarkable that the obligation to turn up could be abolished at the local level. People still feel the most involved at the local level and without doubt are more inclined to vote there”.

He expects that the abolition of the obligation to turn up at the polling station will lead to changes in the way in which the parties conduct their campaigns. Professor Reynaert doesn’t believe that if introduced the changes would have a big impact on the local election results.