The rise of ‘negative voting’ is a danger to democracy

When elections are reduced to a contest of the lesser of two evils, political change becomes impossible.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics Politics World

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At first glance, the elections in the UK and France might not seem all that similar. The British General Election was not much of a contest, while in France the campaign had all the features of a political drama. In the UK, the situation under a Labour government will be very much business as usual, while in France it is unlikely that there will be a return to the status-quo ante. But there is one major phenomenon the two nations have in common.

Both Britain and France are afflicted with the scourge of ‘negative voting’. In the UK, citizens were constantly incited to vote against the Conservative Party. In France, the public was instructed to vote for anyone but Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (RN).

Negative voting was hugely impactful in France. All parties of the left and centre ganged up against the RN, with candidates stepping down after the first round of elections last month to consolidate the anti-RN vote. After the second round of elections over the weekend, the RN received the largest share of the vote (37.1 per cent), but only gained 142 seats in the French National Assembly. In contrast, the leftist coalition, the New Popular Front (NFP), received 26.3 per cent of the vote, but managed to secure 188 seats. Even President Macron’s centrist alliance, Ensemble, managed to win more seats than the RN. It received 161 seats, despite only winning 24.7 per cent of the vote. To put matters in perspective, the British Labour Party managed to win 412 parliamentary seats with a lower share of the vote than the RN, with 34 per cent to Le Pen’s 37 per cent.

Of course, negative voting is not an entirely new phenomenon. People have often felt motivated to vote against a particular party, rather than enthusiastically endorsing one. According to polls, around ‘one-third of American voters casted a vote more “against” than “for” a candidate in the 2020 presidential election’. What has changed, however, is that negative and tactical voting has become totally normalised. Tactical voters are often praised for their supposed intelligence. They are flattered by the media as savvy. A willingness to eschew ideals, principles and party loyalties is apparently an indication of responsible citizenship.

In reality, this is bad news for democracy. The pursuit of negative voting robs people of engaging with matters that actually affect their society’s future. When all that matters is giving the Tories a good kicking or preventing the RN from winning the election, principles and ideals lose their salience. Defeating an opponent matters much more than gaining support for a particular policy or a cause.

As political scientists Morris Fiorina and Kenneth Shepsle note, ‘negative voting occurs when voters respond more strongly to political actions or outcomes that they oppose than to comparable actions or outcomes they favour’. When people’s energies are harnessed so negatively, the will to fight for something new and positive diminishes. That is why when getting rid of the Tories or stopping the RN becomes an end in itself, politics loses the capacity to actually make meaningful changes.

Even worse, negative voting prevents the public from being able to choose between political alternatives. Certainly in France, the government that will be eventually formed will be the result of behind-the-scenes horse-trading rather than a reflection of the will of the people.

Above all, negative politics reinforces political polarisation. In the case of France, opponents of the RN did not simply want to defeat their enemy. They also wanted to entrench the already deeply divided political landscape and ensure that the issues the RN built its platform on – such as opposing mass migration – are firmly designated as taboo.

This may have succeeded in the short term, but it will have long-term consequences. In order to impose a cordon sanitaire around the RN, the parties in the highly heterogeneous NFP coalition had to temporarily put their political differences aside. When politics is placed ‘on hold’ in this way, centrist, ‘expert-led’ governance tends to follow. As a result, democracy becomes emptied of its representative content and the rule of a technocratic oligarchy prevails.

When negative voting dominates, democracy loses its essence. Elections become contests between the lesser of two evils, stifling substantive debate and hindering real change. Our democratic institutions are at serious risk of becoming empty shells.

Frank Furedi is the executive director of the think-tank, MCC-Brussels.

Pictures by: Getty.

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Topics Politics World


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