File picture: Timothy Bernard

Abstaining from voting or spoiling one’s ballot paper should never be considered, says Eusebius McKaiser.

Johannesburg - At my book launch the other night in Cape Town, a gentleman in the front row asked me a fascinating question. Let’s call him John.

As is often the case with live public discussions (and the reason why I love them to bits), John cut through my soliloquy on liberalism, “Eusebius, I’m a liberal. I don’t think this DA is liberal. Which party should I vote for if I am a liberal and don’t want to vote DA?”

Isn’t that a delicious question? I was caught off guard, like a politician busted by Thuli Madonsela. And eventually I settled for a gut response that requires further thought, “There is no party in South Africa for true liberals.”

If I am right, what must this voter do? Abstain from voting? Spoil his ballot? No party, after all, reflects his political ideology. John is politically homeless.

John reminded me of a debate I had about abstentions with a friend of mine the week before. Call him Abdul. He, too, told me that he is thinking of abstaining. In the best-case scenario, he was thinking of voting but spoiling his ballot. He is not a liberal. He is a traditional ANC voter but thinks this current ANC leadership doesn’t deserve his vote, yet the other parties don’t reflect his own Marxist approach to politics.

Abdul, too, is politically homeless. Or perhaps his situation is a little more disappointing: he’s not so much homeless as disillusioned with his home’s current state. But he isn’t prepared to vote for any of the parties that are alternatives to the ANC.

And he had thought this through. “I want to know that when I vote for party X, I am positively endorsing what it stands for, and what it wants to promote in Parliament in terms of policy,” he said. “I refuse to vote tactically. Yet the party I identify with, the ANC, doesn’t deserve my vote. Not in its current state. If only we had a ‘none of the above’ option,” he concluded.

Should John and Abdul abstain from voting? Should they vote but spoil their ballot? Should they lobby the government to include a ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot for future elections? I think the answer is ‘no’ to each of these three questions.

The advantage of abstaining, or spoiling your ballot, is that it most accurately reflects your disaffection with the available political choices. So if you place a very high premium on political preferences strictly tracking your deepest feelings about the current parties, then abstaining or spoiling a ballot make sense.

I concede the coherence of the argument, but a coherent argument isn’t necessarily a compelling one.

Here’s the problem. The brute constitutional truth is that a government will be in place after May 7 with legal power to enact laws and policies, and John and Abdul will be forced to comply with those policies, such as the e-tolling system, whether they like it or not.

You don’t escape legal liability just because you abstained or spoilt your ballot. The idiots – from John’s and Abdul’s perspective – who get into Parliament and the cabinet will have the legal right to affect your life. That is fact. That is their job.

Given this very elementary truth about the government, it is best to abandon your desire to have your feelings about the horrible choices on the ballot expressed in the form of an abstention or a spoilt ballot. Because, whether voter turnout is 80 percent or 60 percent, a government will be formed that will have legal power even if it lacks absolute political or moral credibility.

So it is a hollow victory for the disillusioned crowd to be able to say “The voter turnout is low! You have power but no political authority!” There won’t be a rerun of the election. That would fall on deaf political ears.

The same consequences follow if you had the choice of indicating “none of the above”. There will still be 400 MPs with law-making powers. Sure, we would at least con- firm what disaffected voters think (and in that regard, by the way, spoiling your ballot is more useful than not voting), but this will not stop a government from being formed. Only researchers will be chuffed, playing with the new data.

It seems to be that it is most sensible, therefore, for John and Abdul to ask themselves a different question: “If a gun was put against my head and I had to choose one of the parties on the ballot paper, who would I give legal power to?” Vote for that party.

Abstaining or spoiling your ballot won’t stop the buggers from wielding huge power over you in terms of health, education, economic and other policies. You may as well decide who your governing party should be even if it’s premised on choosing the least bad option.

* Eusebius McKaiser is the author of Could I Vote DA? A Voter’s Dilemma.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star