Low voter turnout doesn't mean citizens less active in politics - IIDEA

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) on Tuesday announced that around 12.2 million people voted in Monday’s elections out of the 26.2 million registered voters.

Voters queue at a voting station on 1 November 2021. Picture: Theto Mahlakoana/Eyewitness News

JOHANNESBURG - As the country waits for the final count of the vote to be announced, political experts said that while the voter turnout figures were a concern so far, there were misconceptions that needed to be corrected.

The Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) on Tuesday announced that around 12.2 million people voted in Monday’s elections out of the 26.2 million registered voters.

While this spells a serious decline, with some calling it a crisis, some analysts said that it was not all new to South Africa.

Voter turnout has been declining globally since the 1980s, with scholars and others in the political arena warning that it is bad for democracy.

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Several studies show that it usually means socio-economically underprivileged citizens vote less and as a result, public policies benefit the rich.

This scenario is emerging in South Africa, with the suburban voters keenly taking part in the elections while township and rural voters stayed away in the majority.

Ebrahim Fakir is the director of programmes at the Auwal Socio-economic Research Institute (ASRI): "It also sharpens the social contradictions in the society, so class formation starts to take on a whole new dynamic and when you are a society like South Africa, it means that those on the wrong side of inequality divide, remain on the wrong side of the inequality divide in perpetuity and there's very little chance for them to cross over."

He added that if the final numbers, despite the gloomy projections, peaked at 45-48%, this would be comparatively reasonable.

"It's actually going back to pre-2000 and 2016 levels because in 2011 and the local government elections, the voter turnout was 48%, so if it's close to 45% now then it is comparatively reasonable and compared to other countries in the world for a local government or municipal election, that's quite a high level of voter turnout."

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance said that lower participation in elections did not necessarily mean that citizens were becoming less active in politics.

It added that on the contrary – as seen in South Africa – the rise of other forms of activism such as mass protests and increased use of social media as a new platform of political engagement put serious pressure on governments and the way traditional political parties functioned.