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Abstention is a term in election procedure for when a participant in a vote either does not go to vote (on election day) or, in parliamentary procedure, is present during the vote, but does not cast a ballot. Abstention must be contrasted with "blank vote", in which a participant in a vote cast a deliberately unlegitimate vote (drawing pictures on the ballot, etc.) or in which he simply casts a blank vote: a "blank (or white) voter" has voted, although his vote may be considered a spoilt vote, depending on each legislation, while an abstentionnist hasn't voted. Both forms (abstention and blank vote) may or may not, depending on the circumstances, be considered as protest vote.

An abstention may be used to indicate the voting individual's ambivalence about the measure, or mild disapproval that does not rise to the level of active opposition. Abstention can also be used when someone has a certain position about an issue, but since the popular sentiment supports the opposite, it might be not be politically expedient to vote according to his or her conscience. A person may also abstain when they do not feel adequately informed about the issue at hand, or has not participated in relevant discussion. In parliamentary procedure, a member may be required to abstain in the case of a real or perceived conflict of interest.

Abstentions do not count in tallying the vote negatively or positively; when members abstain, they are in effect only attending the meeting to aid in constituting a quorum, which in turn means that those who abstain still effect the general number of people in quorum. White votes, however, may be counted in the total of votes, depending on the legislation. In some countries, some activist groups advocates the counting of white votes and plain abstentions in the total result of vote as a way of displaying the percentage of people opposed to all parliamentary options.


A specific case: Election of Japan’s Yukiya Amano as the IAEA Director General

The 35-member IAEA Board of Governors on July 2, 2009 and selected Ambassador Yukiya Amano of Japan as IAEA Director General. The Board met at IAEA headquarters in Vienna.

The Board held six polls in Vienna before Amano took the necessary two-thirds majority of voting members to be considered its selection, and that came with the help of an abstention. The board had already met three times before in its attempts to resolve the matter of who will lead the agency after Mohamed Elbaradei steps down on 30 November.

July 2, 2009 started with a three-way vote between Amano, Abdul Samad Minty and Luis Echávarri in which Amano won 20 votes; Minty, 10; and Echavarri, 5. After that, Echávarri was eliminated to leave the two long-time contenders to battle it out again. Three more votes this morning all had the same result: Amano with 23 votes - just one short of the required majority - and Minty with 12 votes. In the afternoon a 'yes/no' vote was held on Amano who again won 23 votes. However, the abstention of one board member lowered the barrier enough for the 23 votes to represent a two-thirds majority[1][2]

A specific case: the 2002 French presidential election

During the second round of the 2002 French presidential election, French citizens could vote for either Jacques Chirac (leader of the right-wing UMP) or Jean-Marie Le Pen (leader of the far-right National Front). The left-wing, usually represented by the three main parties Socialist Party, Communist Party and Greens, were beaten in the first turn by Chirac and Le Pen.

Citizens had in fact four different options:

  • either vote for Chirac, as Chirac's party and most of the left-wing parties called for. This is what 82.21% of the people who voted a legitimate vote did, not counting abstention nor White votes;
  • vote for Le Pen, as his followers called for, or as some rare advocates of the politique du pire ("politics of the worst") called for, hoping this would lead to a serious political crisis (17.79% of the people who voted a legitimate vote chose Le Pen);
  • true abstention (not going to vote, which 20.29% of the people did);
  • blank vote (going to vote but deliberately sending a blank ballot or a ballot with drawings, graffiti, etc.: 5.39% of the people who cast a ballot did this).

Thus, during the two turns of the election, some left-wing radicals had called for a massive abstention and/or a massive white votes: instead of giving 82.21% to Chirac against 17.79% to Le Pen at the second turn, they would have rather counted a mass of left-wing "white votes" which would have put into question the whole democratic legitimacy of the election. Under actual French legislation, nothing would have happened since abstentionists and blank votes are not tallied — Chirac wasn't elected with 82.21% support from the French population, but with 82.21% support from the people who went to vote and didn't cast a "white" vote.

National procedures

In the United States Congress and many other legislatures, members may vote "present" rather than for or against a bill or resolution, which has the effect of an abstention.

In the United Nations Security Council, representatives of the five countries holding a veto power (including the United States, United Kingdom, France, Russia and the People's Republic of China) sometimes abstain rather than vetoing a measure about which they are less than enthusiastic, particularly if the measure otherwise has broad support. By convention, their abstention does not block the measure, despite the wording of Article 27.3 of the United Nations Charter. If a majority of members of the United Nations General Assembly or one of its committees abstain on a measure, then the measure fails.

In the Council of the European Union, an abstention on a matter decided by unanimity is in effect a yes vote; on matters decided by qualified majority it is in effect a no vote.

Abstention Campaigns

There have been a number of instances around the world where popular movements have boycotted elections.

In South Africa, there is a strong presence of abstention campaigns that make the structural argument that no political party truly represents the poor. The "No Land! No House! No Vote!" Campaign which was started by the Landless Peoples Movement in 2004, is the largest of such campaigns.[3][4] These campaigns have been met with significant repression.[5]

Other social movements and civil society organisations in other parts of the world also have similar campaigns or non-voting preferences. These include the Naxalites in India, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation in Mexico and various anarchist oriented movements. In Mexico's mid term 2009 elections there was strong support for 'Nulo' - a campaign to vote for no one.[6][7][8] In India poor people's in movements Singur, Nandigram and Lalgarh have rejected parliamentary politics (as well as the NGO and Maoist alternatives).[9]

See also




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