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Asia

India tests the 'thumbs down' vote

Indian voters recently won the right to register their disapproval against all candidates standing for elections. But experts say the provision of 'negative voting' won't clean up the country's political system.

On November 25, when people in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh cast their votes to elect a new legislative assembly, they had, for the first time, the option to reject all the candidates standing in the elections by choosing the "none of the above" or NOTA option, which was made available to all the voters in the South Asian nation after a recent ruling by the country's top court.

In its directive to the Election Commission issued on September 27, the Supreme Court of India argued that the provision would help transform the nation's politics by putting more pressure on political parties to put forward candidates with a clean image. The bench headed by Chief Justice P. Sathasivam was quoted by the BBC as saying: "Democracy is all about choices and voters will be empowered by this right of negative voting."

Milan Vaishnav, a South Asia expert at US-based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that one of the principal motives behind this decision was to allow citizens to exercise the right to participate in the electoral process without feeling compelled to vote for candidates they don't support.

No 'right to reject'

The provision of negative voting has been widely hailed as a landmark ruling with the potential to transform Indian elections. However, analysts warn that it will not lead to any major changes in the system.

An Indian Muslim voter shows his ink-stained finger at a polling station in Mumbai on October 13, 2009. (Photo: Getty Images)

NOTA gives Indians the right to vote without feeling compelled to elect candidates they don't support

"NOTA is different from a 'right-to-reject' system, where if 'none of the above' is the largest vote-getter, no candidate will be declared the winner and a fresh election will be called. In this way, it is a disappointment to many good government campaigners because it will not have a substantial impact on 'cleansing' political outcomes," Vaishnav told DW.

Indian politician Jayaprakash Narayan regards NOTA as a significant step that will make the country's democracy a little more transparent. However, the leader of the Lok Satta Party is of the opinion that the provision will not lead to the disqualification of candidates, as "there is no way a significant number of voters will reject all the candidates.

And especially in India's highly polarized political environment, people generally will always find some candidate to be better than others, depending on their own proclivities," he argued.

Fielding 'better' candidates?

Politicians in India are generally regarded in poor light due to corruption scandals. According to the New Delhi-based Association for Democratic Reforms, a third of the current members of parliament have criminal cases pending against them.

Many hoped that the introduction of NOTA would result in political parties fielding "better" candidates, but experts point out that the new provision has so far failed to do so. "In fact, in several states we see that the number of contestants with criminal records is larger now than it was during the last election in 2008 and the number of candidates with 'serious' cases has also gone up in 2013," Vaishnav said.

Nevertheless, Narayan believes this electoral option could encourage more people, "who are totally dejected by the political system and therefore are staying away, to come to the polls and vote."

Crucial state elections

India is currently holding key polls in five states - Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Delhi, Rajasthan, and Mizoram. And their results - due on December 8 - might have a big impact on the next general election, which is set to take place in May 2014.

Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India's main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), addresses a rally in the northern Indian city of Agra November 21, 2013. (Photo: Reuters)

Experts say the outcome of the state elections will be seen as referenda on the leading prime ministerial candidates

According to political analysts, whenever state polls are held in India less than two years before the national election, the results typically coincide. The parties winning the majority of seats at the state level usually end up repeating the feat at the national level.

South Asia analyst Vaishnav notes that although the outcome of the elections will be determined largely by local factors, there is little doubt that the results will be interpreted as "referenda on the two leading prime ministerial candidates - Rahul Gandhi of the ruling Congress Party and Narendra Modi of the opposition BJP."

Moreover, there seems to be "a very strong anti-establishment view and disenchantment with the ruling party in Delhi," Narayan told DW. "Therefore, if the ruling coalition loses the current state elections, then that could presage a change of guard at the national level."

Do you think it is useful to be able to cast a negative vote? Tell us what you think!

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