-OpEd-

BOGOTA — As Colombia prepares for a second round of presidential elections, with voters facing two rather divisive candidates, many are arguing that casting blank votes undermines democracy. This idea is reminiscent of the old days, when certain people were simply not allowed to vote. But this time, it is not an explicit prohibition but one weighted by the subtle arrogance of those who like to lay claim to "the truth."

A range of arguments are employed to convince every single citizen to force themselves to choose and cast a vote for either Iván Duque, an ultra conservative, or Gustavo Petro, the socialist former mayor of Bogota.

These "right-minded" people forget that the blank ballot is a clear expression of a citizen's will, a protest even, before the choice of these two particular candidates. The one who votes for the "least bad" candidate or against a possible "dictatorship" is no braver than one who says 'no,' not once, but twice to unacceptable candidates.

That which crushes liberty is despotism.

Critics of the blank vote call it an immoral or irresponsible choice in the face of the country's future. Yet it is their arguments that are closer to authoritarianism, to the very candidate they say must be fought to prevent the return of ultra-conservative rule, than to the democracy and pluralism they tout so much. Imposing personal criteria steeped in value judgment not only disrespects voters' autonomy and the individual's right to choose, but precisely shows how moral arguments are the basis for and facilitators of the notorious tyranny of majorities.

The vote as we know, like most rights, is a social acquisition. But its value disappears when the elector feels constrained when exercising it. The English political philosopher John Stuart Mill believed such situations were themselves threats to liberty, and that imposing a way of thinking by invoking noble goals threatened political liberty. Whatever "crushes individuality," he wrote in On Liberty, "is despotism, by whatever name it may be called."

Casting a blank vote is not to vote for Duque as many insist, with arguments that sound like blackmail. Nor is it to wash your hands of a dilemma as others say, or even to put the country's peace at risk as others warn more boldly, claiming the atrocities of civil war will return unless you vote for Petro.

Let us be emphatic: Casting a blank ballot is in itself not an expression of approval of one or the other candidate, but a veritable right of a citizen. To deny this is to negate democracy as a deliberative exercise. The person who votes for neither candidate is not without arguments, but rather someone how expresses their utter dismay and dissatisfaction with what is on offer. In Colombia's case, both presidential options will deepen existing tensions and takes us back, through different paths, to the same place of conflict we only recently managed to escape.


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