May 7, 2012

The Problem with European Democracy

This week's elections in Britain, France and Greece have continued to follow a dangerous trend. Since the crisis in 2008, European elections have begun to resemble a merry go round - with incumbents being kicked out by dissatisfied populations only to, within a matter of months, become just as unpopular as their predecessors. At the same time, the vote for anti-establishment parties, and those on the far right and left, has increased dramatically. Meanwhile, in Russia, Putin will be sworn in today as president. Western journalists, politicians and academics have voiced strong criticism of the way he was chosen. One of the main criticisms of Putin's election was the absence of viable opposition candidates. Many Europeans seem to question whether they have any viable candidates at all. And that's the problem with European democracy. 
Britain - Labour just thumped the incumbent Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties at the Ballot box, despite having presided over the spending spree which left us with such a massive national debt, and then spent the last two years criticizing almost every measure the government takes to tackle it, while offering almost nothing in the way of alternative ideas. On top of that, they have a leader, Ed Miliband, who, rather like the leaders of the Russian opposition, is trusted by very few to run the country. 
France - Francois Hollande just became the first Socialist President of France for 35 years. He used his victory speech to declare that “austerity can no longer be the only option”. Indeed, despite a pledge to wipe out France’s enormous debt by 2017, almost all his manifesto promises involve spending more money - like his promise to employ 60 000 new teachers and to reduce the pension age for some back to 60, when most European countries are raising it to 67. His main policy for reducing the deficit seems to be “tax the rich”, whom he admits that he “does not like”. His proposed 75% tax rate on those earning more than 1 million Euros is expected not only to make very little money but also to encourage more and more French businessmen to spend their money, and possibly to move their businesses, to London or Switzerland. On top of this, he’s never held national office, so, again like the Russian opposition, he is an unknown. But, when the alternative is one of the most disliked Presidents the Fifth Republic has ever had, the French were willing to take the risk. 
Francois Hollande - "Change is now". It probably won't be for the better.
Greece - Democracy may have been founded in Athens, but now many Greeks are very disillusioned by the leaders their democracy has left them with. In the first election after the crisis the incumbent party, the centre right New Democracy, which governed during the unsustainable boom years, were heavily punished, losing 61 seats to the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK). However, things haven’t got any better since then, and so in this weekend’s elections the Greeks put PASOK out of their misery, They lost 119 seats and their share of the vote dropped by over 30%. However, not many of their votes went to New Democracy, who, nevertheless, will be the main party in the next coalition government. Most went to extreme parties on the right and left. Syriza, a coalition of hyper socialists and communists got 16%, making them the second biggest party. The far right also got 8%. 
Meanwhile, ever since the 2008 Financial crisis the only real requirement for winning an election seems to be being an opposition party or candidate. Since then in Britain, Ireland, Spain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal and Greece (twice) incumbents have been kicked out and replaced by alternatives who, as a rule, are just as unpopular within two years as their predecessors were. Even in Germany, where Angela Merkel remains reasonably popular the vote share of alternative parties like the Greens and, most recently, the Pirate Party has rocketed. 
In fact, possibly the only incumbent leader to remain popular despite imposing austerity measures is Mario Monti, the unelected technocrat now leading Italy. His competence and consequent popularity, especially when compared with the leader Italy’s democratic system provided (Silvio Berlusconi) and, indeed, all the opposition candidates, challenges the notion that electoral democracy according to a party system is always the best system of Government.
The resounding message from this month’s round of European elections is that Europe is very dissatisfied with its politicians, political parties, political establishment, basically, with everything to do with politics. However, I haven’t heard anyone suggesting that the system itself, electoral democracy, might be part of the problem.
In democracies, governments are always burdened with an impossible task - they are expected to spend on defence, education, benefits, law and order, health etc while keeping taxes as low as possible. Voters usually seem to expect governments to do more with less, and punish them at the next election if they don’t. These unrealistic expectations, encouraged by the media and by campaign promises, are one big problem with our current political system. 
The second, however, is greater. It seems to me like our current system not only fails to enable the most qualified people from gaining high office, it discourages them from doing so. Unelected Mario Monti’s popularity in Italy, derived from his competence in government in contrast to the alternatives offered by political parties, would, I think, be repeated across Europe. Competent unelected politicians will always, I dare to suggest, be more popular than incompetent elected ones, and, if the last few years are anything to go by, Europe is pretty convinced that all its elected politicians are incompetent (Angela Merkel being the exception). 
The crisis in European politics is deep and it requires a radical solution. At the moment, unelected but competent technocratic governments like the one in Italy seem like an attractive alternative. Suffering Greeks might even prefer China’s model of government, by a 17 man Politburo which changes every 10 years, to their own, which offers them the choice between two terrible options. 
However, I’m not advocating getting rid of elections. When they work they ensure that politicians are accountable, they provide an outlet for opposition voices and they protect the rights of the majority from being overridden by an autocratic elite. 
At the moment though, they don’t work - when incumbents get kicked out at every single election they actually become less accountable - if you know you will lose anyway, you are free to do as you please. Opposition parties seem to have been released from the obligation to offer sensible ideas, and can win elections by simply criticizing everything that the Government does. At the same time, most Europeans feel that having the right to choose the politician or party they dislike the least doesn’t really mean that their voice is heard. 
So, if the Queen summoned me to draw up a new political system for the United Kingdom, I wouldn’t scrap elections, but I would like to change the way election candidates are chosen. At the moment, politics both attracts and then rewards a certain type of person. Of course there are exceptions, but very often people who are able to lie, to trample on others and to give up their own principles in order to tow the party line are rewarded. People with broad general knowledge are favored over those with expertise in a specific area. People with charisma are favored over those with intelligence or moral values. Independent thinkers, people with strongly held principles and those with great expertise in specific fields find it very difficult to “climb the greasy pole”, while career politicians, who devote as much time to student politics at university as they do to acquiring knowledge and then go straight into a politics-related job, often thanks to connections within a party, rise to the top and then find that they don’t have the necessary skills. 
Political parties, which we rely on to provide us with the best possible candidates for Government, are failing. However, viable alternatives, rather like truly viable opposition parties, are hard to find. In recent years, Europeans have turned in greater and greater numbers to ‘anti-politics’ parties and extremes on the right and left. It’s a dangerous trend, and one which might only be checked by something even more radical; the introduction of panels of experts to choose candidates, leaders held accountable by targets instead of the ballot box, a greater role for technocrats, in short, nothing less than the transformation of the whole political system. 


  1. Which is why the Lib Dem idea of an elected House of Lords is silly. Be all means reform it, but reform it to become a chamber of technocrats.

  2. First French President for 35 years? Check your facts mate...
    You seem to have an awful lot of opinions for someone that knows that little, especially about German or French politics.

    1. About French politics I said that Sarkozy was remarkably unpopular and listed some of Hollande's fanciful ideas. About German politics I said that Merkel remains reasonably popular while the support of alternative parties is growing rapidly. Let me know if any of these statements are wrong.

      And we're all entitled to our opinions, however much or little we might know. If mine are so unfounded, please point out where I've actually got my facts wrong wrong and I'll happily amend what I've written.

    2. You've picked up your first internet troll, Ben!

      Somewhere, in some sweaty armpit cesspit of a bedroom, a friendless, immature, acne-ridden shell of a human being sits before their laptop, basking in hiding behind the freedom and anonymity of the internet, where you can be as uninformed, arrogant, gutless and sniping as you like, without repercussion from those you secretly fear are better than you.

      Nicely done.

  3. First **Socialist** Party president for 17 years I believe (altho 31 years since Mitterand got elected)... for what it's worth though, I think Hollande is right - for too long we've been sold this conservative bulls**t about austerity and reducing spending and taxation. It's the same policies that right wing governements have always propagated (just that now they have a convenient excuse for it) but it's what got us into this mess. Given free reign, the unrgulated market will go into over-drive and money ends up in all the wrong places... High rates of taxation and public spending on the important things is the only way to fix this....look at all the Scandinavian market-socialist economies (or even the Chinese socialist based economy)...that's what we need to follow (although maybe not to the same extent), not this USA led free market idea as that has obviously failed us...

    Just my 2 always, excellent and interesting post Ben. Thanks :-D