Disillusioned voters wonder if democracy is broken
Australians headed to the polls on Saturday and narrowly avoided voting in a sixth prime minister in as many years. Meanwhile, in 28 countries across Europe, voters ready themselves to elect Members of the European Parliament. In an anomaly, UK citizens will have to vote as well, in spite of their country being slated to leave the EU.
In Germany, it took more than six months to build a coalition, which is fractious to say the least. Italy’s new coalition brought to power the right-wing League and the left-wing populist Five Star Movement. The Czech Republic, Poland and famously Hungary are led by right-wing populists. They also stand to fare well in France, Holland, Denmark and Sweden during the upcoming elections for the EU Parliament.
Across the pond, another populist, Donald Trump, started a movement and turned the Republican Party upside down — beyond recognition for many of its traditional members. He also challenges on a daily basis the democratic institutions of the country, which are framed by the constitution. This has evoked a strong reaction on the left, with phenomena like socialist Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez with her Green New Deal. Indeed, the count of Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential election stands at 23. More are waiting in the wings.
In Britain, Brexit has split the traditional parties right down the middle, so much so that both the prime minister and the leader of the opposition do not know which way to turn, and both have opted to put party before country on more than one occasion. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn failed to come out on either side of the Brexit debate because it was safer in terms of holding the party together. In the meantime, two new parties have been formed: Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party and Change UK. The latter is made up of Remainers who split from their respective parties in dismay and who want a second referendum. The Brexit Party in particular stands to do well in the elections to the EU Parliament — an anachronism. Theresa May’s fumbled handling of Brexit will see her leave 10 Downing Street as early as early June or July. It is all but certain that there will be widespread outrage when her successor as prime minister is chosen by the narrow confines of the 100,000-strong Conservative Party membership.
All of the above brings one question to the fore: Is democracy broken?
There is deep discontent among many in the traditional democracies as they feel left out both economically and socially.
The concept of democracy is that canvassing the whole population should ensure a just form of government, guaranteeing a certain level of stability — precisely because it involves a participatory process. Such is the theory. However, there is deep discontent among many in the traditional democracies as they feel left out both economically and socially. This can, in part, be explained by the fact that the divide between rich and poor has never been this big and is growing. No wonder then that many opt to vote for outliers to the right or the left, who challenge the status quo and with it democratically formed institutions and values.
These voters wonder if the elites inside the Beltway or in the Westminster bubble can understand the daily struggle of average families. The protagonists of many of the so-called “peoples parties” have lost touch with their base — be they the Christian Democrats or Social Democrats in Germany, the Tories or Labour in Britain, or the Democrats or traditional Republicans in the US. In come the populists such as Trump, Farage or Viktor Orban. They portray themselves as ordinary people, which they are not. They also tell voters that they have their concerns at heart. This may hold true as long as they agree with their views, but try to be a minority, an immigrant or have a different belief system and these “men of the people” (or woman in the case of Marine Le Pen) share a lack of tolerance for anything that crosses their core beliefs. However, it is tolerance and a plurality of opinions that are the hallmark of any democracy.
Looking at current developments, democracy as we know it may well be under threat. In the words of Sir Winston Churchill, “democracy is the worst form of government except for all the others.” He had a point. Therefore, we need to take care of the institutions that balance power and endeavor to ensure equitable participation of all in the political process, for it is still the best bet we have for an inclusive and just society.
- Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources