Representative politics in an era of everyday mobilisation

" The problem is not populism. The problem is when mainstream parties adopt the ideology of populism."  A report-back from the World Forum for Democracy 2017 closing session.

Fernando Casal Bértoa
1 December 2017

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with workers in downtown Montreal, Canada in February 2016. Kadri Mohamed/Press Association. All rights reserved.openDemocracy is a media partner of the World Forum for Democracy 2017: the subject this year is 'populism'. In the run-up to that event in early November, we asked what kind of politics and media we need "to re-connect to citizens, make informed choices and function optimally in 21st century democracy." Fernando Casal Bértoa was one of three rapporteurs summing up the debate in the event's closing session. He focused on the health of representative democracy.

Good morning everyone. I would like to start my intervention with a personal experience that I hope echoes your feelings about this Forum. I came here with pessimism, worrying about the victory of the populists in the Czech Republic, considered to be one of the most stable democracies in post-Communist Europe; and the rise of populist forces in Germany which we thought was vaccinated against these kinds of political movements. But after two and a half days of constructive debate, interesting ideas and meeting active, motivated people old and young, I have ended up in a more optimistic frame of mind. If you will allow me to say so, paraphrasing Karl Marx, we are more prepared than I had thought to combat this spectre haunting Europe which is called populism.

Having said that, these two days and a half convinced me that we do need not only to worry about populism, but also to enquire into the causes of populism and what has caused this rise in populism. It was clear in all the labs and all the sessions I attended that this is about a distance opening up between the citizens and their political systems: people are voting less, people participate less, and identify less with political parties. And it is this clear political gap that has been exploited by the populists. Trust in institutions is very low. Any survey that you look at, you will see that the government, parliaments and political parties are always at the low end of the graph. Of course this creates a danger for representative democracy, which is what I want to concentrate on in my report-back.

Opening up traditional political parties

Many different sessions I attended have proposed different ways of how to improve the institutions and processes of representative democracy. I would like to distinguish between two blocks of these, if I may, on the one hand the reform of traditional parties, and on the other the creation of alternatives to political parties, other ways to perform decision-making in our representative democracies.

It is clear from yesterday’s discussions that there is an urgent need for parties to open up! To come down from their ivory towers and to listen to people in a process of mutual learning: quite simply, to be more responsive. Because at the end of the day it is the lack of representation that has led to the rise of populist parties. It is clear from yesterday’s discussions that there is an urgent need for parties to open up!

Populism we have heard it said is the consequence of “the failure of parties and politicians to deliver”.  How then can we improve this situation? From Greece, Spain, Argentina, we have heard many proposals based on the necessity of creating open citizens’ assemblies and being more active at the local level especially. In particular, the use of technology and online presentation has been recommended, because the deployment of these tools to fight populism is seen as essential. Political parties should be aware of what these tools can do. On the first day, Stéphane Dion described Prime Minister Trudeau as a kind of social media superman fighting the battle against populism.

Parties and politicians simply need to be aware that we have moved from periodic democracy, voting every four or five years, to everyday political information and mobilisation. And we have heard of some very important initiatives in the direction of increasing inner-party democracy; ways to involve not just party members, but supporters and sympathisers; even ways to circumvent party lists, for example those closed lists in my country Spain, which do not allow for much elective choice. Once in government, online practises and participation also allow people to hold political parties to account and check up on what they are doing, to have a say on their policies, to increase transparency. The idea is to increase participation and also to increase trust. Because at the end of the day, corruption and lack of trust is the platform from which populism has benefited most. However, we should be aware that there are also many challenges along this route. These were discussed in many of the labs starting with the fact that the use of technology for the sake of it will not bring any benefits!

Citizens need to know that their participation has an impact and parties have to show this when using technology. Access and participation needs to be made both simple and personal. This too is important so that citizens feel that their voices are heard. This participation, those online debates, need to be on the one hand moderated, in order to avoid those determined to boycott the process, and also have the intervention of experts to explain what is really the case as opposed to all the trolling and the fake news.

They need to be representative and pre-empt what we heard yesterday from an organisation that discovered that its debates had been entirely dominated by middle class males. We have to open up to gender quality, different classes, to urban and rural participation, to name but a few.

Regulation in this context is very important and international organisations can really help too: the Venice Commission, ODIHR, GRECO: we had a lab on this yesterday.

Reforming representative democracy

The other bloc of initiatives that were posed – let’s say – as an alternative to this reform of traditional political parties, constituting more of a reform of representative democracy as such, included the idea of platform parties to bring together abstainers, protesting voters, discontented politicians, those who are alienated from traditional politics – those who might in the absence of such an opportunity be drawn towards the populist parties. This was very interesting, since  it could bring together all those diverse opposition parties who nevertheless have a common enemy, and in Hungary, Poland, and elsewhere are striving to reintroduce democracy into their political systems. Coalitions of diverse parties, all those opposed to Brexit for example in the UK, could serve the same function. In all cases this might indeed help to combat the rise of populist parties.

On the other hand, there are initiatives to further open up political choices, like we heard this morning from the campaign for negative voting, valorative  voting – the chance not only to vote against but to have different choices… leading to increased participation and consensus, and more compromise candidates and parties, increasing in turn voter satisfaction and reducing extremism and polarisation. This again contains many challenges, and the need to modernise the technology that is available for this.

One thing we should take into account, is that all these initiatives which undoubtedly lead to the strengthening of democratic institutions, and which precisely in this sense strike at the very basis of populism, which as we heard on the very first day of the Forum, is aimed at the destruction of democratic institutions ­ – these initiatives all require time and education and learning, which brings me to my third point.

Civic education

From an early age we have to take care of this. We heard on the first day that 26% of young people are willing to participate actively in our political parties and willing to vote. But the problems set in before they reach eighteen. How can we develop critical thinking that would allow them to cope with misinformation and avoid the simplistic answers of populists to complex questions? We hear of initiatives that encourage young voters through small steps, to build social capital and increase participation.

But as Augustine Magolowondo, the Africa Regional Representative of the Netherlands Institute for Multiparty Democracy said, civic education should also be led by political parties. They should lead by example, know how to take constructive criticism, and be balanced in their political discourse. Take the issue of migration. Political parties should be presenting people with the positive effects and aspects of migration, so that it doesn’t just turn into ‘the problem’ of migration that drives support for populists. Political parties should be presenting people with the positive effects and aspects of migration, so that it doesn’t just turn into ‘the problem’ of migration that drives support for populists.

My final point, as was said by Boriss Cilevičs, Latvian MP and member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe: “The problem is not populism. The problem is when mainstream parties adopt the ideology of populism.” Because at the end of the day, when we talk about Trump and about Brexit, we have to admit that without the help of the traditional mainstream parties, the US Republican Party, the UK Conservative Party, their success would not be possible.

With some academic license I will end with E.E. Schattschneider, a famous political scientist, said in 1942 that, "The political parties created democracy and modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of the parties." I would only add today the proviso, “Healthy, healthy parties.” And in my view, the fact that in the Forum’s Participative Assembly, we witnessed a victory for those for citizen involvement in a proposing a legislative agenda to parliaments is a clear sign that out there, there is still faith in parties.

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