Since 2007, Europe has been engulfed in a deep economic crisis aptly dubbed by some as the Great Recession. The effects of this crisis are still playing out because the crisis has not ended yet. However, the fallout has been profound and its ramifications far-reaching. Trust in political parties, the most basic institution of representative democracy, is dangerously low (see figure below). No country in the European Union (EU) can boast having a majority of citizens that trust parties.
Europeans have used the ballot box to vent their anger and to punish the national political elites — and the parties they run — for their inability to effectively manage the crisis. Yet, despite the spectacular growth of the Golden Dawn in Greece and the advances of the Front National in France, extreme right or Eurosceptic parties have not been the main beneficiaries of the crisis so far. In fact, with few exceptions (i.e. Greece and France), extreme right parties have fared the worst in regions hit particularly hard by the crisis, thus casting serious doubt on the “economic crisis breeds extremism” thesis.
So, what has happened on the electoral front in Europe? Surely someone must have paid the price at the ballot box for the financial calamity that was unleashed in Europe?
There is strong evidence that ruling parties have gotten most of the blame for the economic crisis and have seen the largest drop in support by voters in Europe. Staying true to form (Roberts, 2008), citizens of central and eastern European (CEE) countries have been particularly vengeful against incumbent parties in the first round of elections since the crisis began.
Extreme right parties have seen only a very modest increase in support in Europe. By some estimates, the crisis has led to only one per cent increase in the average regional vote share of such parties. The ascendance of these parties predates the crisis and extends all the way back to the 1980s. So, the populist and Eurosceptic backlash that we see in many countries did not originate during the crisis.
There is no question that the Golden Dawn and the Front National have gained much traction because of the severity of the crisis in Greece and France respectively. But the spectacular rise of the Finns Party (formerly the True Finns), for example, cannot be attributed to the crisis in Finland, because this country was largely spared from the worst of it. It might be too early to tell, but when one looks at the average gain of extreme right parties in Europe as a whole, it is safe to say that the advance of such parties has been limited so far.
Extremely low levels of trust
So, who has benefited the most from the crisis then? The general answer seems to be the newcomers to the political scene — parties that have only recently entered the electoral arena . This trend is much more pronounced in the CEE countries than in Western Europe, but Beppe Grillo’s MoVimento Cinque Stelle is a reminder that a major party system shake-up is possible even in a core EU country. What does this mean for democracy?
There is a widespread realization that liberal democracy is under significant stress. Given the extremely low levels of trust in and support for democratic institutions across the board, one might wonder about the tenability of democracy itself. What Europe has going for itself today, which puts it in stark contrast to the Europe of the 1930s, is the fact that there is no viable alternative to democracy in sight. No leader or party has been able to clearly formulate an alternative political system that would more effectively deal with the crisis. In fact, even the most Eurosceptic parties anchor their claim for national sovereignty on the idea of popular control of government and self-rule. The intentions of such parties might not be palatable to mainstream liberal Europe, but their challenge is a serious one.
Mainstream parties in Europe have a difficult task ahead. The good news for them is that, despite much talk about the “democratic deficit” at the EU level, the majority of Europeans trust the EU. The bad news is that Europeans, on average, trust their national governments much less than they trust the EU (Ceka, 2013). This lack of trust in national governments is a difficult conundrum for a particular reason.
European integration has resulted in the transferring of increasingly more powers to the EU level over time. This, in turn, has significantly contributed to depoliticization in Europe and to the “hollowing out” of national political competition (Mair, 2005:12). The movement towards a closer fiscal union will only make this problem more acute and will further restrain the ever-shrinking policy-making leeway of national leaders. Given the importance of trust for shielding leaders from the short-term fallout of policies, how are national leaders to gain more trust with increasingly fewer policy tools at their disposal?
It is very easy to be cynical
One possible consequence of chronic low levels of trust in political parties and national governments is party-system instability and a hyper-accountability seen in much of CEE (Roberts, 2008). In other words, voters will continue to mercilessly punish ruling parties and leaders that are seen as ineffective in handling the crisis.
So, what options do mainstream parties have in this situation? I would argue that there are two strategies that need to be pursued simultaneously. First, a historic trade deal with the U.S. holds the promise of bringing much-needed growth to Europe, and European leaders should pursue this goal unabashedly, wrapping up the negotiations quickly. Second, and this is more profound, leaders need to really think hard about involving citizens more in policy-making at all levels of government. This is a clichéd call, but it is now more urgent than ever before.
Leaving aside the obvious normative considerations for the desirability of such a strategy, I would argue that parties have much to gain practically as well. It is very easy for average citizens to be cynical about politics and to distrust politicians if they are not faced with the tradeoffs that politicians face on daily basis. Thus, average citizens need to feel that they have a stake in the policies that are made on their behalf and should be given a chance to experience first-hand the tradeoffs involved. Deliberative democracy and other forms of participatory democracy hold the promise of doing exactly this.
Representative democracy took thousands of years
For practical reasons, it would be much easier to involve citizens in local politics where face-to-face contact is more easily attainable. At the EU level, I believe that technology can be leveraged to create virtual channels for continued and meaningful participation that goes beyond referenda and opinion polls. The very nature of political participation has been changing for some time now and we need to be more creative about opening up space for meaningful participation.
One should not forget that it took thousands of years for us to come up with representative democracy, and that we had to do this because of the increasing scale of political communities. The Athenians invented the kleroterion for their participatory form of democracy. We need to invent our own political technology to bring people closer to decision-making and to enhance our institutions of representative democracy!