As Czechs go to the polls, a new politics is emerging across Europe, variously populist and technocratic.
We can always learn more about the character, and the shortcomings, of modern representative democracies in times of elections. We can learn even more in between, when democratic accountability should actually be exercised. Taken together, we are able to learn what strategies political actors are pursuing to secure or stay in power and how they are legitimising their policy choices. Patterns are emerging however, common to different European Union democracies, indicating a new way of doing politics.
In the recent German elections, Olaf Scholz won on a message of dignity and respect for all workers, under the slogan Respekt für Dich (‘Respect for you’). The ‘you’ to whom this appeal was made was not ‘the others who think they are better’ but those many who felt under-acknowledged or treated with indignity, perhaps by the ‘others’, in modern society. This helped Scholz’s social democrats regain votes from the centre-right CDU/CSU union, rising above party politics.
In the Czech elections this weekend, the appeal is to give back to the people a country free-of-corruption (the Pirates) or to sustain the dominant party (ANO, the party ‘for everyone’) to that very end. In neither case is it however clear how this free-of-corruption status will be reached, after the election is over.
Indeed, Andrej Babiš, the fifth-richest man in the country named in recent days in the Pandora Papers, founded and financed the ANO movement fully a decade ago as an anti-corruption outfit—Akce nespokojených občanů (Action of Dissatisifed Citizens)—the acronym meaning ‘yes’ in Czech. His party first entered government in 2014 as a junior partner of the social democrats (ČSSD). After the 2017 election, ANO assumed the leading role, with the ČSSD in support. It’s evidence of the increasing fragmentation of a shared public sphere—in which the Pirates are also a factor—and the possible disappearance of the classic political struggle of diverse ideas and values in the Czech Republic.
These patterns are not however limited to Czechia. In Italy, the Five Star Movement (M5S), founded in 2009 by the comedian Beppe Grillo, started small online and had great success in the 2013 general elections. Five years later, led by the then 31-year-old Luigi Di Maio, it emerged as the largest party, while Matteo Salvini’s far-right Liga became the most popular force on the right.
There are many similarities between the M5S and the Pirates in the Czech Republic. Notable is the cultivation of a direct relationship between the leader and the morally pure ‘people’—the former supposedly embodying the latter—in opposition to the purportedly corrupt ‘elites’.
Anti-corruption rhetoric is very convenient for winning elections, in the absence of adequate understanding of what corruption actually is, what forms it may take in liberal-democratic systems and under which conditions it takes root. Very often, corrupt practices in the post-communist regimes of central and eastern Europe are represented as legacies of the past, while corruption scandals in western democracies may be dismissed as exceptions to the rule.
Political leaders can thereby bypass any serious approach towards corruption, specific to their country, addressing the deficits in the rule of the law and building the immunity of the state. While there are many different types of abuse—clientelism, patronage, tax evasion, revolving doors—most have in common exploitation of loopholes in the law, including where legislation has been adopted in the absence of proper public scrutiny.
In France, looking ahead to next year’s presidential elections, the Rassemblement National leader, Marine le Pen, is promising that ‘there will be no place in France where the law will not be applied’—although how she will achieve this is again less clear. In 2014, her party borrowed €9 million from the First Russian Czech bank, in preparation for her 2017 presidential run, when borrowing from a French one would have been rather more aligned with her stance of national preference against ‘the others’, resisting ‘uncontrolled globalisation’. In May, it emerged that the French anti-corruption office had concluded that the RN had been involved in an ‘organised system of fraud’ to appropriate European Parliament funds to pay party members.
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The victor in 2017, Emmanuel Macron, on the other hand, is projecting that politics can be a good investment, as long as the people are able to understand his logic and vision of doing it, aided by outsourced corporate consultancy. The justification of political decisions, however, is supposed to be evident to the public. The infiltration of ‘business’ logic into politics, not limited to France, instead allows supposed expertise to legitimise decisions made on behalf of—rather than stemming from—the citizens.
This symbiosis of economy and politics in the neoliberal democracies blurs the question of who is accountable to whom. Whether political leaders are making appeals to the morally pure ‘people’ or calling in aid supposedly neutral expertise—and advocates of the latter can be labelled ‘the elite’ by the former—they are using the same political logic, of ‘technopopulism’, which departs from the traditional struggle between left and right. Whether actual citizens own their laws, or these are rooted in social demands, is not so relevant for these ‘doers’ of modern politics.
The overall weakening of democratic processes in favour of a technocratic form of governance is not new: a gradual tightening of constraints on voters to influence policy- and decision-making was initiated by the abandonment in the 1970s of the post-war model of egalitarian capitalism. So the symbiosis of economy and politics has been matched by an expanding separation between politics and society.
National actors and democratic institutions however still hold the power to build a political culture of account-giving, to act as bridging ‘intermediary bodies’ between society and politics. Parliaments, party politics and the law-making process should be able to guarantee effective systems of checks and balances, access to public scrutiny and translation of political conclusions into public policies.
Executive dominance over legislatures, legitimised by a technocratic perspective, oversimplifies the policy challenges. And as long as parties continue to serve as voting machines for selecting and electing leaders, for personality-driven micro-politics, in the absence of real inner-party democracy, collective awareness and citizens’ capability for solving collective problems will remain restricted to the visions of the political leaders.
Accountability and transparency
At the core is the absence of accountability and transparency, with weakened relations between citizens and their societies. Citizens then retreat even further from political life and attachment to the political parties, leaving the latter to interpret themselves what accountability actually means.
Taking democracy for granted is a trap, both for representative democracies and Europe’s citizens. High-quality democracy requires citizens’ engagement but also trust-building and trust-sharing, which in turn requires long-term political strategies and empowered democratic actors, individual and collective.
In this sense, elections should not be the only convenient tool for measuring popular consent. In an era of upgraded standards of giving and exercising consent, there should also be a rise in the standards of account-giving and improved understanding of the social intermediation between the electorate, political parties and their local constituencies, in delivering the citizens’ vision of what type of society they want to inhabit.