“It’s the economy, stupid.” Or so the political wisdom goes. Voters care about their daily life: cater for them, make sure the economy works, and that they have good-paying jobs. Herein lies the basis of many electoral campaigns.
Of course, several other key topics can be identified: healthcare (and welfare, more generally), security, immigration, even — sign of the times — the environment. All important policy fields that voters easily have an opinion on and can be receptive about on the campaign trail.
Conversely, democracy is never a hot topic, never the centrepiece of a speech, never a major headline or the core of a programme. Voters do not care: they do not understand the subtleties or implications, they do not grasp the relevance of the issue or the impact on their life, they will tune out from the explanation and start to doze. Thus has seemingly been the prevailing advice.
Months of campaigning and thousands upon thousands of leaflets distributed across four countries paint a different story, however. That of democracy, not as some abstract concept, but as something people vividly and instinctively feel. Voters may not go into technicalities, but they feel the result: will my vote truly matter? will it have an impact on my life?
Already, at the national level, where citizens have a firmer grasp on institutions and more familiarity with politicians, the disappointment is far-reaching and tangible: “they’re all the same”, “they don’t care about us”, “they work for bankers”, “they ignore us”, “it won’t make a difference”. Across France, in Rome, and even more so in London, the refrain is the same and the judgment harsh. Large swaths of the population have lost faith in their politicians. Some turn to populist parties — as an electoral middle finger to the establishment –, while many decide that, with no one good or caring enough, their voting days are over.
“Democracy is not some abstract concept, but something people vividly and instinctively feel.”
The situation gets even more worrisome at the European level, where citizens are expected to vote for an institution — the European Parliament — they rarely hear from and know little about. The voting mechanism, with long lists of candidates, does not lend itself to close connections between candidates and voters. Making matters worse, MEPs, once elected, sit in Europarties, but campaign as members of national parties only, with competing national parties sometimes becoming de facto allies at the European level. And national parties themselves get an extra share of the blame for campaigning almost exclusively on national issues and filling lists with B-level political players.
The result is nothing short of appalling. Street interviews reveal that, just a few days before the elections, many voters remain unaware what the election is for and, often, that an election is taking place at all. And few are those with a clear idea of the role of European representatives. Understandably, voters feel no incentive to go to the polls for an election they do not understand, and turnover reaches dangerously low levels.
“The Brexit Party leads the polls, despite having no programme beyond the vague promise to respect democracy.”
Yet, major parties make no effort to address the EU’s democratic gap and fail to propose even basic remedies or discuss the issue during election debates. The dissatisfaction of voters with politicians they see as subservient to “the elite”, along with the lack of discussion about democracy, both at the national and European levels, combine to push voters to support anti-system parties. Interestingly, this logic has even allowed the Brexit Party to lead the polls in the UK, despite having no manifesto and no programme beyond the vague promise to precisely be the party that will respect democracy — in the form of ensuring that Brexit happens.
Worse still, the democratisation of the EU may be making steps back. First attempted in 2014, the Spitzenkandidat system was designed to link the choice of the President of the Commission to the result of EU elections. Although imperfect, this mechanism had the potential to give more visibility to the President of the Commission and involve citizens into his nomination. Small in the European Parliament but big as a Head of State, President Macron — along with the liberals of the ALDE party — has staunchly opposed the system in favour of inter-State bargaining in the European Council.
As voters go to the polls, and with President Macron recently listing his requirements for the top job — closely resembling a silhouette of Michel Barnier –, there is no guarantee that the popular vote will impact the fate of our European executive, further diminishing citizens’ input into EU institutions.
“Ignoring popular calls for more democracy is the surest way to undermine the entire democratic process.”
Low turn-overs, rising populist parties and a growing disdain for institutions must be a warning cry. The economy, jobs, and immigration are all important topics, provided people trust that their choices are heard. The moment voters perceive their vote as ignored and meaningless is the moment they stop voting altogether. Ignoring popular calls for more democracy is therefore the surest way to undermine the entire democratic process.
It is now imperative to restore the public trust in institutions and politicians, and convince citizens that their voice matters. Improving voting systems, ensuring the transparency of decision-making and public expenses, allowing the emergence of new parties, reforming institutions to make them efficient, responsive and democratic, and even giving citizens a voice in policy-making — the possibilities are endless and best practices plentiful. Let’s try them out.
But first, let’s engage citizens and mean it. Let’s talk about democracy.