Democracy Put to the Test

Written on November 23, 2011 by Ángeles Figueroa-Alcorta in Democracy & Human Rights, Europe

By José Ignacio Torreblanca, Associate Professor of IE School of Arts & Humanities

Just as the mechanisms that made democracy function in city states were not adequate for governing nation states, representative democracies today are showing themselves incapable of managing, effectively and democratically, the system that is emerging in Europe, argues Jose Ignacio Torreblanca.

In what looks like a new phase of the crisis, the tensions generated by the euro crisis are starting to destabilise European democracies. Almost two years of doubts and divisions, of a lack of the courage and political vision needed to adopt a European solution, are fuelling popular disaffection – as much towards national democracies as towards the European project itself. As we have seen in Italy and in Greece, the deepening of the crisis has political leaders up against the wall. On the one hand, they fear that if they adopt new and more severe austerity measures without compensating stimulus plans that would guarantee a level of economic growth, the people will end up turning against them and – whether from the streets, the parliaments or the ballot boxes – finishing them off. But at the same time, they know perfectly well that if they resist those same austerity measures, the markets will penalise them by raising their risk premiums and forcing external intervention – which would precipitate their downfall, or lead their European colleagues to withdraw the financial support they have been providing (which would precipitate their downfall too).

In these circumstances, the decline of traditional party politics and the substitution of political leaders with technocrats adds an extremely worrying element to this from the point of view of democracy. The new Greek prime minister, as well as the names that have been floated for the future prime minister of Italy, Giuliano Amato or Mario Monti, economists with distinguished careers in central banks or European institutions, are quintessential technocrats. The refusal of politicians to sacrifice control of either their past or future decisions to the people by way of early elections or referendums, highlights the fact that they are bowing down before the markets; that they don’t trust their own ability to resolve the crisis and, above all, that they suspect their legitimacy has worn out. And so instead of assuming their responsibilities, they step to one side and call in specialists who – supposedly – lack ideological bias and who – also supposedly – know the answers that will bring the country up out of the crisis.

Taking this step creates an obvious danger, as it implies trusting the responsibility to govern a country – one that is facing a grave economic crisis with serious and inevitable social repercussions – to someone whose legitimacy has not been sealed with ballot slips, but rather with the confidence placed in them by the markets and global institutions. The problem is that, on a European level as well as on a national one, technocrats can only legitimise themselves by providing reasonably quick results. In other words, people might be ready to accept temporarily, as a lesser evil, a benign form of enlightened despotism (‘everything for the people, but without the people’); but if the technocrats add their failure to that of the politicians of the parties, societies will be tempted to resort to populism (from the Left or the Right) expressed by strongmen who don’t bother with the details of democratic process. Read more…

This article was first published in El Pais on November 13, 2011

As published in www.opendemocracy.net on November 22, 2011.


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