We take our democracy for granted to our peril

Listen To Europe Analysis

It has been a tough decade for liberal democracy in Europe.

Democratic principles, the rule of law, equality, transparency and human rights have been questioned, attacked and undermined by leaders who are euphemistically called “populists” but are in fact displaying all the characteristics of authoritarians.

These authoritarian forces have seized power in EU member states like Hungary and Poland, have joined the government in Finland, Estonia, Austria and Italy and have come within striking distance of the Presidency in France.

Above all, whether in power, in government or in opposition, they have infected political discourse and forced centrist parties to adopt their rhetoric and even translate it into policy, with the EU’s response to migration being a prime, and mighty depressing, example.

But what lies behind their electoral success? What has driven voters, often those that have not voted before, to go to the ballot box and support politicians who show contempt, to put it mildly, towards democracy?

To answer these questions we undertook in-depth polling and research (listentopeople.eu) in 13 EU member states (small and big, from the north and south, west and east) to analyse the attitudes and drivers towards democracy and authoritarianism.

The first thing the data revealed is a deep sense of alienation among many of our fellow Europeans. Over 50% of people in Bulgaria, Spain, Greece, Austria, France and Hungary strongly feel that they are left behind, that economic inequality is growing and that their country’s best days are well and truly behind them (see Graph 1).

Such sentiment of despair makes for fertile ground for the anti-elite and hate-ridden rhetoric of authoritarians, who provide people with scapegoats and simplistic remedies to the social and economic ills they suffer from.

The data paints an even darker picture when it comes to Europeans’ sense of empowerment. The figures are alarmingly low in all the countries we surveyed, with just 4% of people in Germany, Netherlands, Estonia and Denmark strongly agreeing that they can make a difference in how their government works (see Graph 2).

Such luck of confidence in citizens ability to influence the decisions that affect them is truly worrying. Authoritarians pray on such feelings of disempowerment, they use them to portray government as remote and out of touch, to undermine the mere notion of participation by presenting the system as rigged and portray themselves as the true and only agents of empowerment.

Citizens who feel that they lack power can in some cases withdraw from the democratic process, grow resentful of their elected representatives and even disconnect with society at large. They become susceptible to the siren call of autocrats and the politics of fear and hate, prime targets for activation by fear mongers who promise to empower them but in fact aim to subjugate them.

The above lead us to ask the obvious question; to which degree Europeans support democracy. Our findings are terrifying. In 10 out of the 13 countries we looked at, less than 50% of people consistently support democracy. We asked them 5 questions (*) and the number of people who gave a pro-democracy answers to all of them is shockingly low. As few as 15% of people in Bulgaria, 16% of people in Hungary and 19% of people in Poland gave a response to all 5 questions in a way that denotes consistent support to democracy (see Graph 3).

The meaning of this is profound. Europeans’ commitment to democracy is not as strong as we might have assumed. Especially in countries where we have witnessed the worst erosion of democratic norms, consistent support for democracy is so low that can, in itself, explain the rise of illiberal and authoritarian regimes.

Despite the data revealing some uncomfortable truths about our society, economy and democracy, it also functions as a trailblazer for those who want to defend and strengthen democracy.

First and foremost, policy-makers need to tackle inequality, offer a coherent and optimistic perspective for their citizens and make them feel that they are at the front and centre of government policy. Inclusive policies that support those in our society that are most in need, combined with investment in education, vocational training and up-skilling will open opportunities for all.

Governments must also pursue more participatory forms of democracy, give citizens the chance to shape the decisions that affect them, at the local, regional, national and European level. There are many successful models in Europe and beyond, with new technologies but also more traditional tools offering solutions diverse enough to be applied in small communities or large constructs at the pan-European level. Democracy does not end at the ballot box and citizens need to feel that their voice still counts once the election is over.

Above all we must endeavour to underline the importance of the things we take for granted in a democratic society. The need for transparency, parliamentarism, checks and balances, independent courts, free press, debate and consensus. Be it through education or everyday practice, our democracy and the freedoms that it underpins needs to be weaved through every aspect of our experience as citizens, so as it will not be undervalued or neglected.

The opportunity cost of not doing so is immense as European history has taught us. Lest we forget that the worst of dictators came in power through democratic means and after weakening democracy and its institutions.

We must not let that happen again, not on our watch.

By Petros Fassoulas – Secretary General,
European Movement International