Vol 1, No 14
27 September 1999
T E N Y E A R S A F T E R:
Democracy in Crisis
This summer, I spent two weeks in Cortona, in the beautiful Tuscany countryside, at a summer school organised by the Viennese Institute of Social Sciences with students from most Central and East European countries as well Western Europe and the United States. The focus of the summer school was political philosophy and the transformation of Central and East European countries "ten years after." There were many particular historical and political details to discuss about each individual country, however the most interesting parts of the summer school dealt with a problem common to both Central and West Europeans.
Central Europe may have not quite yet reached the economic level of the West European countries or North America and levels of consumer satisfaction may also differ, however there is one common feature Central Europeans share with the so-called advanced countries in the West: a high level of scepticism toward and disillusionment with democracy in general and democratic institutions - such as political parties, elections and parliaments - in particular.
Ten years after the revolutions in Central Europe and the ensuing changes that brought a profound institutional "earthquake," many Central Europeans have come to the same conclusions as their Western counterparts: democracy is inefficient; politicians are corrupt and do not consider needs and interests of common people; and elections are just a formal procedure that does not guarantee that voters expectations will be met by the adequate actions of elected politicians. Membership in political parties is declining, as is voter turnout.
This is not a very cheerful lesson, if we consider that just ten years ago many people's dream in Central Europe was to have the right to choose their representatives and exercise their right to vote in free elections. Or maybe that is just one of many myths and most Central Europeans were in fact driven by high consumer dissatisfaction and an effort to join the West in its consumer abundance. This line of thinking would lead us to the superficial - and in my mind too narrow - conclusion that without a solid economy and a high living standard, any democracy is weak and in danger. But is a wide selection of consumer goods, a full wallet and a fat bank account what constitutes democracy these days and makes people democrats? Or is it also their conviction that they can work through democratic institutions in order to improve their lives?
Formal democracies have formal institutions without much life in them - institutions that are inflexible and do not generate any social action or legal system which affect people's lives in a positive manner. Why should people respect parliaments which adopt and implement legal norms that make their lives more difficult and complicate their dealings with authorities in their professional and personal lives?
This may explain the change of attitude here in Central and Eastern Europe, but why is the same thing happening in Western Europe - the region with which Central and East Europeans want to "share the same Euro-Atlantic values"? These are well advanced and developed countries; their democratic institutions have existed for decades, and patterns of civic behaviour based on respect and tolerance have a long tradition. Still, serious signs of disillusionment with the democratic system can be found in these Western societies.
Is democracy as we know it in crisis? And if so, what are the future prospects? Regionalization, local self-government, decision-making processes on the municipal or community level on issues that affect a particular municipality or community? But how, then, can we manage public life on a national level? Local decision-making is a crucial element; however, it does not substitute trustworthy and transparent politics on the national level.
This is not the first time in history that there has been talk of "democracy in crisis." In 1928, ten years after the establishment of the First Czechoslovak Republic, Czechoslovak President T G Masaryk - in his speech in Parliament - addressed the same problem and stressed that the state is not just a mere administrative institution but more than that is an "association of citizens on a rational and ethical basis." He further mentioned that as long as the state is seen by the citizens as an alienated, isolated body, there will be no true democracy. All politician's efforts should be driven by an ideal of a citizen who can say that he or she is the state.
What we seem to be missing today is this ethos of democracy, which strives to improve institutions and aspires to make as many ordinary citizens as possible part of the decision-making process.
Pavel Tychtl, 27 September 1999
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