What is happening to democracy?

 

2016 has being a year full of surprises for what concerns the most powerful instrument of democracy: people’s vote. Democracy is usually defined as the power of people and it is absolutely undeniable that the right to vote is amongst the cornerstones of civil rights. However, notwithstanding the fact that every people should have the right to choose its own fate, across 2016 some results coming from the polls have shocked and (hopefully) awoken the public opinion.

Just to give some examples of what I am talking about, let’s start from the so called “Brexit”. On the 23rd of June, 51.9% of British people unexpectedly voted to leave the European Union[1]. A powerful slogan used during the campaign was based on the possibility to stop sending £350M per week to the EU and redirect that amount of money to the National Health System (NHS). This slogan had a strong impact on most of the 17 million British citizens who voted to leave the EU. However, a few days after the vote, Nigel Farage, one of the main supporters of the “Leave” campaign, stepped back on this £350M issue saying that “it was a mistake”[2].

pa-28104829                       Source: mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/boris-johnsons-brexit-campaign-prints-7943300

Another example of unexpected voting results is the Colombian peace agreement referendum that could have ended more than 50 years of conflict between the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the Government of Bogotà. What is most striking is the fact that the refusal of the agreement came from those regions which were less hit by the harsh conflict of the FARC.  People who voted “No” to the peace agreement referendum did not live at first hand the conflict and they want to pursue an utopian revenge against the rebels. After more than 2 years of difficult negotiations, the risk of an impasse is real.[3]

Shocking results from the polling stations are more and more common throughout the world and the US Presidential election are just the last on the list. Duterte in the Philippines, right and far-right leaders and parties such as Front National in France, Golden Dawn in Greece or Alternative fuer Deutschland in Germany, the “Leave” campaign in the UK, the “No” campaign in Colombia and, last but absolutely not least, Trump in the US have something in common. They do want to move people’s instincts, rather than their ideas. The problem is that one of the instinctive feeling of the human being is the initial opposition towards what is considered different and it is easily understandable which could be the effects on societies.

The results of these votes can be seen as irrational or illogical, but they are the outcome of the democratic process. So the right question to ask is whether nowadays democracy is in good health and the answer seems to be expected. The main cause of these shocking results, according to the opinion of who’s writing, is the lack of an appropriate education (civic education included) and a short memory. Let me briefly explain.

Following the economic crisis, the IMF asked to debtor countries to cut public expenses in order to reduce their debt and to get more financial injections. These policies weakened an already fragile welfare state. Sounds familiar? If you are thinking of nowadays situation, you are wrong. What I described is the political and economic situation in the 70’s that led the term “Third World” to be relentlessly the synonymous of “poor countries”[4].

We appear not to have understood anything from History and from our mistakes. It seems useless to recall all the problems and the atrocities the world experienced in those periods of maximum intolerance and repulsion towards “the others”. Seems useless, but it’s not.

In an era of infinite instruments of information, it is hard to think of an uninformed approach to democracy and to public consultations. Personally, I keep being surprised by these voting results mainly because I do not want to think that the idea of democracy as démos cràtos (literally the power of people) is vanishing. To conclude, I think that the entire article can be summarised with the quote by Alexis de Tocqueville: “Democracy is the power of informed people”[5].

 

Roberto Bortoletto


[1] bbc.com/news/politics/eu_referendum/results

[2] usnews.com/news/top-news/articles/2016-06-24/brexit-leader-national-health-service-wont-reap-promised-millions

[3] lavanguardia.com/internacional/20161003/41740694544/resultados-referendum-colombia-acuerdo-paz-gobierno-farc.html

[4] Basosi, D., “Finanza e Petrolio – Gli Stati Uniti, l’oro nero e l’economia politica internazionale”, (2013), La Toletta Edizioni. For more information, Westad, O., A., “The Global Cold War”, (2007), Cambridge University Press

[5] de Tocqueville, A., (2008), “La Democrazia in America”, UTET