Fri, May 16, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Democracy disconnected

Low voter turnouts around the world suggest that people have lost faith in elections and distrust parties

By Ralf Dahrendorf

Something has happened to democracy in the sense of popularly elected government, and it has happened all over the world. Somehow people have lost faith in elections.

Turnout is declining in many countries; in the case of elections to the European Parliament, the level of voter participation is so risibly low as to call into question the legitimacy of the result.

But turnout apart, we have become accustomed to accepting that parties or candidates who receive 25 percent of the popular vote are "winners." From Holland and Finland to Argentina and Japan, majority governments are formed with minority support.

Nor are the apparent exceptions proof to the contrary. Few American presidents have been supported by much more than 10 percent of eligible voters -- half of the US's eligible voters, indeed, are not even registered to vote; of those who are registered, half do not vote; of those who do vote, less than half vote for the winning candidate.

Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair's "landslide" majority in Britain's House of Commons rests on shaky ground: Labour received just over 40 percent of the vote with a 60 percent turnout at the last election last year. So only 24 percent of the total electorate supported Blair's party.

In most countries, this is clearly very different from what elections looked like 20, let alone 50, years ago. What has happened?

One answer must be that voters distrust political parties. Electoral democracy operates in most countries through the intermediary of organizations which put up candidates representing specific bundles of policy options, a "manifesto" or a "platform." For a number of reasons, however, this time-honored practice no longer works.

Ideological party platforms have lost their force; voters do not accept the specific bundles offered by parties but want to pick and choose. Moreover, political parties have become "machines" made up of highly organized cadres of insiders. The paradox here is that parties have become more tribal having lost their ideological distinctiveness. It is more important to belong than to have a certain set of beliefs.

Such developments removed parties from the ambit of voters. Because most people don't particularly want to belong to a party, playing the party game becomes a minority sport. This increases the public's suspicion of political parties, not least because -- like all professional sports -- playing the game is expensive.

If the cost is borne by the taxpayer, it is resented. But if parties are not state-supported, they must find funds through channels that are often dubious, when not illegal. Many of the great political scandals of recent decades began with the financing of parties and candidates.

Other indices -- such as sharply declining membership rolls -- confirm that parties have become unpopular. Yet parties remain indispensable to elective democracy. The result is an evident disconnection of the visible political actors from the electorate.

Because parties operate in parliaments, the disconnection affects one of the crucial democratic institutions. People no longer think of parliaments as representing them and thus vested with the legitimacy needed to take decisions on their behalf.

At this point, a second, quite separate, development comes into play. People are more impatient than ever. As consumers they are used to instant gratification. But as voters, they must wait before they see any results delivered by the choice they made at the ballot box. Sometimes they never see the desired results.

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