A Few Thoughts About An All Too Imperfect Democracy,
and What We Can Do About It
Human beings are imperfect, societies are, and democracy
is because it is a human endeavour. But today, we live in a democracy that
simply is too imperfect.
In Germany, for instance, about 70 per cent of the population
have been – and still are – against the involvement of the country
in the wars in Yugoslavía (Kosovo) and in Afghanistan. The
government chose war.
A comparable percentage of the population has for years
been against nuclear power plants. In 2010, few month before the Fukushima
disaster, the government chose to extend the licenses of a considerable
number of aging nuclear power plants.
The people don’t count. The strange thing is that every
time there has been a national election, they continued to vote for one
of the two major parties – sometimes being more disappointed with the Conservatives
and choosing the Social Democrats (a party that has turned neo-liberal
and rather conservative, in recent years), sometimes being more disappointed
with the Social Democrats and choosing the Conservatives (a party that
brandishes the “Christian” “Democratic” label).
Those who didn’t want to pick one of the two, either chose
small parties – among them the Greens who usually came in third with 8
to 10 or at most 15 per cent of the popular vote, a right-wing “liberal”
party or the Left Party which gets between 6 an 8 per cent in national
elections although more in a few Eastern states of the federal union.
The events in Stuttgart in the summer and fall of 2010
ushered in the first really new development. In a Conservative South Western
state, ruled by the Conservatives for more than five decades, the Green
Party recently came in first, overtaking both major parties and forming
a coalition with the Social Democrats as their junior partner.
One thing is clear, of course. Should they disappoint
the voters, should the big hopes attached to their election victory fade,
apathy might again return, bringing back the old situation of Conservative
rule. Or, more likely even, the pattern of alternating Conservative and
Social Democratic governments that has been so typical of national elections
up to now. It is a pattern that has enshrined the strong influence of corporations
on government policies, as both major parties have significant ties to
It must be mentioned that the Social Democratic leadership
in Berlin knows that regaining power on the federal level depends on good
cooperation with the Green Party. But that the new coalition in the German
South West will fail, is possible nonetheless – given the conflicts between
the coalition partners, especially the different view with regard to a
major infrastructure project in Stuttgart that is speculative in character
and opposed by many Stuttgarters.
The situation is open-ended. The Green election triumph
in Stuttgart might herald a new stage in the political development
of Germany – if they rely more on grass-roots support. And if they motivate
citizens to make use of their democratic rights, rather than confirming
their belief that the game is rigged, that it is all in vain to vote and
to participate in the political debate, in referendums and in street action
I would say that both sides can make a lot of mistakes.
The Green leaders in the South West and elsewhere must set
a new example. If they continue to be too “professional,”
the kind of “pragmatic” politicians who rather disappoint the grass-roots
than political “partners” and big business, their success will prove to
have been more ephemeral than they think it is.
If the people don’t feel new hope and are not activated,
if they put all their belief in a new government and trust too naively
that “they will bring change” (and a change to the better for them), if
they don’t increase pressure on the government from below, from the grass-roots
level, in a friendly way, in order to encourage this new government to
make bigger strides in a good direction, then the Green leaders will ultimately
be much too “careful,” too “realistic” to take steps and give impulses
that in the long run may bring about the needed democratic and ecological
and economic change.
One thing can also be said for sure. The new way ahead
cannot be found by the people, by concerned citizens and political activists
who recognize the requirements of the present and the future if there
is no fairness towards all those in the political arena today who
are capable of understanding the urgency of change and ready to transcend
both party loyalties and personal egotism.
We should not idealize ourselves, we should not idealize
the people and we should not demonize politicians.
Power seduces, money seduces and the people is not above
that; it is just not seduced as a mass, as a multitude. It is always individuals
who are “given the chance” to rise to positions of prominence, and who
can be seduced.
People like Willy Brandt were committed people in their
youth. And so were many people in the Social Democratic Party and the Green
Politics and party discipline and the identified “pragmatic
need for compromises” they believe in or are forced to accept, due to their
will to attain power or to stay in power (once they have attained it),
are the big factors that change people who began as admirable activists
embracing the cause of the people.
But often the change is partial, it can be coincidental.
There is the human quality in all of us that can make turn arounds possible.
For the worse, but also for the better.
Let us, the people, encourage those who
show a willingness to support participative democracy, economic justice
and democratic ecological responsibility. And this regardless of whether
they are committed Christians inside the Christian Democratic Party, honest
Social Democrats, or true ecologists and grass-roots democrats in the Green
Party. Let us also be positive to all the adherents of participative and
direct democracy in the Left Party, and to people inside this party who
advocate economic democracy. Party egotisms have no place in a democracy
movement, at a time in history when we, the people, demand our democratic
empowerment. Let parties return from their arrogated “leading”
role to a democratic role, as servants of the people
and thus as open pluralist platforms of debate: platforms unhindered by
intra-party hierarchies, freed from the old lack of intra-party democracy.
Let us ask them to make a good beginning by reducing political salaries
for the chancellor, for members of cabinet, for prime ministers of the
different states, for members of parliament (whether on the national or
the state level) to a uniform 3,000 Euros per month, before taxes. (Okay,
that amount is debatable. But it should be an amount close to the average
income of ordinary citizens.) And let us ask them to make a clean slate
by expelling all lobbyists of big business from their ranks. We will find
out, this way, who is on our side – the side of all citizens who demand
a real say in public affairs. And thus the truthful empowerment of society.
Of every citizen.
Yes, we need the honest ones, among the politicians, as
well. And those outside the parties, outside parliaments:
- the intellectuals whose services are not for sale;
- all those at the grass-roots level who care to be very
well informed, who care to be very active;
- but also the others who struggle to comprehend. Who
begin to take an active interest in their own affairs, in the public cause.
We, the people, need all – in our process
of learning, in our readiness to get involved
We need them: every one of them, everyone of us –
in the debates that must precede our decisions. Decisions that we
will take: directly. We, the people.
Perhaps parliaments are a good thing, as an important
debating forum. But from all we have learned about them as institutions,
as forums that all too often disregard our will and that have again and
again disempowered us, we, the people can come only to two conclusions:
either that new checks and balances are needed, including the right of
immediate recall, or that added powers must be given to us, the people,
to decide questions in popular assemblies, and by referendum. Perhaps both
is needed, who knows. But what exactly and how, is it not for the people
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