Crisis of Democracy: The Fallacy of Functioning Political Participation

Crisis of Democracy: The Fallacy of Functioning Political Participation

Europe's societies are currently risking a lot. Above all, they are putting at risk their rights and freedoms, which their forefathers have struggled for since the Enlightenment. What has become of the zoon politicon, as Aristotle once called man in society? Why does it stand by when its leaders resort to drastic measures to restrict its fundamental rights? Why does it remain inactive when its property rights are encroached upon, when it is creepingly expropriated? Why does it remain silent when democratic rules are disregarded, when the principles of the rule of law are trampled underfoot?

Where has he gone, the once so proud citoyen, the privileged citizen in Jean Jacques Rousseau's social contract Why does he renounce his privileges as a citizen of the state, as a citizen of the world, why does he trample on his most valuable attribute, the absolute idea of freedom, and allow himself to be reduced to a sujet, a subject?

Declining voter turnout, just because of disinterest?

Our research into the causes starts at three pivotal points: Participation, democracy and the rule of law, each of which we will examine in more detail in a separate article. After I last spoke about unconventional (non-constituted) forms of political participation, i.e. political resistance, today I will focus on conventional (constituted, legally guaranteed and regulated) forms, including first and foremost participation in elections and voting. Participation in elections - and thus the selection of political leaders - at the various levels forms the core element of citizenship and is the simplest and most egalitarian form of participation in the representative system.

But wait! Isn't it precisely this form of participation that is doomed? The turnout of the French in the parliamentary elections was again not exactly exhilarating, similar to the state elections in North Rhine-Westphalia, where 55.5% was the lowest turnout since 1950 [1]. In mid-June, the Italian electorate defeated a referendum on changes to the judicial system: Only 20.9% cast their vote, the lowest turnout ever for a referendum in Italy and well below the 50% threshold required for a valid result[2]. The list could go on and on.

But, no, we are not so much concerned here today with the disenchantment with politics that undoubtedly exists across Europe. This disenchantment with politics is both the cause and the result of a crisis of representative democracy. Rather, we are interested in the question of which groups in society can no longer be reached by this form of participation.

Millions of people do not vote, why?

Let's take the two largest economies in the EU, France and Germany, as an example. In France - with a total population of about 67 million - the adult population is about 54 million (2019 data [3]). In Germany, at the end of 2020, the total was 83.2 million, of which just under 70 million were adults [4].

The prerequisite for the right to vote in the states of Europe is normally citizenship of the respective country [5]. According to Article 3 of the French Constitution, all French citizens of both sexes who have reached the age of majority and are in possession of their civil and civic rights are entitled to vote in accordance with the law.

In the 2021 federal elections in Germany, 61.2 million citizens were eligible to vote [6], the turnout was 76.6% [7]. In France, 48.7 million citizens were registered to vote in the 2022 presidential election [8], with turnout averaging 64% for two rounds [9]. According to this, 14.3 million people in Germany and 17.5 million people in France did not vote.

It is doubtful whether disenchantment with politics alone can explain the absence from the polls. What about citizens who are entitled to vote but are not allowed to do so? Prisoners, for example, or people who have legal proceedings pending? Or those who are entitled to vote but cannot? People in need of care and hospitalised, for example, or people with mental health problems?

It should be noted that in France, according to the Agence nationale de lutte contre l'illettrisme (ANLCI) [10], illiteracy affects 2.5 million people, or 7% of the population aged 18 to 65. In Germany, around 6.2 million adults cannot read and write properly.

This would be remarkable in itself, but it does not allow us to conclude that 10 per cent of eligible voters in Germany cannot read and write properly. Today, the groups that are not allowed to vote at all because they do not have the appropriate citizenship are far larger.

Parallel worlds apart from the right to vote?

In 2021, 23.7 million third-country nationals lived in the EU Member States, which corresponds to 5.3% of the EU population. In addition, 13.7 million people with the nationality of another EU Member State lived in one of the EU Member States. In absolute numbers, the largest numbers of foreigners living in the EU Member States were in Germany (10.6 million people), Spain (5.4 million), France and Italy (5.2 million each). The foreign population living in France represents 7.7% of the total population [11,12]. If we take into account that about one third of these people are not adults (the statistical sources are rather sparse), we can state overall that in both Germany and France more than 20 million adults do not participate politically.

Again, it would be a fallacy to believe that the majority of these people are politically indifferent or willingly submit to the dictates of others. The passionate debates about integration, parallel societies or the law of Sharia bear witness to this. Here, too, there are interesting parallels between the European states concerned, where political and media circles are at pains to assure that the jurisprudence of Islam will not find its way into state jurisdiction [13]. The fact that this is not true can be refuted by countless examples. In Germany, for example, Iranian women still have to present a marriage certificate from their father to the registry office when they marry. This goes back to the German-Iranian Settlement Agreement of 1929, the continued validity of which was confirmed for the Federal Republic of Germany on 4 November 1954 [14]. But we can go much further: Private international law, which is applied in the various European states, deals with the question of which national legal system is to be applied to a legal situation that has references to the legal systems of several states. It has been the practice for years, especially in marriage and family law, but also in inheritance law, that wherever there are connections and there is no violation of public policy, Sharia law is to be applied as a matter of course.

Lack of participation endangers the community!

We see, then, that due to migration, globalisation and communitarisation through the European Union alone, classical participation in the form of elections is no longer up to date and is reaching fewer and fewer people. We also see that the attempts of both nation states and the EU to remedy these grievances are half-hearted, if not helpless. The "reform" of the European Parliament elections is to consist of an additional 28 MEPs, postal voting in all Member States and quotas to ensure gender equality [15] . This is so embarrassing that it is almost infuriating.

When I wrote at the beginning that Europe's societies are currently risking a lot, let me conclude by reminding you of the fable of Agrippa: he was sent by the Senate to the Holy Mountain (or the Aventine) in 494 BC, where the plebeians had taken refuge during an uprising. Since Agrippa had the duty to restore harmony between patricians and plebeians, he used the famous Apologue of the Limbs and the Stomach, with which he tried to prove that the city cannot exist without the plebeians, but that at the same time the plebeians cannot live without the city:

"When the members of the human body saw that the stomach remained inactive, they separated their cause from his and denied him their office. But this conspiracy soon caused them to fall into languishing themselves; then they perceived that the stomach allotted to each of them the food which he had received, and they returned with him in grace. Thus the senate and the people, being as one body, perish by disunion, and live full of strength by concord."

What is the connection between the crisis of participation and Agrippa's fable? Globally, all people live in more or less organised, "constituted" states, which in any case hold their citizens accountable and subject them to the respective state legal system. In essence, the question of participation concerns precisely the problem that people who are held accountable in the respective state system and are subject to the respective state legal system should be able to participate aliquot. From a historical point of view, this corresponds to, among other things, the idea of the social contract, the fundamental element of which was the profound political realisation that any functioning social order must be the broad agreement of all citizens that the common order is their desired order. This contract requires participation.

P.S: But what Agrippa could not have known, but must worry us all the more: If digitech corporations increasingly take over the governance of societies, and our participation is exhausted in operating their apps and applications, we will have gambled away our citizenship rights once and for all.

This analysis was first published in: Le Courrier des Stratèges on June 17th, 2022






[5] In local elections, EU foreigners can vote in any EU state.