Lessons from the new French Revolution

May 25, 2017 12:00 am | Updated 03:35 am IST

The marked preference for individuals over parties has not proved too felicitous for democracy

“Europe and the world,” declared a victorious Emmanuel Macron addressing cheering crowds gathered outside the glass pyramid in front of the Louvre, “expect us to defend the spirit of the Enlightenment that is threatened in so many places.” Truly the result of the presidential election has reinscribed France’s reputation as the birthplace of a modern democratic sensibility, and as the site of a major democratic revolution in 1789. This is borne out by the fact that French voters decisively rejected Marine Le Pen’s socially conservative campaign that attacked Islam, immigrants, and the European Union. In a Europe that has rapidly turned to racism, xenophobia and intolerance, yet another rejection of an extreme right-wing party is cause for celebration.

More significantly, French citizens by voting for an outsider who established his own party only recently sent out another message, the rejection of political parties. The election results have practically rendered the party system irrelevant. The left is in ruins. The working class living in the by-now defunct industrial areas of the north-east of France voted for Ms. Le Pen’s agenda constructed around the two ‘terrors’ of globalisation and immigration. The Socialist Party of Francois Hollande witnessed a mass exit. And the traditional Left/Right divide, which stood for discrete constituencies and specific agendas, seems to have dissolved.

An old spectre

This is, of course, not the first time that political parties are in trouble. In the 1960s and 1970s, political scientists observed that parties in the U.S. and in Europe had begun to resemble each other. Electoral competition simply did not offer meaningful choices to the voter. In India in the late 1960s, and particularly after the 1975-1977 Emergency, voters lost hope in the ability of the Congress to deliver. By the 1990s, across the world scholars spoke of a ‘crisis of representation’, and preferred to rest their hope in a democratic, loosely organised, non-institutional, civil society. Civil society organisations, it was assumed, would raise issues that political parties had failed to focus on.

In the same decade, the onset of globalisation heralded a new world order. Scholars told us that the dissolution of economic borders through the free movement of capital and goods would lead to the dissolution of territorial borders, and replace the nation state with a global community, and global modes of governance. But the march of history took another direction. Economic globalisation bred worrying consequences: unemployment, poverty and deep inequality. Since national economies had been integrated into the world economy, political parties had neither the capacity nor the power to deal with the consequences of unfettered globalisation. They fell into further disfavour.

In Europe, unemployment led to a serious backlash, racism, hate speech and violence against immigrants. Some parties tried to tackle this, others rode on the wave of xenophobia. On balance, political parties were perceived as incapable of resolving issues of ill-being, unemployment and racial tensions, all of which created anxiety and fear. Resultantly, voters opted to vote for individuals, many of whom were outsiders to politics, rather than established parties. Electorates gravitated to populist leaders who poured scorn on established modes of politics as incompetent and corrupt, and who presented themselves as authentic representatives of the people, embodying as they did popular sovereignty.

In the U.S. President Donald Trump’s ability to remain central in the public eye dominated the Republican party. He charted out his own priorities and ideologies. In 2015, citizens of Delhi voted enthusiastically for an outsider, Arvind Kejriwal. In 2014, Indian citizens voted not so much for the Bharatiya Janata Party as for the overwhelming personality of Narendra Modi, who also drew up his own agenda. And the same story can be told of populist leaders such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, and Vladimir Putin in Russia. The victory of a newcomer to French politics such as Mr. Macron completes the circle.

It is unlikely that President Macron will follow the route of populism. He emphasises the need to cultivate an open attitude to the world, to strengthen the European Union, to promote a positive attitude to immigration, to encourage free trade and to secure the rights of the LGBTQ community. But immigration is still a serious issue in France, unemployment runs at 10%, and Ms. Le Pen’s party has polled higher votes than in previous elections.

We hope France does not take this road, because the marked preference for individuals over parties has not proved too felicitous for democracy. In weak democracies, populist leaders have practically demolished legislatures, the rule of law, civil liberties, civil society, and the judiciary. We see with disquiet excessive concentration of power in one pair of hands, a development that is just not conducive to the consolidation of democracy in any country. At the same time, we cannot describe these leaders as undemocratic. Popular opinion expressed through elections and referendums have given them power, and support for the exercise of power.

A paradox

It is precisely at this point that we come across a major paradox of democracy. After the collapse of existing socialist societies in 1989, western liberals embarked on a new project, that of democratising the rest of the world. At the top of the laundry list of preconditions of democracy were free and fair elections. Elections are regularly held in most parts of the world, and as regularly the electorate votes for individuals who have delegitimised, if not demolished, democratic institutions, defied the principle of the separation of power, and appropriated unbridled power.

The preference for individuals over political parties can be understood given the inability of parties to represent the needs of their constituencies, and to do something about pressing issues. But we also need to understand that the subversion of the basic principle of democracy, separation of powers and checks and balances over the exercise of power diminishes democracy. Concentration of power in one person brings back disquieting memories of Europe in the inter-war period, when popularly elected leaders took their countries down the road of fascism.

Time to course correct

The current crop of populist leaders who deploy the language of political aggression, mock their opponents, and show impatience with the time-consuming procedures of institutionalised democracy, cannot be typed as anti-democratic. But they have, as contemporary history shows us, revealed scant respect for the rights of minorities, for civil liberties, and for civil society. Democracy has been reduced in country after country to a system of transfer of power. The political party system is once again in crisis, and this time the alternative to the ‘crisis of representation’ is not a democratic civil society, but populist leaders. It is time that political parties suspend their preoccupation with winning elections and work towards building up a powerful support base for democracy. Reliance on a single leader truncates imaginations, cultivates dependence, and devalues solidarity. It is only when parties begin to instil, particularly in young people, the importance of participation, respect for civil liberties and rights of minorities, democratisation of social relationships, and the development of shared meaning through debate and dialogue, that the democratic spirit can be reignited and political parties rehabilitated in the public eye. At stake here is not only the continuation of the party system, but democracy itself.

Neera Chandhoke is a former Professor of Political Science, Delhi University

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