Why traditional party democracy needs to be overhauled

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Antanas Guoga declares €200.000 of additional revenue monthly along with his salary as an MEP. [European Parliament]

Political parties have created the mediocrity from which we now suffer and which has led to such voter disenchantment. We need to reinvent the politician as someone who serves society selflessly, for the betterment of all, writes Antanas Guoga.

Poker superstar, entrepreneur and multimillionaire, Antanas Guoga, MEP for Lithuania since 2014, to serve his country from Brussels. He donates his entire salary to good causes.

Representative democracy lives from its representatives. Ideally, wise and responsible men and women, who have already achieved something in life and have now decided to give something back to society and patriotically serve their country and its people. This is the republican ideal that Seneca imagined and wrote about for their respective societies. Dwight D. Eisenhower famously said: “Politics ought to be the part-time profession of every citizen, who would protect the rights and privileges of free men.”

The reality of our democracies today has become another: Politicians are professionals, who often have had no other career and who have served their way up through their respective political parties. Their aim is all too often power and money and while they simultaneously also hold a set of beliefs and morals of what makes a good society – beliefs that may have served as motivators when they commenced their careers – the necessities and realities of party politics take all idealism out of the individual on his or her way up.

The constant compromise and hours and hours of discussion and debate at party congresses on weekends does not allow for much of a private life and filters out the decisive and empowered. Patience and tenacity become the main necessary virtues, in order to climb the long ladder of party politics to the top, and the knowledge of when to push aside the political opponent within one’s own party. The party is, on the one hand, the sole vehicle that allows the politician to climb to the top and is, on the other hand, the largest constant threat to one’s own downfall.

The rise of populism in all our democracies, Brexit and the results of the elections in the US and France speaks a clear message: our citizens are tired of the establishment and the sort of politicians the current political system produces. Donald Trump won despite the Republican Party, which he has deeply divided; Emmanuel Macron won as an independent candidate with anti-establishment rhetoric. He was heaven-sent; without a charismatic democrat in the race, the French would have been forced into the arms of Marine Le Pen. The alternatives represented parties that have governed the country into a no-man’s-land for all too long.

The problem Macron is confronted with now is that without a party apparatus behind him he may find it very hard to actually make any changes in France. Stagnation would be seen as failure and thereby all he would have achieved is a delay to the election of Marine Le Pen. The missing party apparatus has also been the problem of the Dutch populist Geert Wilders, whose one-man show has not been enough to fully infiltrate the system and make a sustainable change to Dutch democracy, by winning local elections, etc.

I would like to make the case for party democracy to be overhauled.

The people are worn-out by the patronising tone of the political, intellectual elite and of the mainly mediocre politicians that their political parties produce. If we want to prevent the Putinisation and Orbánisation of our politicians and societies, we need to make a radical change to the system. Most of our potentially good leaders with charisma and vision are scared away by the ‘Via Dolorosa’ they need to pass through in the current political system. They prefer to use their talents in the world of business and finance making good money and making real decisions for the staff of their globally operating companies. Their decisions are less obstructed and the effect of their policies is more transparent and more easily evaluated.

It is about time we re-attracted our great minds and natural leaders into public service.

We are all tired of mediocre bureaucrats and politically white-washed speeches, barren of any kind of real political content. It is fascinating to see that the appearance of Martin Schulz on the German political scene, as a candidate for chancellor in this year’s election, directly cost the right-wing populist AfD voters. Those who changed don’t seem to care about what the abbreviation in the parties titles stand for. They effortlessly swing from far right to centre left if there is a politician who offers charisma and leadership.

Political parties have become important, in order to provide the organisational and financial infrastructure a politician needs, in order to campaign and have the necessary outreach. Should the parties simply be scrapped, it would be virtually impossible for the politician to voice his or her message, especially in larger countries.

I would, therefore, opt for a non-political secretariat that serves all representatives alike. There can be a key, which determines how much of the secretariat serves whom, according to his or her political success, as today’s political parties receive funds from the taxpayer depending on their electoral success. Much of today’s politics is determined by the fight against the political enemy, instead of finding ailments for the pressing problems of society; policies are determined by the damage they could do to the competing party and the trenches between the political parties have become deeper over the years.

The verbal exchange of blows, which used to happen solely on the floor of the respective parliaments, has also been extended into the private sphere. Politicians used to be able to reunite over a glass of wine after a hefty but fair debate in parliament or a TV show, as they were essentially connected as democrats searching for the betterment of their respective societies and solely had different approaches on how to reach this goal. Today that naiveté is over: the battle lines are deeper and political parties even succeed in dividing friends, lovers and families.

The European Parliament, which has looser political families and no government or opposition, has taught me the advantages of collaboration with politicians from all sides of the political spectrum. Majorities are found anew according to the portfolio on the table and not party strategies. This allows for a much more pragmatic and goal-oriented working, in which ideology steps back behind the realpolitische necessity of finding a majority and negotiating a decent compromise, in order to actually move something and realise a policy that will serve the people of Europe.

The secretariat of the committees is an important source of advice and knowledge in the process and they are utilised by all political groups alike, thereby also democratising the information provided. For me, this is the beginning of a model we could implement in the member states as well.

Currently, the voter is forced to elect the lowest common denominator. By definition, no political party can represent the full complexity of individuals’ beliefs, wishes and societal needs. Most people cannot be placed into simplistic drawers labelled socialist, conservative, liberal or green.

The typical urban European has socially liberal views towards religion, sexual orientation, etc., green views towards the air he or she breathes while being a social democrat concerning the distribution of wealth and a conservative when it comes to the security and defence politics of his or her country.

How should this reflective and engaged citizen choose the appropriate party to vote for? In the worst case, he or she will abstain from his civic duty/right to vote and thereby give space to radicals, who are always motivated to make their vote count. Imagine a political scene with free floating personalities engaging the citizens in dialogue and action.

If everyone is a potential politician, without having to join a party and wave a certain colour, then that can potentially politicise all of society, thereby creating more engaged citizens and a richer, more stable democracy, less susceptible to radicalism and the rule of the strong hand promising stability and order for the price of freedom.

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