Political elites: Does perception meet reality?

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

Political careers are becoming increasingly shorter and the revolving door between politics and the private sector spins ever faster. So is governance benefiting from ‘fresh ideas’? Or is the public in fact worse off in the long run?, asks Tomi Huhtanen.

Tomi Huhtanen is the director of the Centre for European Studies, a centre-right think tank linked to the European People’s Party (EPP).

In March 2013, Moisés Naím, a Venezuelan-born economist and politics scholar, published a very interesting and stimulating book called End of Power, which examines some of the questions that CES addresses. 

In his book, Naím observes that developed democracies are facing elections more frequently, which leads to a political landscape becoming unstable. Naím also points out that new parties appear and fade away rapidly and non-decided voters are becoming the largest voter group. These are observations widely shared by other scholars.

Classically, the dynamics of the political systems is presented as a landscape in which the main power is held by a political elite: a small group of powerful people who have a privileged status and who are also governing the society. A great deal of political checks and balances have been created in order to ensure that political elites and decision makers are regularly challenged and that their actions are revised. Political elitism as a concept is often used and nourishes a perception of stability in the minds of people.

But, as Naím points out: political elites are anything but stable in today’s political climate.

Political entities need new ideas, approaches and solutions when facing the electorate. Such reinvigoration of a political party is brought by new individuals who are interested in politics and who want to engage with the political process. This is essential for a functional political system.

However, over the past decades, a trend has manifested in which the best way to succeed in politics, is to choose a career path outside of party politics. An individual with a successful background in almost any field outside of politics is an attractive candidate for political parties. The perception is that those outside the political bubble are more capable to bring in fresh ideas and new thinking to a party’s membership. Throughout Europe, political parties have adapted to this reality: they take it into account when selecting their candidates for elections. 

As political parties continue to seek new candidates outside the party ranks and due to the formation of new parties, it is now easier than ever for a first-time candidate to get elected. Some new parties and movements – like Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy – even set term limits for officeholders in order to guarantee rotation.

On the flipside, though, a candidate or member of a parliament who knows their stay will be short and who reached their position without any great effort or investment, does not have an interest in making difficult decisions that have a long term impact – after all, they don’t have to deal with long term consequences. Such an official can become dogmatic, uncompromising and rigid.

Also, in all democracies the political process boils down to individuals who are elected to take decisions. It can take elected officials many years to become accustomed with parliamentary processes and to become effective in their roles. Instead of continuing in politics, successful politicians are moving to the private sector becoming senior consultants and members of boards for a range of large and internationally recognised corporations.

In recent times, there has been a growing trend amongst voters to reject not only professional politicians but professional parties just as well. This is partly due to voters’ disappointment and anger with a political system and political parties that have in their eyes not served them adequately. In turn, this has created a belief amongst some sections of the electorate that by electing a new political entity, this will bring with it a new way of doing politics, better representing the people and bringing with them better results.

The desire for new faces has become an increasingly strong influence in voters’ behaviour, often even overshadowing the achievements and success of governments. An excellent example of this is Sweden, where current Prime Minister Reinfeldt, who has been in government for two consecutive terms, has made Sweden’s economy stay stable and positive in a European economic crisis which has meant the majority of Swedish voters are positive about the future, which is rather exceptional in Europe today.  But it has not led to a surge of support for Prime Minister Reinfeldt and his Moderate party.

So what is the state of the political classes in politics today? Clearly, it has become more difficult to pinpoint who concretely belongs to the so-called political elite. But although faces of politics might change across the continent, the mechanisms and institutions in place continue working regardless of who is in power.

New people with different professional backgrounds are getting elected to parliaments across Europe, but with less and less previous experience on political process. The newly elected representative is no longer a career politician, rather a professional in a different career who ended up being a politician, at least temporarily.

‘Political elite’ is an important concept of political analysis, but it is highly important that we debate what it means and whether it continues to exist in this ever-changing political landscape.

While the political class is increasingly changing, the institutions aiming to influence political process are  more stable. Business presentations, trade unions, NGOs and even think thanks share the political world’s challenges. But these entities increasingly become the gate keepers of the collective memory of the political process, knowledge and its history. It is a new opportunity for those influencing political process from outside the institutions.

The logical solution to counter voters’ dissatisfaction is to assure that the political system delivers. When voters are satisfied with their representatives, there is less need for adventure in the ballot box.

As insightful and great Naím’s analysis is, less surprising is Naím’s conclusions and proposal. He underlines the need to find new forms of governance and to find new innovative ways of political participation. The future challenge might be that when the political elite are requested to act, there will in fact be nobody to respond.

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