Reconnecting politicians with what voters feel is most important for them has become a continental challenge. Here are some examples.
A call by French unions this week brought anti-austerity protesters into the streets. It followed a Socialist primary vote in which two and a half million people took part to choose their candidate in next year’s presidential election.
The novelty was that for the first time no one was required to be a signed up member of the party, and some ten times more people cast ballots than took part in street demonstrations.
The Socialist primary was a sign of the party’s recognition that confidence in politics is low. The frontrunners, Martine Aubry and Francois Hollande, made that clear in public debate.
Aubry said: “People don’t want someone telling them what to decide. If we just make a deal among ourselves, there’s no point in asking the French people to choose.”
Hollande said: “We expected one million, and yet two million seven hundred thousand voters came, with enthusiasm and responsibility. We now have to show we’re capable of meeting the demands raised.”
The French did not pioneer primaries in Europe. The Italian left were ahead of them in 2005. Since then, its leaders have kept it up to demonstrate they want to bring change to political circles seen increasingly as corrupt and removed from ordinary people’s problems.
That very disenchantment is the motivator of the Spanish movement ‘Los Indignados’ — The Indignant — born this May and since similarly spawned elsewhere. Their banner is disgust with politicians, bipartisanism and corruption.
An estimated nine out of every ten Spaniards are said to believe that political parties are only interested in themselves, and very little or not at all in what the people think. The French disenchantment figure is nearly as high: 83 percent.
Ordinary people seem to be getting re-involved in participative democracy, which for many years has been tarred with apathy. Ensuring the electorate turn out in force on election day itself — anywhere — is a constant struggle.
To discuss whether primaries like those held by the Socialists in France can help reestablish the link between voters and the political class, euronews spoke with Daniel Boy, a political science researcher in Paris.
Sandrine Veyrat-Delorme, euronews: “The Socialist primaries in France are a success, that is the most current analysis after the third and last debate between the candidates. Why are they a success?”
Daniel Boy, Centre for Political Research at Sciences Po, Paris: “Political parties in France don’t represent that many people. There are no more than one to two per cent of people who sign up as members. That’s quite low. So when someone was chosen by the party activists to be the candidate for a presidential election – which is important in France – people did not have the feeling that they could really choose this or that person inside the party. Primaries imitate the American system, which has been around for years in the US, and I think the French were impressed by the primaries between Obama and Hillary Clinton. And this gives the people another method of decision-making. Not only can you vote on election day, but you can choose between different candidates before that. And I think this is a mechanism that has been followed by the French with enthusiasm, shown by the large number of people who said that they were left and who went to vote in these primaries. In a certain way, this gives more democracy.
euronews: “European societies are going through a profound crisis, and not only in France. Can this type of primary election reconcile people with the political class?”
Boy: “Reconcile may be too much, because for true reconciliation, in my mind, this would mean that you find people who are competent enough, close enough to the people. Clearly this is what the Europeans want: to have leaders who are close to them, leaders without problems, not tainted by corruption, leaders who are able to get us out of the number one problem, which is the economic crisis, the financial crisis. We are not really at that point. I don’t think we have found people who can work miracles. We see that political governance changes quickly. One trusts in one camp and then another. And one does not see a real solution. So unfortunately the solution for politicians is linked to the improvement of the economic and financial situation in the different European countries.”
euronews: “Is this a way for the French left to fight against the populist vote, to prevent people from voting for the extreme right National Front?”
Boy: “I doubt this can stop the unhappy ones from voting for the National Front. The problem is how many dissatisfied people are out there, what percentage? Can these people change the first round of presidential elections like in 2002, when an extreme right candidate qualified for the second round? We don’t know for the moment. You know populism is fed by rumours, by revenge. It is not really fed by enlightened public debate. So I am not convinced that this part of the population that feels excluded and angry at politics is interested and has the curiosity to follow political debates. Maybe I’m slightly pessimistic but I’m not convinced that this changes the wave of populism we’re seeing in Europe and in France.”