LONDON: Individual elections do not always enhance democracy – a useful reminder that the ballot box is only one part, albeit a central one, in any free, plural society. Of course, there are also magnificent examples of elections that strengthen both the stability and the institutions of a community.
We have just witnessed an example of the second kind in India, the world’s largest and greatest democracy, where 420 million voters there returned a Congress-led government with a solid majority. It was in many respects a personal triumph for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. His victory shows that it is possible to succeed in politics through decency, honesty, and high intelligence. Sonia Gandhi and her family should also take credit for putting at the forefront of their campaign a vision of an inclusive society, which rejects divisions on the basis of caste, ethnicity, language, and religion.
The result should help India to continue – not without occasional turbulence – its journey toward becoming a high-growth economy that raises the standard and quality of life for the poor.
I wish we could look forward in Europe to a similarly healthy democratic experience next month when voters throughout the European Union elect new members of the European Parliament. Since 1979, these MEPs have been elected direct rather than indirectly from national parliaments. But turnout for these elections has been falling in several countries. There is a danger that the number voting in June will be lower than ever before.
Moreover, in the current grim economic conditions across Europe, voters who do turn out are all too likely to take the opportunity to punish the major parties and vote for fringe and even extremist politicians. There are particular circumstances that may encourage this electoral response.
First, everywhere there is a sense of disgust at the way the recent boom seemed to privatize gains while the subsequent bust socialized losses. A few rich individuals appeared to gain and all taxpayers to lose. This has spread a sense of unfairness.
Second, globalization has been the target for populist criticism. It is usually defined to mean everything we dislike – from changes to our traditional way of life to loss of jobs. It is a brave politician who points out how much liberalizing trade and opening up markets have increased our overall prosperity.
Third, in Britain at least, the entire political class has been discredited by a sleazy scandal about the expenses that many parliamentarians have paid themselves. Analogies with pigs, snouts, and troughs fill the pages of British newspapers.
But there is another reason for the lack of interest in the EU elections. The European Parliament has power, but it deals with issues that, while important to voters, do not top their list of concerns.
The EU’s member states retain power over the most sensitive political issues, including taxes, health, education, pensions, the labor market, and foreign policy. So the questions that dominate national campaigns have little impact on European elections.
The European Parliament deals with the important areas where individual countries have pooled their sovereignty, like trade, the creation of a pan-European market, and the biggest environmental issues. But these are not often the questions that trigger the most passionate interest.
In addition, the European Parliament’s detachment from national political debates means that it has less political legitimacy than is desirable. Indeed, those who worry about the creation of a European superstate can rest easy.
There will be no such entity, because there is no European electorate; the electorate remains French, Belgian, Latvian, Greek, and so on. They all vote at the same time, for the same institution. But what does an Italian know – or care, for that matter – about British politics?
Look at our television programs. We know far more about Europe’s football than we do about Europe’s politics. “The beautiful game brings people together more effectively and reliably than the European Parliament is able to do.
That is no criticism of those who work – often very hard – in the European Parliament. We have created a political body that has power to hold European institutions to account but has no obvious European electorate to which it can itself be held accountable.
A parliament without a people inevitably increases the sense of frustration that many European voters feel about the process of making Europe-wide policy choices in their name.
If the Lisbon Treaty is ratified later this year, one of the changes should result in national parliaments becoming more involved in European decision-making. But we need to look country-by-country at what else we can do to tie Europe’s own parliament into national politics.
Unless we do that better, fewer people will vote for MEPs, more of them will be elected simply on a protest vote and represent Europe’s murky extremes, and the whole practice and principle of European democracy will be discredited.
Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.www.project-syndicate.org