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2015: What kind of Europe? What kind of democracy?

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2015: What kind of Europe? What kind of democracy?


Last year more people were able to participate in elections and referendums across the globe than ever before. But this year a series of popular votes will offer answers to key questions about the future of Europe and its severely challenged democracies. A preview.

The 2015 election and referendum calender is about to become rather full. After a very promising start in Sri Lanka, where an autocratic leader, President Mahinda Rajapaksa, surprisingly lost and even more surprisingly accepted his defeat, the crisis-shaken citizens of Greece will elect a new parliament on January 25, offering a first big challenge to both Europe and the established mainstream party systems. This double challenge, in which the traditional way of integrating Europe from the top down by means of large and broad parties is put into question – by populist (and sometimes even extremist) parties from both the left and right – will dominate this upcoming electoral year.

However, as neither traditionalist top-downers nor populist nationalists will be able to offer stable solutions on their own, new forms of coalition-building and direct involvement will be required to make Europe more democratic and democracy more European. In practice, this mutual dependency between the European integration process and people power is currently not sufficiently taken into account by countries with super-coalitions or super-agreements between the main political parties, as in Germany, Austria, Finland and Sweden. The same is true for high- riding populist parties like Podemos (Spain), Sweden Democrats, Syriza (Greece), True Finns, Movimento 5 Stelle (Italy) – or UKIP (Britain), which from very different ideological origins wants to drop out of the EU without offering anything more than (possible) lipservice to modern direct democracy.

First citizen-triggered vote in Malta

Nevertheless, this spring will see a great number of popular votes on substantive issues. Many of them have been triggered by citizens themselves, as for example in Slovakia (on same-sex marriage, February 7), in Switzerland (on tax-deductions for families and on a new energy tax system, March 8) and Malta (on the traditional Spring hunting, April 11). In the case of Malta it is in fact the very first time in its history that a citizens’ initiative has originated from outside the Parliament and the political parties have managed to use the country’s referendum law successfully. Beyond that, Estonians, Finns, Britons and the Irish will also have an opportunity to make their voices heard at the ballot box. In Estonia (on March 1), the new parliament will be elected to a great extent via the internet, in Finland (on April 19) the current great coalition will be tested by the growing anti-Europe/immigration True Finns, while in Britain (on May 7) Prime Minister David Cameron will attempt to be reelected by promising an in-or-out popular vote (plebiscite) on the EU. In summing up an intense electoral spring, the Irish citizens will have the opportunity to decide on a series of constitutional amendments (May 26), including same-sex marriage and reducing the voting age from 18 to 16 years.

”A more stable and prosperous governance”

In sum, in contrast to last year which saw many big elections in many big countries, 2015 could become a year of (direct) democratic finetuning, offering smaller-sized but highly interesting processes of overcoming current hurdles for more democratic deliberations. The Swiss practice of combining direct with indirect democracy under representative government will see a long list of both referendums and elections – the national parliament elections will take place on October 18 this year. According to the former UK minister for Europe Denis MacShane, the combination makes for a ”more stable democracy with more prosperity” than a winner-takes-all governance system.

While the early 2015 headlines were dominated by anti- democratic acts (and sometimes also reactions) intended to undermine basic human freedoms and rights, it will be worthwhile to pay a lot of attention to these upcoming popular votes across Europe and beyond. A key to progress and success will be to create ”proximity and identity in the age of globalization”, as the Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga stated in her New Year address. Swiss identity is as much about openness and solidarity as about tradition, and about global connections as well as domestic roots, Sommaruga said, addressing those political parties and forces in Switzerland which see Europe and democracy as two things which cannot be reconciled. It will be an important task for all stakeholders this year to precisely put a lot of effort into achieving the contrary: a more democratic Europe and a more European democracy. Among many others things, this will include the work to make the first transnational direct democratic tool, the European Citizens’ Initiative, a much more accessible and efficient process of citizen agenda-making.

Text by Bruno Kaufmann, Board Member of Democracy International.

This article was originally published in People2Power.

Credits of image above: Quinn Dombrowski, Wikimedia Commons.


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