Dodging politics, ditching democracy

The Brits and the Poles have voted last week in parliamentary and presidential elections, respectively. But if anything unites these two European elections, it is the way they illustrate the hollowing of the democratic process. While conservatives tout more of the same, the Left… Well, what Left?

UK-Polish-elections-protagonists-May-2015

“Your generation is screwed!” That was Martin Bailey’s (Pro Europa) succinct description of the growing inequality of chances in the UK during this Monday’s public debate on the UK election organized by the Union of European Federalists (UEF) in Brussels. But in view of the massive exodus of young Poles, to Great Britain among other destinations, one can safely generalise this predicament. The youth is screwed across Europe. And, perhaps even twice over. It’s not only the problematic state of affairs as such; it’s also the apparent lack of political means to improve the situation.

Political elites in Europe have long been criticised for their detachment. But what the two elections have demonstrated was something altogether new—namely, the increasing avoidance of the democratic process itself by these elites.

Calculatedly dodging TV debates is trendier than ever among the ruling politicians. Israel’s PM Netanyahu seems to have set a precedent in March. Both Cameron and Komorowski followed suit. Politicians in positions of power have so much to lose that the price of (just) appearing arrogant by refusing to participate in debates might appear to be rather low.

There is the implicit argument that the elected politician, in a position of power, should better stay above the fray, avoiding a messy confrontation with his contestants. The idea is also to downgrade his opponents as unworthy of his attention.

Calculatedly dodging TV debates is trendier than ever among the ruling politicians.

It’s a risky bet. The voters might eventually take that implicit insult personally and vote against the arrogant politician. Or they might decide to stay above the fray too— keeping clean of institutionalized politics and away from ballot boxes.

President Bronisław Komorowski, who seeks re-election in Poland, expressed his gratitude to anyone who did vote (49% of the population), irrespective of whether they did indeed vote for him. That condescending tone was surprising from somebody whose anaemic electoral campaign seemed to have but one clear message: “I’m invincible.” The voters proved him wrong. His main opponent, Andrzej Duda, the candidate of the conservative nationalist party Law and Justice, overtook him. They face each other in a second round later this month.

In his usual intonation—many say it seems modelled on that of Catholic priests—President Komorowski acknowledged that the result of the vote “is a serious warning” and conceded that “hard work lies ahead.” He also declared that politicians “should listen to voters.” Get out of here! Really?

But is there an alternative to the political Centre-Right and Right? The Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), ageing, traditional Polish left party, failed to attract those young voters that naturally lean to the left. And what a dramatic failure it was. Never in the history of the party has their candidate achieved such a low result (2.3%). Janusz Palikot, the only other candidate that had clearly placed himself with the progressives, got even less (1.4%).

While in the rest of Europe “traditional” is usually associated with right-wing politics, in Central and Eastern Europe the connotation is rather associated with the Soviet-style, top-down communism of the past.

Is there an alternative to the political Centre-Right and Right?

This time, Poland’s decrepit Left decided to try something new. They put forward a young female candidate Magdalena Ogórek (born 1979). However, she notoriously avoided press conferences, often letting the leader of the SLD, Leszek Miller, an ex-communist, speak on her behalf. And when she did appear before the media, she invariably wore a white dress, immaculately styled hair, and as glossy a speech. It was perhaps iconic, but it just wasn’t credible.

Gradually, she, too, seemed to realize how obvious it was. She was a bait, dangled before the younger generations that either avoid politics altogether or vote with their suitcases by leaving Poland. She then started distancing herself from the SLD and presenting herself as an independent candidate. The exaggerated attempts to woo the youth, designed by the SLD and their spin geriatricians, ended up exposing a fantasy of their own.

This was embarrassing even for the onlooker and almost as embarrassing as the UK Labour Party’s attempt to appeal to female voters with a “pink van” justly ridiculed as “Barby bus” by the popular comedian John Oliver. In view of a humiliating defeat in Scotland, it is clear how badly Labour has weakened their voting base. Even the ornate claims of the Scottish National Party’s (SNP) to be “the better Labour Party” proved to be more convincing. If Labour lost centrist voters to the Conservatives, its appeal to the voters on the Left was a lost case from the very outset.

In Europe’s East, where the memory of staged elections is fresh, voter turnout is dramatically low. But the increasingly hollowed spectacle of the current democratic procedure, with its commodification of values, fears, and hopes, and its professional dummy politicians, alienates an ever-growing number of Westerners too. And when people vote for brands, politicians avoid human confrontation with their potential electorate, afraid to soil their polished brand with unexpected questions. And vice versa.

The increasingly hollowed spectacle of the current democratic procedure, with its commodification of values, fears, and hopes, and its professional dummy politicians, alienates an ever-growing number of voters in the East and the West

It is not only conservative politicians who do that. The socialists, too, look like they have forgotten the social part. They also avoid the voters, hiding behind a message well designed for the TV or behind candidates that look like human gadgets with visible strings attached. The traditional, institutionalized Left either moves, like New Labour, towards the largely neoliberal Radical Centre, or is de facto in the process of disappearance.

Of course, there is a hope that hitting rock bottom can only lead upwards. Much hope was invested in the Greens, both in the UK and in Poland. Elsewhere in Europe, the hope still lingers on with the Greek Syriza and the Spanish Podemos. Let’s hope that hope won’t just be hope.

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