Hollowing out Democracy

In 1964 my wife was 18 years old, too young at that time to vote in England, where she lived. She was nevertheless present when her boss – she worked for an advertising agency in Manchester – assembled the staff and told them to vote Tory, implying dark economic times would accompany the arrival of a Labour government and hinting at possible redundancies.

Factory bosses in the United States did the same on a much wider scale in the election of 1896. In many towns in eastern seaboard states, when men arrived for work on the morning of the day the vote was to be held, they found the gates locked and notices saying that the factory was closed due to difficult economic times, which would improve only if the right candidate won the election. The right-wing candidate of the Republican Party, William McKinley, was of course their man.

Voter manipulation, whether by threats or bribes, is a long tradition, of course. The worrying thing now, however, is that such things are done so openly, and in seeming ignorance of their illegitimacy. Recent statements by members of the European Commission regarding the outcome which they would prefer to see in the coming Greek elections have caused widespread outrage. Since saying that he wanted to keep out ‘extremists’ and that he wanted ‘familiar faces’ in power in Athens, Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has backed off, explaining that by ‘extremist’ he meant only the fascist Golden Dawn, while his spokeswoman Margaritis Schinas added that “there is ample room for interpretation on what a known face is.” There is no indication, however, that these people know what all the fuss is about.

Given that in the unique Brussellian dialect ‘extremist’ usually means ‘opposed to/highly critical of the EU’, radical left party Syriza could be forgiven for taking his remarks to include them too. And to put those remarks into context, they are certainly undemocratic in spirit and intention, illegally exceed the Commission’s rights and responsibilities, and as the United Left Group of Euro-MPs (which includes Syriza) noted in a press release responding to the comments, they smack of ‘the worst practices of neo-colonialism’. The Commission is not elected. Its president is, or should be, regarded as a civil servant whose job is, or should be, to carry out the decisions of elected politicians and, when asked, to advise them.

The Greek people are not, as it happens, to be consulted immediately, or not directly. There will be up to three rounds of voting in the Parliament to elect a new President, the results of which are not known as I write, though they will be by the end of the year. If no candidate receives the required majority, a general election will have to be called. As the post of President is largely ceremonial, it is the possibility of an early election on which attention is focused. According to the polls, Syriza would win it. Though there’s many a slip, as they say. And if as I suspect the government will get its candidate through – they need only twenty-five additional votes, and how much would it cost to buy twenty-five Greek MPs? – an election will in any case have to be held by the summer of 2016. If Syriza did win a general election and were able to form a government, they are pledged to refuse to continue austerity policies. Such a victory would show us, also, what Syriza is made of. A hotchpotch of left groups, it has evolved in a very positive direction since its days as a ‘left’ but generally EU-friendly party, and its analysis now, though it misses some points, is basically sound. When I got chance earlier in the year to ask its leader Alexis Tsipras some questions, amongst them was ‘if you do become prime minister of Greece, how will you avoid the fate of Salvador Allende?’ The other questions I posed that day were answered in full but that one was, unsurprisingly I suppose, ignored. I hope that such fears are exaggerated, but one never knows, especially in a country with a long and also a recent history of political violence.

As well as interference in electoral processes having a long history, it forms part of a wider pattern of growing contempt for democratic institutions, a contempt rooted in a fundamental failure to understand what ‘democracy’ is supposed to mean. There are now more parliamentary democratic institutions in the world than ever before and yet less popular influence on governments and political decision-makers than at any time since the Second World War. For ‘democracy’ to mean anything at all, it must mean more than one person, one vote, freedom of speech and assembly, and a multi-party system. These are generally the first things that come to mind, but they mean very little if the popularly elected institutions which the people are electing have little or no power. Within the European Union (and elsewhere, but that’s for another article) this is increasingly the case, as elected governments are overruled by an unelected Commission in Brussels and unelected central bankers in Frankfurt. National parliaments have more formal power over EU legislative proposals than was the case before the Lisbon Treaty, but this has not materialised into anything effective, in part because if Britain is anything to go off what the average MP knows about what goes on in Brussels is virtually nil. But also if you read the Treaty you will see that while parliaments are encouraged to express their reaction to legislative proposals, and a formal system for their doing so has been established, there is absolutely no obligation for the Commission to take any notice of these views. A negative opinion from a national parliament is known, after a caution in a football match, as the yellow card. Trouble is, unlike in football, there’s no red card to follow up this warning.

It isn’t just because I’m rather impressed by Syriza that I think that Commissioners pronouncing in favour of their opponents is unacceptable. It’s hard to think of a shoddier bunch of scoundrels and nutjobs than UKIP, but it’s for the British people to realise that, and not for unelected Eurocrats to tell them how to vote. The story goes that when Leonid Brezhnev was asked by the American media which candidate he would like to see win the coming US presidential election, he declined to answer on the grounds that, whilst he had a preference, he did not think that an endorsement from the General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) would be welcomed. The Commission should bear those words in mind when dishing out ‘advice’.

Steve McGiffen is editor of Spectrezine where this article first appeared. Read other articles by Steve.