Bizarre political phenomena cast shadows over European democratic system

2017-09-17 06:30

  by Zheng Jianghua, Huang Yong 

   BURSSELS, Sept. 10 (Xinhua) -- Democratic political system, in Europe above all, has long been deemed as a sacred cow. However, its shining image has been in heavy shadow cast by bizarre political phenomena popping up in Europe's most full-fledged democracies in recent years. 
   The Brexit referendum was the first "black swan" event of 2016. Prior to the plebiscite, most heavyweights from different political strips took up the cudgel against opting out of the European Union (EU), warning that leaving the bloc is detrimental to British national interests. Opinion polls also showed that the "remain" has the edge over the "leave". 
   However, catching many people off guard, the result of the referendum showed that the "leave" outgunned the "remain" by a narrow margin. A broad swathe of pro-leave folk cast their emotional votes out of the anger over current situation and the eager for a change. 
   "I don't see us benefiting whether we had voted remain or leave. But I thought voting leave was worth the risk. There will inevitably be change after Brexit," said O'Neill, a 52-year-old service driver in Liverpool told Xinhua. 
   But he admitted that he was "not sure how I would vote now if there was a re-run of the referendum". 
   In the snap election which took place nearly one year after the Brexit referendum, the opposition Labor party, headed by Jeremy Corbin, scooped 33 more seats in the House of Commons, dealing a crushing blow to British Prime Minister Theresa May's plan of boosting her small 17-seat majority. 
   May's Conservative Party only won 318 seats, eight short of the number need to command even a one-set majority. The result was unimaginable in April when May called the snap the election in a bid to strengthen her hand in the Brexit negotiations with the EU. 
   The Labor party's "victory" to a large extent is the upshot of pro-youth campaigning strategy of Corbin, who has long been on the touchline in British politics and was often snubbed by British media. 
   At the other side of the English Channel, a political rookie also hit a purple patch. During the French presidential election in April and May, candidates of the traditional political party were given cold shoulder by voters, whereas centrist Emmanuel Macron scored an emphatic victory with 66 percent votes.      
   Woefully, high expectation easily breeds frustration. On Aug. 15, the day marking Macron's 100th day at the Elysee, an opinion poll showed that his approval rating nosedived to 36 percent.
   The slump of support, with the fastest pace compared to his predecessors since 1995, was mainly caused by Macron's push for reforming the labor law and axing the defense budget. These moves not only irked vested interest groups, but also raised ordinary folk's hackles, according to analysts. 
   Some labor unions have called on their members to hit the streets in September. Youth movement "Nuit Debout", or "Up All Night", which were in the spotlight early last year, is likely to stage a comeback. 
   In March and April 2016, hundreds of youths occupied the Republic square in Paris every evening for a spontaneous nocturnal sit-in to express their objection to the government's labor reforms seen as threatening workers' rights. The protest then expanded onto other French cities for further causes including migrant rights and anti-globalization. 
   By whipping up anti-globalization, anti-integration and anti-immigration mood, populist parties garnered considerable votes in the elections of several European countries this year. For instance, during the first round of French presidential election, Marine Le Pen, leader of France's far-right National Front (FN) party, secured votes outnumbering most candidates of traditional political parties.  
   In Germany likewise, recent opinion polls showed that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) enjoyed the third highest approval rating, only after Chancellor Angela Merkel-led ruling coalition of Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its Bavaria sister party Christian Socialist Union (CSU), and the Social Democratic Party led by Martin Schulz, former president of the European Parliament. 
   As the German federal elections scheduled on Sept. 24 are approaching, the AfD, which gained popularity as Merkel decided in 2015 to open Germany's borders to over 1 million refugees, is likely to win over 5 percent of votes and thus reach the threshold for entering the Bundestag, or the Federal Parliament, for the first time after the WWII as a far-right party.  
   Regarding such a prospect, Dr. Stephen Broechler, an expert on German and comparative government at Berlin Humboldt University said: "The good news is that for a long time in the future the AfD won't be part of the government. No party in the German Bundestag will form a coalition with the AfD. The non-coalition policy of the leading parties also applies to state parliaments." 
   But, "AfD will penetrate German parliamentarism, will polarize party competition and conflictize the political debate," he stressed. 

   These bizarre political phenomena are inextricably linked to the daily lives of European voters, many of whom fume over the high unemployment rate, the increase of taxes, the influx of immigrants and the surge of terrorist attacks, among others. 
   But scratching beneath the surface, these phenomena are more to this than meet the eye. In fact, they indicate a representation crisis of Western democratic politics. 
   First of all, ordinary folk are increasingly disgruntled with mainstream political parties, which they think fail to represent their own interests. Non-traditional political parties and policies have a stronger appeal with them. 
   According to an opinion poll published by the French newspaper Le Monde late last year, 57 percent of French people thought the democracy was "bad" in France, and 77 percent of them thought it was "getting worse". 
   The prime reason for these feelings was "corruption among lawmakers is rife", other reasons included "although there are elections, nothing has been changed", "social order is poor", "people's demands are not considered", "lawmakers fail to be good representative of the people", and so on. 
   At the first sight, the European democratic system appears to be fair, but given the generally low turnout, poll results should not be taken at face value. In the case of the Brexit referendum, for example, voters who chose to leave the EU only made up 37.8 percent of all eligible voters.    
   The threshold for voting to leave the EU was so low that the minority could hijack the will of majority, noted Kenneth Rogoff, professor of economics and public policy at Harvard University in an article on The Boston Globe, underlining that the plebiscite unmasked Britain's democratic failure.  
   Other scholars argued that these bizarre phenomena come down to the force dominating Western politics. 
   "The policies of the oligarchic, economic, and financial groups resulted in the current crisis. The current system does not really absorb and inform the majority of people," French economist Jean Gardrey said. 
   To be sure, reflection over the drawbacks of Western democratic system in plainly not new, but the interlocking crises haunting the Western societies in the past few years have deepened and broadened the reflection. 
   David Gosset, a French pundit on international studies, told Xinhua that if seen through the lens of social management, Western democratic system is stymied by serious problems, but "we have fallen to a pitfall of complacency. We regard our democratic system as most perfect and thus irreplaceable". 
   However, this kind of complacency has subdued in the wake of shambolic political order in Europe. Around one third of the French people now thought that other political systems can be as good as their democratic system, the aforementioned poll of Le Monde revealed.