Council of Europe - Venice Commission
Uni Dem Seminar «Democracy in a
society in transition»
19 and 20 May 2000
Elements of the forgotten
cultural conditions of democracy
Perspectives of a political scientist.
by Andreas Gross,
Directeur de l'Atélier pour la Démocratie
Directe à St.Ursanne (Jura, Suisse), Member of the Swiss
Parliament and the PACE.
15 main hypothesis and arguments
1. Democracy is a problem these days for all democracies, not only for the newest ones.
(FT of 17 May 2000 writes about «the crises the British democracy is facing», Prof. Paul Whiteley, the programme director speaks in terms of a «health check for British democracy ... and in some respects the patient is sick» (p.3); in the same issue one may read that «the proportion of Italians who trust their governing institutions is down to 33 per cent» (p.8).
2. All democracies, because they are only nationally constituted, face today a double crisis: One may be labelled the "outer" one; the other the "inner" one. The outer side of the crisis is the consequence of globalisation, the dominance of trans-national markets over national democracies - which makes the constitutional instauration of democracy on the trans-national level so urgent and important. The inner crisis is the consequence of the crisis of representation, which is currently opening so many indirect democracies to the idea of adding complementary elements of direct democracy into their political systems.
3. Democracy as the set of a delicate and often contradicting ensemble of rights, institutions, proceedings, achievements and cultures is always an ongoing process. The history of democracy is the history of trials of democratisation. Progress of democratisation means to try to make the ensemble of democracy less imperfect knowing that it can never be perfect.
4. Every society and nation may be positioned on the asymptote of the democratic process by evaluating the standard of the different parts which together create the democratic ensemble. Progress on this curb can never be realised only institutionally, or only by the law, or by a president, the government or parliament. Progress is only possible as the effect of collective learning and change in and by the whole society or at least a large part of it.
I will try to define as a practical political scientist some elements of this ensemble of democracy and democracy building which should help you to position the country you know best and better then I do on this asymptote of the never ending process of democratisation.
5. Nevertheless we face specific problems when we have to study the state of democracy in post totalitarian societies which have only been or liberated themselves ten years ago.
6. Dictatorial regimes in totalitarian systems base themselves essentially on the destruction of trust in-between their citizens. An individual cannot endanger totalitarian rule.
To act politically people have to work together. In order to be able to work together successfully you have to be able trust the others at least in minimally. This is why as a kind of a cultural base every democracy needs a certain amount of trust: Trust in yourself; trust in each other; trust in the institutions, in the independence of courts etc.
Democracies need a minimum of trust in order to work properly; the resource of civil societies which has been maximally destroyed by totalitarian regimes.
When totalitarian regimes face oppositional movements or have been overthrown in democratic revolutions by acting citizens this shows that the regime had not yet managed to destroy civility and civilian societies. In such countries (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic) democracy building is already a little bit less difficult than others.
7. Trust is not only an essential condition for political action. Without trust you are also not able to share. But the sharing of power between citizens and institutions is another cultural essence of democracy.
8. One of the conditions of trust and building trust is how you perceive the human beings whom you don't know (most of the others) and the ones you at least know a little bit (your friends and yourself). But a Lithuanian colleague, vice-president of parliament, told me recently that the post totalitarian societies are still dominated by a totalitarian culture of no estimation for the other and no value for the individual human being. But when this estimation and value of the other does not really exist in a society a really democratic penal code or prison system (for example) cannot be democratically installed.
9. But how somebody may trust others; when he or she feels not estimated and when nobody ever trusted him or her ? How a average citizen may overcome this vircious circle (learning by doing) when a lot of people in the so called elites do not give any example for an other way of being and acting ?
10. A central element of the ensemble of democracy is also a set of rules, which enables political conflicts not to turn into violence. Because conflicts are the ordinary and legitimate children of freedom. Because freedom does mean much more than the choice between an offer, but the right, the ability and the opportunity to act together with others on the common fundaments of your own life. We should not accept the simplification of these central notions of politics and remind each other that since the French Revolution freedom means the opportunity not to have to live your life as a destiny; history does not just happens or comes over us, but is made by human beings and may be influenced by us.
11. How men and women may learn that democracy is not just another and better offer of life but an invitation and an opportunity to do something yourself, to act politically and to defend your interests, hopes, ideas and projects together with other likeminded people ?
How one may learn that the other minded person or the member of another party is not an enemy but somebody who legitimately defends another point of you which could be helpful to find the truth noby really knows for sure ?
How citizens may learn that democratic power does not means that one owns state power for making private business or following private interests but the privilege to be able to act within the society in a privileged position for the sake and in the interest of all , when these citizens see only few peoples who act in this way but many who still do it the other way round ?
12. Democracy means the opportunity to influence the power. In new democracies people have now this chance, but they don't believe in it. How they could believe in it before they had the opportunity to make real experiences which make the, believe that there is really an opportunity to influence power in a democracy ?
Until this is the case the power rests in elite circles and most of the people feel excluded again, "out" and not "in", as before in the non-democratic state.
But elites who have power without being observed; controlled and challenged by oppositional forces who are out of power but in politics become easily corrupted and do increase corruption.
13. Such democratisation processes are even more difficult when the economical and social standard of living in the society is not only not increasing as many citizens hoped, but is really decreasing in a brutalised market society where the state is to week, because not carried by a strong civil society, to make it socially and ecologically responsible and respectful.
Where people are unemployed and economically excluded there these people cant feel included in society and politics and find the self-esteem and the courage to act democratically. Where people are afraid to make a living on a daily bases they do never have the opportunity to start to become democratic citizens. Fundamental fears and political freedom can't meet each other.
People in bad economic situations cant intend to enjoy democracy, there freedom is only formal and there look for the bred they seem to have been given in the totalitarian systems. Hungry people cant use democracy that's why they cant respect it. They ask themselves how should I respect an idea and a political concept which does not even respects my basic needs ?
14. The best laws and parliamentary decisions do not help the building of democracy when they fail to address the thinking of the people. A law on parties does not alone help democracy and pluralism when most of the citizens think party is just a synonym of a communist party and that's why they would never think to join a party, not to think about creating a new , alternative party.
15. Accountability of the state institutions and decisions, responsibility of the authorities and the people in charge of official duties - all central elements of good governance - can not be developed without social and cultural roots in a society which has to be more than a market or an assembly of lost human beings fighting against each other for the own profit.
But these roots cant grow without a civil society which can't start to build itself without citizens who start and realise together the better alternative and try to leave behind the bad habits even when they feel too often too lonesome and helpless.
There is no easier way to approach democracy than to try to realise always as much as possible in the concrete moment with the people who are there.