Critical to the rebuilding of crumbled political pillars such as the Parti Socialiste in France is the installation of party democracy.
The results of the first round of the French presidential election have echoed the late Peter’s Mair groundbreaking claim, published in 2013, that the ‘age of party democracy has passed’. The expert on European politics did not assume that parties would disappear—rather that new parties or movements would arise in contemporary democracies, such as we have witnessed with La République En Marche (LRM), the Five Star Movement in Italy or the Pirates and ANO in the Czech Republic. A common thread is what Mair called the ‘hollowing’ of democracy, reflected in a void of disengagement between citizens and their states.
The latest electoral result adds to this worrying trend. France’s two long-dominant centre-right and centre-left parties, Les Républicains (in the most recent incarnation) and Le Parti Socialiste respectively, which traded power for most of the six decades and more since the ‘fifth republic’ was established, have collapsed. Between them they won only 2.3 million out of more than 35 million votes cast.
But much longer-term societal and political transformations, as elaborated by Christopher Bickerton and Carlo Invernizzi Accetti, have led to a new way of doing politics—‘technopopulism’. The fragmentation of contemporary societies makes it very convenient for party leaders to build electoral strategies by staking a claim to expertise, as with Emmanuel Macron using LRM as his vehicle, or by appealing to ‘the people’, as with Marine La Pen and her Rassemblement National—the candidates left standing to contest the second round. Indeed, in the logic of technopopulism, the two pitches are combined.
What should prevent the detachment of individual citizens from their societies are political parties which serve citizens and build social trust, rendering contrete abstract notions of the state, civil society and their interrelationship. Starting within their own organisations, parties demystify the notion of political accountability. In the absence of structured party democracy, with strong intermediary bodies and a requirement of account-giving, contemporary political leaders who morph into governmental elites can just keep doing ‘whatever it takes’ to gain and regain power.
Dominant political leaders are operating self-referential rules, ostensibly justified by the technical exigencies of effectiveness, modernisation and fast adaptation to external demands, all in the service of ‘the people’. Macron is for ever inventing new ways to do European or national politics, whether by reliance on purportedly neutral external expertise—in his administration’s frequent resort to consultancy from McKinsey & Co—or in his transformation of the traditional civil service, replacing the National School of Administration (ENA) with a new Institute of Public Service (ISP) whose graduates’ skills could be put at the service of the private sector as well.
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This recalls in many ways the approach advanced in the United Kingdom by the former prime-ministerial adviser Dominic Cummings. A managerial, ‘business’ logic seeks to mitigate risks and avoid conflicts, rather than accept public scrutiny or challenge by the political opposition. Indeed a ‘beyond left and right’ bypass of party value systems would be preferred, without recognising the significance of political alternation.
This very much echoes how Mark Rutte won (again) last year’s election in the Netherlands, adopting an ostensibly pragmatic and non-ideological approach which has won him favourable comparisons with the former German chancellor, Angela Merkel. It is a way of doing politics which absorbs rivals on the left, rather than engaging in political contests, leading to a ‘normalisation’ of policies for which his own centre-right party would not normally stand.
The logic of technopopulism, whether via the elevation of technical expertise to the political level or the appeal from there to ‘the people’ as if this were free of ideology, leaves an empty space in politics in which leaders no longer accountable to parties can design and run political competitions based on their own beliefs and competences, which can quickly be adapted to a changing environment. Le Pen’s new focus on le pouvoir d’achat (the cost-of-living crisis) in her 2022 campaign, rather than on identity and immigration as in 2017, follows this logic. In fact, it won’t be much of a surprise if she adopts claims to expertise and resorts to external consultancy herself, to win elections and stay in power.
Her lack of accountability as RN leader can have more specific advantages. In 2014, her party borrowed €9 million from the First Russian Czech bank, in preparation for her 2017 presidential run. Her defence was that western banks would not offer a cash lifeline. But borrowing from a French one would have been rather more aligned with her xenophobic stance of ‘national preference’.
Feeding this logic of doing politics however has its consequences. One is further alienation among citizens, reflected in abstention from voting and indicators of gradual erosion of social trust. While self-empowerment is evident in the form of social movements, protests and so on, the collective empowerment in which political parties should have the central role is simplified to electoral cycles and strategies in which citizens remain disengaged. Rather than articulate their own collective choices, they are stuck with the choices the political leaders have already made for them.
This risk to contemporary democracies requires reinventing the role of party organisations and a new impetus for collective actions which would reflect the needs of societies and their citizens. Such party democracy would assume that political leaders are recruited from within and are held to account by the party itself, including by its base in its members. The logic of account-giving would require parties once more to translate such abstractions as the rule of law or the common good into concrete, intermediated spaces in modern political systems operating at the service of the citizens.
Emilija Tudzarovska is a lecturer in contemporary European politics at Charles University in Prague and a researcher at the Czech Academy of Sciences, SOU. Her current research is part of NPO 'Systemic Risk Institute', funded by the EU.