Active citizenship and political movements in Europe

Active citizenship and political movements in Europe

Yves Leterme & Sam van der Staak
Ahead of a big election year for Europe, many worry about unconventional newcomers to the political scene and their appeal to large groups of citizens. For some time, political participation on the part of citizens has been in flux. Traditional manifestations of citizen participation in democratic politics have rapidly declined. This has included voting, political party membership, or civil society and trade union membership. However, even as traditional participation has declined, alternative forms of active citizenship have been rising, with social media perhaps being today’s best known innovation in terms of facilitating active citizen engagement. Many citizen protest movements of the past decade, from Euromaidan in Ukraine to recent democracy protests in Poland, have been supported by the convening power of Twitter and Facebook. 

Why are citizens abandoning parties and flocking to new forms of active political participation as described above? There are many explanations, and none of them are all-encompassing. At the core lies the fact that political party relations with citizens have changed from predominantly vertical relations to more horizontal ones that reflect the way people work, interact, and live in today’s societies. This has affected the traditional political party role of aggregating and articulating citizen interests.  

But there are also other reasons. One is that citizens today distrust parties more than any other democratic institution. Only around one in five EU citizens (22 percent) think that the financing of political parties is sufficiently transparent and supervised. A second reason why citizens are drifting is that political parties are increasingly seen as “out of policy control” and unable to deliver. The 2008 European financial crisis, the 2013 euro crisis, and more recently the refugee crisis have created the perception among large groups of voters that developments at home are decreasingly controlled by domestic politics. The third reason is related to namely the ideological and programmatic convergence of politics. At the center of any democratic system and its elections is the difference of opinion between political opponents. The opportunity to choose is what makes citizens feel represented by the party they support. If opinions become too similar and electoral choice weakens, be it as a result of external policy dominance or the ideological convergence of political elites, that system collapses. And lastly, citizens have discovered new modes of direct participation, such as social media, which better correspond to horizontal ways of interacting in today’s societies. Advances in information and communications technologies (ICTs) have made it easier to voice opinions publicly without the interference of a representative body. 

In Europe, political movements have come up that form a threat to the dominance of political parties. Movements are hybrid representative institutions in the sense that they take part in elections, parliamentary politics, and sometimes executive government, while also allowing active and direct citizen participation within their internal decision making structures. Many, although not all, stem from protest movements that were born outside the formal political institutions and that aim to challenge the status quo. Political movements combine the traits of different traditional political ideologies, which also reflects how they have surpassed many of the traditional party dichotomies. What has made political movements successful? First, they stand out for their capacity to mobilize, and do so through a mix of horizontal, non-hierarchical decision making, and by using effective modes of traditional and digital communication. Second, political movements often engage more directly with citizens. They do so via diverse channels, both on the street and online, and throughout the electoral cycle rather than just during election campaigns. Third, many political movements make an effort to highlight their financial transparency. 

Established political parties around Europe can draw lessons from the way political movements have emerged in the rest of Europe and the U.S. Turkish political parties that want to reconnect with citizens and evolve their sense of representation would also benefit. In the years to come, ruling and opposition parties would do well to invest in becoming 21st century parties. This will be a bitter pill to swallow for some political leaders, who may feel they stand to lose some of their influence, perhaps rightly so. But this is the only way they will be able to withstand another burst of active citizenship and represent what has shown to be a newly engaged citizenry.

* Yves Leterme is the secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), and former prime minister of Belgium. Sam van der Staak is senior program manager with International IDEA’s Wider Europe Program. This is an abridged version of the original published in Turkish Policy Quarterly’s (TPQ) Summer 2016 issue.