THE PAST FIVE YEARS of politics have been characterized in many respects by disruption and fragmentation. Once-stable democracies such as Britain and the United States are convulsing under their own respective populist projects, whilst Finland is grappling with a surge in far-right nationalism.
It would be easy to dismiss Pär Stenbäck as a relic of an old, disappearing form of politics. The former Minister for Foreign Affairs is firmly in the center of the political spectrum and has been a member of the political establishment for close to half a century. However, rather than looking back at a rose-tinted past, Stenbäck believes that only fresh, radical solutions can save democracy and restore public trust in politics.
The release of his third book last year, Democracy Under Threat (available in Swedish and Finnish), was meant as a wakeup call to the European political establishment, who risk fatally endangering our political systems with their unwillingness to address the concerns that are fueling the rise of populist parties.
In an exclusive interview with the Helsinki Times, we caught up with him to hear his thoughts on the recent election, populism, and the solutions to our current political inertia.
Let’s talk about Democracy Under Threat. What was your motivation for writing it?
The rapid escalation of political crises in recent years, including Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, show that western democracies are themselves in crisis. In Finland, too, there are unprecedented signs of deterioration and fragmentation in politics. I wrote this book to suggest what I believe are the necessary reforms we need to improve our political system, starting with the parties.
Political parties have forgotten their role as bridge builders between people and power. They are not prone to reforming themselves and have lost members and faith as a result. In Finland, the total number of people who are members of a political party has declined from half a million to 200,000 in the past 30 years. That’s a crisis.
The result is that you get so-called ‘cartel parties’, where most policy decisions are being made by a small clique of two or three people at the top. Few parties are willing to listen to their members anymore. You have a situation where parties are afraid of their voters and voters don’t trust the parties.
Parties try to manage their voters by offering vague, mass-appeal election promises such as “pensions will get better”, whilst not actually giving voters something to believe in. They ignore the fact that many voters are frustrated, and you get populism as a result.
The establishment must take an honest look at the issues the populists are raising and not just brush them aside. Sometimes the populists are raising the right questions. People are not only reacting based on facts and figures, they are reacting on their emotions and feelings - you must reach out to voters with a vision and a story they can emotionally accept. These visions must aim at increasing the legitimacy of the democratic system.
This is the central thesis of my book.
Do you think that there is a point in history where democracy functioned better than it does now? Is the world just a more complex place today?
Populists tend to look back. Look at the election ads on the Helsinki buses; “let’s get Finland back”. They’re talking about a fictional paradise. There has been no perfect time. Even going back a few decades, as many of these populists seem to be proposing, Finland was a much poorer and less stable place than it is now.
One thing that has deteriorated is the capacity of politicians and people in power to fix urgent problems. Political systems are fragmented, and we live in a world that is more politically and technically complex, whilst processes are much more complex to manage.
In a fragmented and polarized system, politicians have less power to enforce change and respond to crises. Voters believe everything can be fixed by the good will of politicians, but their hands are tied by things like finances, regulations and other obstacles.
So, democracy hasn’t deteriorated, but the environment it operates in has become more complex. The world has changed, and politics hasn’t caught up.
So, do we need political parties at all?
There will always need to be mediators in representative democracies. I warn strongly against referenda, not just because of Brexit. Referendums are usually instigated by political parties for their own political agendas.
So, what are we left with? To increase the legitimacy of parliamentary democracy you need to send out the right signals to the people. Take citizen’s initiatives – they are immensely popular and 80% of Finns support them.
I would like to increase the minimum threshold for the signatories of these initiatives. Not to make it harder to reach the parliament, but to get even more people engaged. Say, from the current 50,000 threshold to an 80,000 or 100 000 one. Even if not every initiative gets through parliament, people feel like they have been heard.
People who sign could also commit to sit on a panel, a citizen’s panel, convening in Helsinki. Here they can discuss it with the parliamentary committee in charge and hear arguments for and against. I have looked at examples of these kinds of deliberative democratic policies. Drawing a panel by lottery can be very representative. It has worked in Canada, Ireland, Iceland. Ordinary people get the signal that they can contribute.
People can make their voices heard, while parliament should make the final decision.
You focus on the future a lot in your book. What do you think Finnish and European democracy will look like in twenty years’ time?
What we need to do first is start educating young people about democracy and their rights stemming from a democratic system. Second, we must fight populism by showing we are taking their justified claims seriously and addressing them, including letting voters know when the populists are lying. We need to understand the emotions and mentality of the populist tactics, rather the just dismissing them outright.
Populists are trying to appropriate nationalism and our national symbols, proclaiming to be the real patriots. Liberals should be very careful with this and not let them steal those emotional symbols that belong to everybody. I claim that voters are not voting only based on facts, but also on feelings.
Religion, culture, tradition, these things are important to preserve too. Liberals. conservatives and social democrats tend to be too technical. This is no way to win hearts and minds.
And, of course, what do you think of the recent election results?
The Finnish election outcome seems to prove some of my thesis. The outgoing government lost more than any government so far and the fragmentation of the political map has increased.
A majority government will not be easy to form; one can imagine a situation when a minority government now could become a reality (as in Sweden today). The election outcome also shows that the traditional parties are not able to counter and manage a clever populist onslaught.
This underlines the need for party reform and a re-assessment of their policies for dealing with a growing lack of legitimacy within the political system and democracy in general.
Even if a veritable populist movement only enjoys the support of 17.5% of the voters, it is time for establishment politicians to perform some self-criticism.
Stenbäck’s book is available in Finnish under the title Demokratia on pelastettava (Docendo 2019, Democracy Must be Saved) and in Swedish under the title “Demokrati under hot?” (Magma 2018, Democracy under threat?).
Adam Oliver Smith – HT (@HelsinkiTimes)