Democratic Shake Up: The Return Of Engaged Citizens

Since the premature announcement of 'the end of history' after the collapse of the Soviet Union, democratic progress has stalled around the world. Many young people were put off politics altogether and others turned to the past. But this trend has now been broken.

It was almost like the final line in a theatre tragedy: 'If human rights laws stop us from doing it, we will change those laws so we can do it', said Prime Minister Theresa May a few days before the June 8 election in Britain, referring to plans to impose harsher restrictions on terror suspects.

The Tory leader had called an election at short notice to cement her power to negotiate a 'hard Brexit', Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union, which shall start on June 19. May’s proposal was in the style of US President Donald Trump who said that 'torture works' in January this year

Climactic phase

It may well be that historians will one day look back to such commitment to pre-modern practices by world leaders as the climactic phase of a wider democratic regression which has marked the decade following the financial crisis in 2008. Neither Trump nor May were elected by a majority of voters, and they sometimes seem to follow in the footsteps of Russian President Vladimir Putin or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey - both of whom have 'kidnapped' democracy in their countries.

Step-by-step these two leaders have used their executive powers to undermine fundamental freedoms and human rights, bringing modern democracies to a tipping point and trying to establish a government system based on simple plebiscitary majorities. But history did not come to this bleak end in the spring of 2017. On the contrary, the Brexit-Trump-Erdoğan-Putin shake up has resulted instead in a very welcome return of the citizen.


Last week's British general election saw the highest turnout in 25 years, with 70% of citizens casting their vote. Even more remarkable was the 72% turnout among the age group of 18-24-year old voters. This can be seen as a reaction to the backward-looking perspectives of Tory leader May and her ultra-conservative coalition partners from Northern Ireland. But it is also a reaction to the widespread criticism of young voters staying away from the polls for the Brexit plebiscite last year. A popular vote which was called by May’s predecessor David Cameron and which ended in a 52.5% rejection of continued EU-membership.

By losing her majority in the Westminster parliament last week, the conservative leader now will need to fine-tune her approach for the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. British voters might even get another opportunity to have a say on the terms of Brexit in the future.

Modern democracy

This is precisely what a modern representative democracy is about: based on continuous dialogue, safeguards for human rights, term-limited powers, and genuine decision-making processes which are always preliminary, open to new ideas and proposals by the citizens. In harsh times, when power-hungry individuals or political parties attempt to undermine these fundamental freedoms, the future of democracy faces serious tests.

What we have experienced in Britain recently is promising. There are more encouraging signs all around, indicating a possible new spring for democracy worldwide. In Russia, Romania and other countries, young people have been the driving forces behind public protests against widespread corruption.
On June 12, thousands again protested in Russia's main cities of Moscow and St Petersburg, where hundreds of young citizens were arrested. In many states across the US, people unhappy with the divisive politics of the White House have begun to resort to the political tools of modern direct democracy (such as citizens' initiatives and popular referendums) to promote more sustainable alternatives when it comes to education, immigration and social welfare.

And in France, where young voters in particular stopped the rise of the nationalist and xenophobic right in last month's presidential elections, the first round of the parliamentary elections on June 10 gave a clear indication that the country is opting for far-reaching and forward-looking reforms.

People power beyond 'elective dictatorship'

While the tide of social unrest and support for simplistic populist 'solutions' may be reaching an end, the available political (infra)structures of most democracies need to be updated. Otherwise, the often-heard promises of change (by replacing the person or party at the top of a government) will simply backfire the next time people go to the polls.

Such risks are most obvious with presidential systems in France or South Korea, where the election of human rights activist Moon Jae-in raised hopes and expectations of more democracy not just in the country but all across East Asia.

For a long time, 'elective dictatorships' - a term coined by Lord Chancellor Hailsham in 1976 - were seen as acceptable forms of government in times of uncertainty. Today - as demonstrated in many places right now - such leadership models are contributing to the destruction in peace time of what they claim to protect in wartime. The current return of active citizenship due to recent shake-ups, including Trump's election, can only be welcomed.

This development was to some extent anticipated in Switzerland last year, when a proposal to enforce an anti-foreigner clause in the constitution was defeated at the ballot box - as a consequence of an impressive turnout by voters, especially the young.

The vote on February 28, 2016 was an expression of confidence, along with many other expressions of civic will this spring. Democratic freedoms are not only used to undermine democracy, but also to reinforce people power.