Can representative democracy restore public trust? (1/2)

November 26, 2018

⇒ Read more :Can representative democracy restore public trust? (2/2)

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Democracy is facing major historical challenges around the world, and The Genron NPO (Genron below) believes it is time to join forces to reform democracy and restore people's trust in the democratic system of government. Genron has embarked on a number of initiatives aimed at achieving this goal, and one part of that effort was the two-day forum held in Tokyo on November 21 and 22, 2018.

The Tokyo Conference on Democracy 2018 was held on November 21, bringing together current and former policy makers, journalists, and representatives from think tanks around the world to discuss the challenges democracy now faces. Held at Tokyo's New Otani Hotel, the forum delved into the issues surrounding a single question: "Can representative democracy restore public trust?"

Yasushi Kudo, President of The Genron NPO, opened the conference with some background about Genron's founding mission: to build a stronger democracy in Japan. Surveys conducted by Genron and its partners have shown that citizens in the leading democracies are losing trust in their representative democratic institutions - from political parties to national parliaments - and Japan is no exception. In some Asian countries, the people have even begun electing so-called strongmen - a term that became a recurring theme throughout the forum - as governments clamp down on the media and citizens embrace populist ideals.

Genron aims to uncover why democracy is retreating, to determine if that retreat can be reversed, and to learn where and how efforts should be made. Kudo explained how surveys in Japan, the E.U., and the U.S. show that while people trust democracy itself, a majority of citizens believe that political parties and governments are not working in the interest in the people. Politicians are scorned, and the media is distrusted. In other words, the people are withdrawing from politics and the world is facing a true crisis.

With that background laid out, the discussions began with a special session on the results of surveys conducted by Genron and by La Fondation pour l'innovation politique (Fondapol).


Special Session: Surveying public trust in democracy

As moderator, Yasushi Kudo was joined by three panelists from Japan, the U.K., and France: Shigeru Ishiba, Member of Japan's House of Representatives and former Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party; Gideon Rachman, Chief Foreign Affairs Columnist for the Financial Times; and Dominique Reynié, Executive Director of Fondapol and professor at the Paris School of International Affairs.

Kudo and Reynié gave brief presentations of the data gathered during the surveys conducted by their respective organizations. Kudo provided a broad summary when he pointed out that both surveys show that people have lost trust in political parties, though the level of distrust varies by country. He asked Shigeru Ishiba to provide a comment to start the discussion.

Ishiba turned the question back on itself, suggesting that voters cannot trust politicians who do not trust voters. Rather than avoiding difficult topics and saying only what the voters want to hear, Ishiba believes that politicians must come up with ways of explaining difficult topics to voters. Conversely, the public should make a similar effort to "think like policy makers" during elections.

In addition, Ishiba pointed out the tendency of some to use the name of democracy in an undemocratic manner, and noted that without freedom of speech and other institutions, there is no democracy. He referred back to the Genron survey, which showed a decline in trust in politicians and government, but an increase in trust in the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF). That trend seemed to be a source of some trepidation for Ishiba, as without civilian control of the SDF, that trust could be harnessed to serve nefarious ends. He emphasized that point, stating that, "The relationship between the government, the public, and the armed forces must be considered."

Gideon Rachman noted the trend of people increasingly voting for those "claiming not to be politicians or (who are coming) from non-traditional parties", and the fact that the trend seems to be a universal one, visible in both the East and West.

"It is the nature of a party that you can't say what you think, and the people pick up on that," Rachman said. "So, they look for leaders who appear to be authentic...maybe that is accentuated in the social media age."

Kudo asked the panelists if it will be difficult to restore the status quo, and Reynié responded in the affirmative. The issue, he said, is that it is not the concept of the party that is in crisis.

"Considering the E.U. landscape," Reynié explained. "It's obvious that populist parties are rising. It's not the parties themselves (that are in crisis), it's democratic parties."

There are large differences between the E.U. states, but what they share in common is that a large portion of the public believes that the ruling parties are failing to fix the problems. It is a "crisis of efficiency and ruling parties, rather than just a crisis in confidence."

Here Ishiba returned to a previous point. In the Japanese Diet, the ruling party engages in discussion before presenting bills in the Diet, essentially fait accompli, while in the U.K. parliament, debate is open and inclusive. However, lawmakers in the U.K. still tend to vote along party lines.

"Parliaments shouldn't just be rubber-stamping bills," he stated. "There must be debate and discussion, otherwise parliament is not fulfilling its role."

Towards the end of the special session, the discussion turned towards the media's role in democratic societies, and all agreed that a free media is, as Rachman put it, "still indispensable for democracy, a key element of it."

Rachman is worried about U.S. President Donald Trump having "legitimized the attack on the media", by calling them the "enemies of the people". This has possibly encouraged autocratic governments around the world to follow suit, as is potentially evidenced by the alleged murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by the Saudi Arabian government, and by media crackdowns in Turkey, China, and other countries.


Ishiba added another dimension to the media discussion, stressing that collusion between the government and media can also result in major issues. He noted that no Japanese media opposed Japan's embarkation on war in the Pacific.

"Even Asahi (a news outlet typically considered left-leaning) celebrated it," he said. "No one was critical of the government. I think the media should provide accurate, grounded info, and not fear the intervention of the government."

Expanding on this point, Ishiba also pointed out that in the modern era, all newspapers provide their own spin on the news of the day, with different news outlets offering a range of support and opposition to government policies. However, as most people only read one paper a day, this creates an echo chamber of ideas.

"People need to see the viewpoints of other media," he said. "Biased voters make everything more difficult."

Session 1 - The current state and future representative democracy

For Session 1, Kudo, Rachman and Reynié were joined by: Bam Aquino, Senator of Philippines; Sandro Gozi, former Member of the Italian Parliament and European Affairs Minister; Denis MacShane, former U.K. Member of Parliament (MP) and Minister of State for Europe; and Yenny Wahid, Director of the Wahid Institute.
Kudo also served as moderator for the session, and opened the debate by asking the panel to speak about how they view the future of the democratic system.

Sandro Gozi agreed with a point made in the special session that traditional politicians are often ignorant of the changing expectations, needs and demands of citizens, and noted that traditional political discourse based on rationality and statistics "does not work anymore."

"You have to talk to emotions," he said, and he believes that this sort of behavior is easier for "disruptive politicians" than for traditional politicians.

However, Denis MacShane disagreed with the stance of Gozi and the other panelists. While it may be true that there is little decorum in politics, MacShane believes that this is no different from previous generations, even back to the time of Roman orator and statesman Cicero, whose speeches were "full of populist exaggerations and attacks on his opponents."

"That's a sign of a healthy democracy," he said. "People should be suspicious, uncertain and scornful of their politicians. It is through that system that ideas are debated and resolved."

In fact, rather than democracy being in retreat, MacShane thinks that perhaps democracy is simply going through the growing pains of childhood, noting that when he entered politics, democracy was yet to be introduced in Eastern Europe, Spain, Portugal, and other countries.

Reynié presented a counter-argument to this, highlighting new factors such as immigration and issues of cultural integration that did not exist in the previous generations to which MacShane referred.

"The E.U. (populace) is aging very quickly, with a big effect on the welfare state. Now the government has to do unpopular things, but we don't have the same tools as they had in the past."


Kudo wondered if politicians are turning away from fixing the problems, and if people are truly withdrawing from political discourse. Rachman responded by noting that populist politicians avoid the decisions that must be made in rapidly-aging societies with well-developed welfare systems such as Japan.

"The welfare budget has to grow, and the government has to make difficult choices," he said. "What the populists do is ignore the choices...they can get away with it for a while, but they have to deal with it eventually. Politicians who think long-term face particular difficulties when there needs to be big budget reforms that will be unpopular, while those who ignore the choices as if they are not there will win."

Bam Aquino provided a glimpse into the situation in the Philippines, a state that some have described as "a backsliding democracy" due to the policies of the current President, Rodrigo Duterte. Aquino believes that Duterte's election was comes from the people's desire to see "a government that gets things done".

The public has generally been disappointed with the results of democracy thus far, particularly the economic results, and that this has "led to the flirtation with other forms of leadership."

However, he also believes that the shift is not one from democracy to authoritarianism, but rather "a shift in people wanting to see change in their lives".


Finding solutions to the problems faced

When the panel was asked about their ideas on how to solve the current issues, Gozi explained that liberal democracies have two major problems.

"They are not fast enough in deciding, and they aren't efficient enough."

If we want to "preserve democratic principles against strongmen and illiberal systems," Gozi believes that reform in necessary.

Reynié noted that since people are calling for more public capacity, perhaps their needs could be met by reinforcing capacity on the European level, and developing it into a "real public authority." Without historical levels of reform, he worries that nationalist governments may begin closing borders and introducing policies that harken back to continent's darker days.

According to Yenny Wahid, one of democracy's biggest problems remains one of representation. Although women make up a major part of the electorate, "Our voices are not being heard." When voters feel that they are not being represented, and their grievances aren't being heard, they look elsewhere.

"That's democracy," she said. "But then strong leaders then start promising heaven to the population."

Regarding why strong leaders succeed, Wahid believes it is because they are able to "create perception" by capturing the imaginations of voters.

"It's not just about being strong, it's about understanding what the people want," she said.

Aquino noted that politicians should aim to represent the people as a whole rather than their own segment of the populace, and with that, Kudo brought the discussion around to the concept of identity and the corresponding issue of identity politics in the West having increased the social divide.

Responding to a comment from Reynié, Rachman stated that the increased level of equality in Europe is possibly connected to the rise in populist movements. Since there are large gaps in voting preferences between men and women, it is possible that "the people who have been displaced are angry."

While Wahid agreed with Aquino in that politicians should represent everyone, she also pointed out that it is difficult for politicians to empathize with issues faced by people from other groups. This includes people of different genders and religions, and in the case of Indonesia, indigenous groups as well.

"Politics is not just about delivering services, but also about having your voice heard...having your face there," she said. "That can be achieved by having token representation as well."


On that same topic of representation, Aquino said, "If (politicians) truly represented everyone, and were truly efficient about it, I don't think there'd be this wave of authoritarianism or less democratic principles."

Aquino backed up his point by describing how economic growth in the Philippines has been high for the past seven or eight years, but economic inequality has remained in the 17 to 23% range. Perhaps, he surmised, the populist movement is rooted in this type of inequality, not just in Asia, but around the world.

After further questions from Kudo about how to balance national and global interests, Aquino added that in order to fight back against populist trends, "You go back to the people. Find out what issues everyone faces, regardless of party or socioeconomic class."

Wahid added that while she believes the gender balance will be achieved over time, a more welcoming environment for women is what is needed right now. Meanwhile, Gozi suggested that greater democracy on the multi-lateral level could be beneficial, pointing out that "national interest and neo-nationalism are different things."

Towards the end of the session, MacShane injected a glimmer of hope into the proceedings, reminding everyone that, "There is more democracy in the world than ever before."

"Brexit and Trump happened in 2016," he continued. "Brexit is a 1000% disaster; it hasn't been a victory for populism. And now Trump's victory is running through his fingers with the midterms. The checks and balances are coming into play. Democracy is alive and well."


⇒ Read more :Can representative democracy restore public trust? (2/2)

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