Democracy and Power, Power and Democracy

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Estonia, like the Western world in general, has democratic authority made up of three parts – legislative, executive, and judicial. They form an integral whole.

The Encyclopedia Estonia defines power as follows:

“Power is authority capable of bending others to its will, managing or influencing the actions of others.”

This is not an attempt to write a theoretical essay. That would be more than I can handle. I will simply try and describe how I see the development of democratic authority and problems, based on some practical experience.

Authority Facing Unprecedented Challenges in the Democratic World

The Paris Match weekly published a gallery of a caravan bringing people to the Mediterranean coast by way of the Sahara Desert. It is only the beginning, seems to me.

People are rioting. The yellow jackets in France, unrest in Lebanon and Chile. If usually civil unrest is tied to socioeconomic problems, what about rioting in Hamburg in July of 2017, where people were ready to bury police officers under boulders that would have surely killed them.

Have 19th century anarchists, Bakunin and Prince Kropotkin, been resurrected? With the aim of destroying the fabric of society?

The most powerful country in the world, the United States, is fighting unprecedented forest fires that have destroyed thousands of homes. It is the same in Australia and the Amazon rain forest. A flood saw water rise as high as the second floor in the home of our American friend.

And, of course, the storm in Võru County that demonstrates the power is not at all prepared for such disasters. Floods and forest fires can happen in Estonia.

These are the new priorities. I dare say that power has come down in the democratic West in the past 15 years.

In 1997-2007 , the United Kingdom was ruled by Tony Blair, whose leadership won his party three elections. Blair was a confident leader, a pillar of the Western world. The result of the most recent UK election brought a PM who is a man whose entire political career has been based on lies and misleading his people.

The French elected Emmanuel Macron as their president in 2017 – a young and charismatic politician Europe looked to with hope. He declared a set of socioeconomic reforms the whole of Europe would need.

Nothing came of it. The political power in France surrendered to protesters, retreated, lost its authority. The French president is making high-sounding statements and taking unpredictable political steps. It is as if he was aiming for the position of Europe’s political leader. I believe the English expression is a wannabe.

For as long as I have known German politics and political power in Germany, it has always been reliable and secure. Chancellors Helmut Kohl, Gerhard Schröder, and Angela Merkel – they were like pillars wrought of iron in the storms that hit the West. However, political power is becoming unsure also in Germany following the recent elections.

In Spain, where the power remained stable for 40 years, four elections have sought a mandate from the people in the past four years and have not found it.

We can think back to Russia in 1917 and the famous saying that “power is lying in the streets”. And, sure enough, a fellow by the name of Vladimir Lenin, backed by his friends and Kronstadt sailors, came and picked it up.

Power has been left lying in the streets in a lot of countries recently, with new waves of disgruntled protesters walking all over it.

Many people would ideally have an enlightened ruler in power for 40 years, like an absolute monarch, surrounded by wise advisers and capable of making carefully considered decisions. After all, history has known rulers who started out like that.

But time goes on, initial advisers are pushed out by silver-tongued careerists, capable administrators are replaced with ineffective ones, the ruler puts aside Machiavelli in favor of increasingly believing in their personal brilliance. Initial legitimacy and support from the people dissipates and the ruler is decapitated by the angry mob.

While Western democracy is showing increasing signs of uncertainty, people look, with quiet admiration, to Russian President Vladimir Putin and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping. The power in those countries is in hand, stable and effective at affecting people’s behavior and actions.

Sovereign democracy, managed democracy, actual people’s power. No confidence motions, no inquiries, no sudden turns in administration.

The people need to trust their rulers for them to be able to make decisions. In democracies, free elections serve as the tool for creating that trust.

Can Democracy Protect Its Power?

Democratic authority is given a mandate from the people through a democratically and regularly elected legislative body. Lately, however, this does not seem to be enough for many people. For a good reason.

Of all voting-age citizens in Estonia (887,420 at last count), only 565,045 or 63.7% voted in the recent parliamentary elections. Participating in elections is voluntary in Estonia, like it is in most European countries (except Belgium and Luxembourg).

And thank God for that! It is another democratic freedom. However, as concerns the legitimacy of democratic power – over 300,000 citizens failed to provide it with their mandate. While we cannot say they were against it, the fact remains that they did not contribute to the democratic mandate today.

How to strengthen democratic power? Could electing a powerful head of state help? Should we switch to single-mandate electoral districts? But what about what’s going on in the United Kingdom?

Should we change our voting system in such a way so as to automatically give the winner an absolute majority in the parliament? It could be done. We would have a single-party rule.

Could involving citizens by way of referenda boost the credibility of democratic power?

What about a stronger repressive apparatus? Isn’t it too lenient toward rioters and looters today? Yellow jackets in France, the people in Hamburg protesting against the G20 summit in June of 2017.

Do we need to be more forceful in fighting illegal migration? Can or must a country representing democratic political power protect itself by erecting walls? I’m thinking of Israel here, for instance.

Another major topic is the involvement of so-called civil society in influencing or even exercising democratic political power. It became very popular for a time. It was believed that involving civil society (without being very specific in terms of its definition) would lend democratic authority support, additional legitimacy.

We also shouldn’t overlook the fact that the most important civil society organizations of a democratic society are its political parties people join voluntarily, making important choices. For some reason, political parties are treated as something lying outside civil society.

Greater involvement of civil society is definitely the right path. Ideas, opinions, debates are sure to breathe new life into exercising political power. However, this involvement has not been free of problems.

Which civil society organizations represent who and how? How broad-based is support for their ideas in society? What to do with those ideas? People who are initially guided by ideals and a sense of duty become disillusioned and often fall out with one another. Who should serve as the arbiter?

It often happens that the perceived opportunity to boost the credibility of democratic political power is replaced with frustration and dissatisfaction. Political power that hoped to gain support from extended consultations, ends up with dissatisfaction instead.

The Effect of the Social Media Revolution on Democratic Political Power

It makes for a broad subject these days. A separate topic that requires one to delve deep. However, claiming absolutely that new social media are a threat to political power might be premature, while they definitely change the way people come to power and exercise it.

We have enough examples to show how people who are not clowns have also used it to come to power. Democratic forces have also found success in social media.

We would need to complement the traditional legislative model to reinforce the credibility of democratic political authority. Allow me to once more propose an idea that has already been discussed and rather unanimously opposed. But still.

In addition to the legislative procedure detailed in the Estonian Constitution (and a very good constitution at that), we could think of how to formally and systemically involve respected citizens in supporting democratic rule. Not replacing!

We could form a citizens’ assembly made up of respected people based on their professional and social position. Local government heads, university rectors, academicians, entrepreneurs, cultural figures, successful athletes. Perhaps also retired judges, officers, and police veterans who are no longer in active service.

This body would not have to be small. It would not replace legislative activity but complement it with substantial opinions. It could meet twice a year at most.

For a country to be a good place to live, its power needs to be well established. However, this strength needs to be acquired democratically. How to do it so that no branch would tower over others, nor power become a phenomenon in itself?

We saw how Soviet power worked. And God knows I don’t miss it.

The article was originally published at:

Siim Kallas
Academy of Liberalism