The power of established parties is eroding fast. So is the political lifespan of politicians. We are on the verge to a dynamic rollercoaster Turbo Democracy.
The name of the latest Austrian ex-chancellor is Kurz or translated into English Short. Today his government collapsed after the shortest period of office for a post-war chancellor in Austria. And while this can be attributed to a purely local phenomenon – a boozed far-right politician promised to sell out Austria to a self-declared niece of a Russian oligarch – the situation is simultaneously characteristic for the current political breeding ground. It took only ten days from the publication of a compromising video to the successful no-confidence vote on a highly popular Austrian Government, which was the first successful no-confidence vote in the post-war Austrian republic (and they tried 185 times before).
Political changes today happen fast and dramatically, the instant public discussion and reaction on all issues is chasing politicians and few are mastering to combine riding the ultimate populist wave with staying in office. Take some numbers of the results of EU parliament elections as a reference point:
- The only six weeks old Brexit Party of Nigel Farage crushed all established parties and achieved instantly more than 30% of the votes in the UK in EU elections, while the Conservatives did not even come close to 10 % of the vote.
- Salvini’s Lega Nord in Italy increased their share five-fold from 6 % in 2014 to an estimated 34% in 2019. Noteworthy that in 2014 Social democrats had still achieved 40% of the vote, while in today’s political landscape in Italy they are irrelevant.
- The left and liberal hate figure Orban is one of the very few who can win an absolute majority of votes in Hungary.
- Once a shooting star, who was himself able to storm into the Presidency in France, Macron has only received 20 % of support in the EU elections.
- Social democrat and conservative parties get beaten up in nearly all European countries and in big numbers, they lose together more than 20% of their seats and do not control together – for the first time in history – a majority of seats in the European Parliament.
We are experiencing the rapid transformation of stable Western party-oriented democracies into instantaneous direct voting platforms on leaders and hot topics of the day. Welcome to the rollercoaster turbo democracy. And it promises to be exciting, turbulent and fast. Gone are the times when parties mattered more than people, when believes and values were the foundation of political parties, when people or families, or even whole quarters voted identically over decades for one party. All this has become meaningless. The very same instruments, that can be cornerstones of a fast, livid and direct democratic involvement of the citizens, can also act as the grave digger for stable and democratic societies. Different sides of the very same coin, the old law of polarity. We have an unprecedented level of communication, information, understanding, and exchange and yet we are more controlled, watched and influenced than ever. The ultimate political Instagram show.
Attributes of the rollercoaster turbo democracy are starting to materialize. They are all based on unlimited reach and direct access to people through internet and social media, the mental overflow of citizens through information overload, the speed of events and the immediate global journalistic processing, and the difficulty to differentiate true from fake:
- From programs and parties to slogans and leaders: in times of rapid changes, parties and programs have proven to be too slow and rigid to adapt to the reality on the ground. Egocentric leaders feel the mood of the day and ride the populist wave. They are not interested in any kid of manifesto, only in approval ratings, media comments and likes from followers. They know how to reduce a message to a simple slogan that is penetrated thousands of times, whether true or false.
- Short life span of politicians: what goes up, must come down. As the decade long march through party hierarchies is no more necessary for the rise of a politician, the new type of leader is often missing strong and loyal political armies. They are easily and fast recruited while the star is ascending, but support is dwindling once approval rates are going down. As the personal lifecycle of this new type of politician is shortened, naturally there is no interest in any long-term reforms or investments into the country.
- Rapid rise and fall of political movements: Gifted leaders bypass lengthy party discussions to push their agenda with a direct link to citizens. They board a party or election platform for infrastructure and legitimacy reasons and transform these instantly into a personal election machinery, centered around a common cause and themselves. Failing in delivering the promised results, these movements disappear often faster than they come up.
- Strong leaders and a trend to authoritarian leadership: in times of perceived insecurity and rapid change, people long for strong leaders to give them orientation. They give themselves an aura of above-the-law, gift-of-god vibe with the respective authoritarian rights to rule and dictate.
- Propaganda reigns: The new leaders recognize the importance of direct and robust contact with their constituencies to avoid parliamentary discussion and/or media scrutiny. They build their own communication platform and channels. Once in office, they will avoid all critical discussions with media, the opposition or other critical voices. As demonstrated from Washington to Paris to Vienna, communication with media is then downgraded to a one-way street of personal propaganda and message control. Governmental agencies are abused and transformed into a personal propaganda apparatus, penetrating success stories to the believers.
- Massive influencing: As the party system is fading as a stabilizer, foreign Governments, NGOs and other players are globally entering the arena to influence massively and directly the political discourse and public opinion on critical issues, and subsequently the outcome of elections. The Russian hoax and Ibiza-Gate in Austria are just the beginning.
- Truth has no value: From the famous NHS lie during the Brexit campaign to the uncountable proven lies of the stable genius in the White House, leaders are exploiting the fact that people lose interest in political issues fast and are not able to memorize and control past messages. Holding the Guinness world record of lying in office, is no more an obstacle to running the most powerful nation in the World, but in the contrary a tool to retain power.
- Brutalization of political communication: Avoiding any content-oriented discussion on political objectives and strategies, all communication is personalized. Political opponents and critical journalists are ridiculed and badmouthed. Everything is reduced to a with-me or against-me. Gifted politicians understand the need for entertainment and produce a Game of Thrones narrative for their audience.
With the exception of the global climate movement, this rollercoaster is so far better mastered by the nationalist, right-wing political forces from Trump to Bolsonaro, Duterte and Salvini. This is the main reason for their success! Until we will see a societal shift to more stability, a return to values and integrity, a stronger focus on community than on individuals and a longing for more social justice and cohesion, it can be assumed that it will stay like this. And yet, we should not take our current democratic system for granted. It will need a substantial overhaul and it has to be seen, whether an open, transparent and liberal democratic order can survive the turbo rollercoaster; and whether the parliamentary party system can cope with the post millennial age of ultra-rapid change, robotization and short-termism. Otherwise it will become obsolete. At this very moment, it looks more probable that managed democracies like Singapore or China will perform better and take the lead.
Enjoy the Show.