September 20, 2005

Democracy in Action

MABB © ®

This past Sunday, September 18, 2005, I had the unique opportunity to experience one of the most established democracies in the world (generally accepted) in action. As you may already be aware, Germany went to the ballot box and chose (or not) a new government. As a sutudent of political science and currently studying democracy, I obviously was very interested not only about the outcome but about the process itself. After all, I think that Bolivia could learn a couple of things from the way Germany deals with its elections. Therefore, after commenting and taking a brief look at Germany's 2005 elections, I will draw a couple of points Bolivians and Bolivia could learn from one of the most established democracies in the western world. And please, don't think I am a total fan of Germany's democratic process. As any other democracy Germany has its good sides as well as its bad ones. I just think Bolivia can learn from the good ones.

Having experienced several electoral seasons in the US as well as in Bolivia, I have a reference point to compare to. The German electoral season is very different to those I observed. In the US and Bolivia, the period before the actual elections is very "active". By that I mean there is a lot of proselytism. In the US, for example, the political campaigns are enormous. The voter has not a moment of peace. He is bombarded with posters, TV ads, radio ads, now online ads, newspaper ads and articles, door to door campaigning, road signs, pamphlets, flyers, buttons, pins, bumper stickers, and the like. The political discusion gets more and more as the election day approaches. Even at the voting centers the voters are not left alone. As you walk into the voting center, you can see volunteers lining up the walk way to the door and handing you last minute leaflets, flyers and the like. In Bolivia, the campaign is even messier. The walls of the city get painted and repainted with the slogans of the parties. Posters cover entire buildings displaying the best side of the candidate. The media goes also crazy with the political campaings. The most widely medium is the TV, of course.

Starkly contrasting this chaotic picture, the German pre-elections season is one of calm and serene discussion. I am not talking so much about the candidates but about the citizens. I heard very informative and calm discussions among my friends and colleagues. Also, on the months leading to the September elections and after it was clear there was going to be elections, I was greatly surprised of how little proselytism and campaigning there was. The discussion concentrated on newspapers and television, where every so often there were reports on what the candidates were doing and saying. August was a very quiet month for US or Bolivian standards. No posters, flyers, very little TV and radio ads, and almost no newspaper political ads.

It seemed to me that only on the two or three weeks leading to election day I saw the posters, ads, flyers poping up all over the region. Now I am guessing this was due to some kind of law (which I am not aware of now) regulating political campaigning. But, I have to say, even these weeks were so calm and civil. I could not believe. The candidates traveled all over the country taking their messages. I just did not see much of them. What got a little hot were the discussions between the local candidates. These people were all over their regions. But, yes, Schröder, Merkel, Westewelle, Fischer, Lafontaine, did show their faces in Hamburg, I am not saying they did not. But, they were so quiet. Again, by my standards.

As people walked to the ballot boxes, they did not have to deal with any volunteer shoving a last minute appeal from candidate X or urging them to vote for candidate Y. That is because proselytism in and around voting centers is prohibited by law. On that day, Germans tried to deal with their famous double vote dilemma. The big question in the minds of many Germans is: Who gets my first vote and who gets my second vote? And here is my theory: I think this is why German pre-election polls are so unreliable. Everyone knows the percentage of undecided is big, but the reason why there are so many undecided is because every voter grapples with the dilemma of who will get his/her two votes.

Well, the elections themselves are not a big deal for the average German. The discussion is lively but low key. The discussion also revolves around parties, which at the same time represent issues for most Germans. So for instance, to vote Green (Fischer) means to vote for social justice and environment (e.g. cut atomic energy). To vote CDU/CSU (Merkel) means to vote for the dismantling of the social system, freer labor market, more jobs, etc. To vote Social Democrat (Schröder) means now also to dismantle the social system although not in the CDU sense. To vote Free Democrat (Westewelle) means more free market policies, less taxes, etc. In essence, German voters, even though they talk in terms of political party preferences, they really mean to talk about issues. This aspect is comparable to the US but not to the Bolivian case.

So what lessons are there to be learned from the German democratic process?

There are two main lessons that Bolivia and most importantly its citizens could learn from the German case. The first lesson is the acceptance of the outcome. The second lesson is the concentration on the issues.

At six o'clock that Sunday evening, the German TV was giving the first projections (in the US are called exit polls). Almost inmediately the DCU/CSU was declared the party with most votes. As the evening progressed, it became clear that Ms Merkel had the most votes but did not have a clear majority with which to form a government. For the sake of clarity, the German system is a parliamentary democracy and as such the head of government is chosen in congress. However, all the party leaders as well as the people with which I had contact that evening and the subsequent days, accepted the outcome as it was. There was no doubt in their minds that the results were those and they had to be dealt with. That meant, for the people to accept the outcome and for the parties to try to build the new government of Germany. As an example, as we learn more and more and it is slowly becoming clear that the possibility of a coalition between the environmentalist greens with the crhistian democrats and the free democrats might be a reality, the reactions of green supporters is one of resignation and not one of rage. At the worst, what I heard is that supporters intend to punish the greens by not voting for them in the next elections.

It is important to highlight here the reaction. Notice that I said they will punish the greens by not voting for them in the next elections. This reactions implies that the electorate does not see any other way of reaction other than not supporting the green cause in the next elections. It is this kind of acceptance, not just of the outcome but of the democratic process along with its institutions that sets appart Germany and Bolivia.

The other lesson Bolivia could learn is that before, during and after the elections, the people and the political class must concentrate on what is important: the issues. As I said before, most German voters with which I talked before, during and after the elections have talked about voting for the issues. Even though there are some people who make a difference between the West German voter and the East German voter where the West German votes by party and the East German votes by issue, in the end what everybody talks about are the issues. West Germans do talk about which party they will vote, but the reason is not because Fisher or Schröder or Merkel is on the ballot, the reasons are unemployment, atomic energy, higher prices in the pump, less taxes, social security, retirement pensions, etc.

This concentration on the issues is what is lacking in Bolivian politics. The voters are still awating for the magic Doria Medina or the Tuto or the Evo who will come and save them. It is a kind of personalistic political race rather than an issue oriented race. Even though some issues are being thrown into the ring, the character of politics remains personalistic. This is one reason why Bolivian politicians do not think twice about changing party afiliation. There is no firm ideology.

Now, as I said it before, I am not saying Germany's electoral process is perfect and it should be imitated by all. We all know that is not the case. However, what I am saying is that there are some aspects worthy of imitation. I take Germany as an example because it is the most recent event I experienced and one that I am intimately linked to.


TheMoney&TheFame said...

Well written and informative post. Do you know anything about Venezuela? If so, I'd like your insights into that governmnt and the debate of Chavez.
You treated the elections of Bolivia and Germany very objectively and honestly and I trust you will do the same with Venezuela. I am asking because I have friends fron Ven., who present a very different view of Chavez than the papers and TV. They are pro-Chavez and they talk about the lack of poverty (starving children, homeless and ghettoes) and the unity and progress however one is a socialist, and the others visit for vacations and reunions only.
An anti-Chavez Venezuelan I have recently met contests ALL of that and posted links from his and his friends' blogs to show me the other side. I saw a documentary about the RR that supports my friends' views but I would like to hear an informed, objective opinion.

mcentellas said...

Also, since 1994, the Bolivian electoral system is also a photocopy of the German one. So you can also see how differently different countries react to the same institutional rules. That's the core of "historical institutionalism" perspective in political science -- institutions matter, but so do historical legacies. ;-)

MB said...

Well, thank you for your kind comments. But, sorry, I am no expert on Venezuelan politics. I dislike (disagree with) Chavez not because of what he stands for but how is he trying to achieve it. Particularly in respect to his plans for the Americas.

I think he is going to bankrupt his country before he will create the Bolivarian confederation of the Americas. I mean, Bolivar had a noble idea, but I don't think it is realistic to think that with oil money it can be achieved.

I also don't think that supporting politicians in other countries (e.g. Evo Morales in Bolivia) will get him closer to his dreams.

I also think that his government has dangerously moved away from democracy.

But, that is as far as I go into Venezuelan politics. I have just not been following them that closely.

Historical institutionalism, I just heard about it over the weekend. More like read about it. :-)

mcentellas said...

I'll also echo my strong skepticism of Chavez. Despite his own (and his supporter's) PR, his goals are dubious at best. His record for suppressing dissent or opposition politics is clearly at odds w/ democratic principles. This puts him in the category of someone like Fujimori or Pinochet or Castro. I happen to dislike those kind of tactics regardless of what the greater good (whether capitalist or people's paradise) aimed for. I'm also instinctively skeptical of armchair socialists (wealthy expats or foreigners) who can accept the PR claims (or the goals) w/o feeling the day-to-day repercusions of such a regime. Finally, like Pinochet, Chavez has shown himself willing to even attack foreign citizens if they're critical of him (recent attacks on Colombian & Spanish embassies). Chavez might be a socialist (at least in rhetoric), but he's NOT a democrat.

Javier said...

The electoral proccess in Spain is very similar, only before three or four weeks of the elections the candidates can actually ASK the voters to vote for them, before that, they can't. Also, the day before -and the day of elections- the elections there cannot be any electoral act or political act, the candidates or the parties cannot ask for vots or anything, is what we call "jornada de reflexión", this is actually very important, since the people that don't have very clear what they want to vote is a day -usually a Saturday- can check the data, talk with friends and family and decide what to vote, obviously for the people that are "loyal" to a party -like me- is a nice but not useful day.

I see a big difference between Bolivia and western democracies is that, like you have say, when you vote for a party you actually know what you're voting. Let's say that I vote for the cons -PP-, I know exactly what I'm voting. But let's say that I want to vote in Bolivia to PODEMOS and I ask myself "what the hell I'm voting?"

Miguel said...

Yes, I agree, but here is my dilemma. At the same time, I (an undecided voter) want to make an informed decision on who will I vote for. For that I need information. If I am still undecided up to the last minute, presumably I will still need information to make up my mind. But, I also want some peace from proselitysm and overkill.

How do I reconcile those seemingly incompatible needs or wants? :-)

That is one of my arguments in this article. I am an issue voter, if there are no issues being discussed, then how do I make up mi mind?

Why don't the parties talk about issues? Why voters concetrate on personalities? Lots of Qs.

Mar said...

I`m too tempted to stay away from this discussion: In the Hitchickers guide to the galaxy there was a planet where people were rouled by lizards, and they voted them! (to keep the wrong lizards from getting the power) the idea of Douglas Admas was very neat. Even though they where not our same race and did not share our policies or issues, they still thought that voting for lizards was a democractic process... Atilio Borón (president of FLACSO) said that in Latin America we have oligarquic goverments with universal votes... a real paradox.

Miguel (MABB) said...

By all means, don't hold up. You opinion is only appreciated. :-)

A paradox indeed!