Democracy has to be defended on a daily basis, but political parties aren't the only ones responsible: Citizens also have to do their part, writes Omid Nouripour in his guest commentary for DW-WORLD.DE.
"What's happening to our political parties?" It's a question I get asked again and again as a parliamentarian. The question is usually followed by more: "Do you think that parties still represent the people? Do they still know what citizens are worried about?" All this then quickly leads to a debate about the "end of party democracy."
On the one hand, one shouldn't just accept the common stereotype that -- in simple terms -- parties and politicians are responsible for the current problems. On the other hand, citizens also have a certain responsibility for democracy.
"Let the state, let politics fix it." Democracy isn't that easy.
At 32, I'm a fairly young German, who spent the first 13 years of his life in Iran. It's a country where absolutely nothing could and can be taken for granted that seems so natural to us in Germany: freedom of opinion, freedom of the press, the rule of law and -- last, but not least -- the right to free elections. Here, people, unfortunately, take these achievements for granted. But taking things for granted usually leads to indifference.
"Don't talk to me about indifference," some might say. "We're all staunch democrats, but we don't have to pretend each day that democracy has to be reinvented."
Still, there are extreme situations in which democracy might not have to be reinvented, but certainly defended on a daily basis -- for example, in light of the recurring right-wing extremist attacks on foreigners or people who appear foreign, which are, to put it mildly, "tolerated" by bystanders.
If we give right-wing extremists a free rein, we not only turn away and forfeit any kind of humanity and moral courage, we also question our democratic freedom and rights, as the ideology of right-wing extremists is founded on arbitrariness, hatred and violence. Today, they go against those who look different, tomorrow against those, who simply say what they think.
But I also miss civic participation to safeguard democratic values in less extreme situations -- for example, when the current government increasingly wants to curtail civil rights and snoop around the privacy of citizens.
I still haven't heard the cry of protest from staunch democrats in cases such as limiting data protection by saving airplane passenger information, telecommunications data retention, online searches of private computers or insufficient protection for minorities.
"Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety," this quote attributed to Benjamin Franklin has been used a lot during the current discussion, but has rarely been heard. Democracy only works when there's a balance of freedom and safety. That's why I think that a functioning democracy needs citizens who don't grow tired of defending democratic values and freedoms. Democracy could do with a bit more heart and soul.
Parties are commonly seen as the ground zero of all weariness when it comes to politics and democracy. They are no longer trusted. (Were they ever?) They make a lot of promises and keep very few of them. They are not able to solve the problems that lie ahead of us.
Their work mainly concentrates on their own interests or those that they've been drawn to by lobbyists. Their personnel is interested in power and status symbols, such as official cars, and has no scruples about enriching itself via regular pay raises that are taken from the public coffers.
This image has been around for quite some time. Considering the scandals that are regularly uncovered, it's hard to counter this assessment of politicians and parties -- just think of the party financing scandal of the Christian Democratic Union and the demystification of the republic's "eternal" political leading figure, former Chancellor Helmut Kohl.
All those who claim that politics is a business like any other are wrong: Politicians bear a special responsibility and have a special duty to integrity and independence. Citizens have a right to a "transparent representative," who tells them what he earns and where his money comes from. Every politician should know that he cannot ask citizens to be completely honest when it comes to taxes, but use -- on good advice, in most cases -- every possible loophole that he can find or has created himself.
Credibility also gets lost when scandals are uncovered but have no ramifications. Roland Koch, the "ruthless scout" with dubious involvement in the CDU's financing scandal, is still state premier of Hesse. Franz-Josef Jung, his former chief-of-staff, who stepped down because of the scandal in September 2000, is now Germany's defense minister. That's not just frustrating. It's scandalous.
So who should fix it then? Talk about the "failure of parties" is often followed by the demand to replace party politicians with experts. After all, the latter are seen as impartial and have to know what's really needed. Parties on the other hand are biased. But how much objectivity can democracy stand?
Parties produce opinions, differing assessments, interpretations and conclusions about current facts and developments. They don't deliver "truths," even if they like to pretend they do. Democratic pluralism is based on a multitude of more or less subjective opinions and assessments that citizens can choose from. One can admittedly question to what extent parties currently fulfill that task.
If only experts decide on policy, the "objective truth" suddenly moves to the center of politics -- a truth that only a small elite of specialists has knowledge about. Democracy would become an "expertocracy" that's much less transparent and much harder for citizens to influence.
That's why I cannot imagine democracy without parties. And still, democracy goes beyond the concept of parties. Some backroom party strategist may fantasize about taking complete control of democracy, but that won't happen. Our party system isn't static but mirrors societal changes. The current weakening of peoples' parties and the increasing number of five-party parliaments is proof of this.
In my opinion, it's crucial to strengthen awareness for democratic freedom and values -- within parties and within society. If we manage to do that and if parties will be more open to new ideas and supporters than they have been so far, quite a few tired democrats might become wide awake again -- and help to build party membership.
Omid Nouripour is a member of the Green party and became a German parliamentarian on Sept. 1, 2006. (win)