Dario Cavegn: The right's tricks won't get them where they want (4)

(Image: Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc)
By Dario Cavegn
3/3/2016 2:37 PM
Category: Opinion

Within just a few days, two groups on the political right made moves to turn their supporters’ loyalty into actual political capital. EKRE would like to manipulate voting to work in their favor, and Vooglaid’s SAPTK would like to introduce direct democracy.

EKRE’s way to more votes

What EKRE (Conservative People's Party of Estonia) is trying is nothing new. They want to change the rules of how Estonians elect their parliament. They call to limit online voting to election day, and to restrict early voting to just the tenth to seventh days before the election.

They also want the publication of opinion polls and party ratings during the 40 days leading up to parliamentary elections to be regarded as political advertising and banned.

Around the world, conservative and far-right parties are playing the same game. They know that their biggest advantage is the fact that their voters are more disciplined than those of center and left-wing parties.

So they try to change the system.

As a rule, low turnout in an election means an advantage for conservative parties. If you limit the opportunities for people to cast their vote, which is exactly what EKRE’s proposal wants, the statistical probability of a conservative victory increases.

This works even better if you gag the press at the same time, as a sudden surge in the popularity of a right-wing party might mobilize centrist and leftist voters.

You limit the opportunities to vote and gag the press, and the right is more likely to win. You do the opposite, open ballots for weeks in advance and report everything the conservative parties do and say, and you can be sure the participation of moderate and left-wing voters increases.

Vooglaid’s naive understanding of direct democracy

The so-called Foundation for the Protection of Family and Tradition (SAPTK) has apparently had a look abroad and thinks that the introduction of direct-democratic elements would help it get its way. It organized a conference on direct democracy that took place last weekend.

The SAPTK is headed by Varro Vooglaid, who has been an ardent opponent of anything remotely resembling social progress. Vooglaid's understanding of what direct democracy is and what it would mean for an interest group like his is naive at best.

Laws have to live up to certain standards; judges need to be able to work based on them. They aren't something you write up at your kitchen table.

This is why in Switzerland, the only country in the world with actual direct democracy at the national level, the voters don’t get to change the law.

They get to amend the constitution.

Initiatives and referendums propose constitutional amendments. If they’re accepted by the voters, parliament then creates the laws that put their demands into practice.

So it’s not quite as simple as Mr. Vooglaid would like you to think. You don’t bang your drum, shout a bit, and rally people around your cause. You need a very complex and very delicate system in place to make direct democracy practical.

Direct democracy is a priority choice. It’s not there to make life easier, or processes more efficient. It isn’t cheap either. And a country about to introduce it is making a serious commitment to the politicization of all of its society.

I’m Swiss. I turned 18 in spring of 2000. Since then, I have participated in 128 votes at the national, 43 at the cantonal, and at least a few dozen at the municipal level. I’ve also voted in ten elections.

If you’re Swiss, what you vote on covers an enormous range of topics. Yes, a matter like the Registered Partnership Act would be among them, no question there. But you would also vote on value-added tax, credit for the military to buy fighter jets, government construction, shop hours of operation, environmental protection, judicial appointments, you name it.

And each and every one of the topics you would vote on would be part of a single uninterrupted public debate on politics.

There’s no getting away from that debate. If Mr. Vooglaid thinks he would get matters settled by introducing direct democracy, he couldn’t be more wrong. Quite the opposite, he’d make very sure he could never settle a thing.

Very fittingly, last weekend, while he was talking about it in Tallinn, direct democracy made history in Switzerland.

The people voted down what’s called the Enforcement Initiative. Its demands repeated those of the Deportation Initiative Swiss voters approved of in late 2010, which said that any non-citizen committing a crime should be deported immediately.

This is of great interest to the likes of Vooglaid and EKRE. In 2010, the Deportation Initiative wasn’t taken seriously by the center and left-wing parties, as well as by the voters. And it passed because its opponents on the left weren’t disciplined enough to go and vote.

This was an enormous political issue, because the initiative forced a constitutional amendment on Switzerland that directly contradicted its agreements with the EU, and in some places actually went against international law.

The implementation of the demands then has been taking a lot of work. The EU, understandably, isn’t happy to debate these matters forever. Switzerland becomes an unreliable partner, and the economy stands to lose a lot –

Which is why parliament has been taking its time implementing the demands of the Deportation Initiative. The People’s Party, which had started the initiative, didn’t like that. So they came up with the Enforcement Initiative we voted on last Sunday.

Not only did they want to force parliament to implement their demands immediately, they actually made their demands even stricter.

Which didn’t sit well with the people.

In Sunday’s vote, participation was much greater than usual. The Enforcement Initiative was voted down with over 63%. The People’s Party got a pounding that will take its leadership at least a decade to get over. They’ll be sulking about this for years to come.

They had been absolutely certain they were going to win, every bit as sure as SAPTK are that they’d win a comparable vote here in Estonia.

But they got it wrong, and lost.

Direct democracy is nothing anyone should be afraid of. If anything, set up properly, it has the potential to stabilize a country for decades, or even centuries. In Switzerland, it’s been going since 1848, with hardly any change made to the political system. And there’s no sign of anyone wanting to give it up.

For the local debate, perhaps the most important fact is that direct democracy creates an environment in which getting away with a few cheap shots and a couple of half-baked populist demands is very difficult.

It makes it harder to limit people’s rights and take away their access to the system that keeps the country running. So in many ways, things would get harder for groups like EKRE and SAPTK, not easier.

Editor: Aili Sarapik

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