Tõnis Saarts on viability of populist democracy ({{contentCtrl.commentsTotal}})

Tõnis Saarts. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

Populist democracy exercised under the aegis of the will of the people almost always morphs into a kind of dictatorship, Tallinn University political scientist Tõnis Saarts finds.

Liberal democracy is believed to mean a limitless dictate of minorities, exaggerated tolerance and the nation state and nationalism surrendering to pressure of multiculturalism. From here, the opposite of liberal democracy should be a conservative or national conservative democracy.

Alas, there is no such thing as conservative democracy, while liberal democracy is a standard form of governance that is in effect almost everywhere in the West today. The real opposite of liberal democracy is populist democracy.

The three basic principles of liberal democracy.

1. Rule of law – the understanding that the law prevails in state administration, applies also to those in power and that all citizens are equal in the face of it.

2. Universal rights and freedoms, such as freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, religious freedom etc. The principle of universality is key here – rights that are guaranteed irrespective of the person's race, gender, nationality, religion, sexual orientation etc.

3. Separation of powers – legislative power (parliament), executive power (government) and courts all stand separately and monitor each other's activities.

Does that not sound familiar? All of it is provided by the Estonian Constitution. Estonia is still a liberal democracy today. Therefore, liberal democracy does not stand for imposed multiculturalism, an obligation to legalize same sex marriage, opening the door to unchecked migration etc.

The alternative of liberal democracy is populist democracy. The latter emphasizes the democracy aspect, or the supremacy of the power of the people, seeking to discard all liberal mechanisms of control and balance. In a populist democracy, the will of the people or leaders who have been given a mandate from the people reigns supreme.

Nothing can be permitted to hold back the manifestation of the will of the people – no law or intermediary institution between the people and its elected leaders. If the people decide at a referendum that a minority group's rights need to be restricted, the opinion of courts, the constitution or the European Court of Human Rights, for example, are of no significance. The people have spoken.

If politicians who have been given a mandate decide something, they are free to steamroll the parliament and judicial power and execute their political will based on their popular mandate.

History offers us no examples of populist democracies having remained viable for long – they almost always morph into a kind of dictatorship where a narrow circle starts imposing its interests under the aegis of the now alleged "will of the people." It is made possible when the elementary checks and balances of liberal democracy have been overruled.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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