Borgen and the third party fantasy/fallacy

These days the English, believe it or not, are looking east and a bit north for their quality television; to Denmark, præcis. Fresh on the footsteps of the noir crime drama The Killing (Forbrydelsen), come The Bridge, and Borgen, a political drama that might well feel tantalisingly utopian for viewers living in staid Western democracies around the world. The first season of Borgen tells the story of a charismatic, principled female leader of the minority Moderate Party who manages to break the big party stranglehold in Denmark to lead a coalition of parties as Prime Minister. It is, simply put, The West Wing for the post-noughties generation. Who wants to watch the humdrum story of a principled Democrat and his team fighting for and gaining office when a lot of the real action, inspiration and colour in modern politics sprouts from the backblocks of community organising in much smaller parties?

With all the water that has passed under the bridge in recent decades, from the centre-left’s embrace of economic liberalism & New Labour’s “principled” invasion of Iraq, to the seeming predilection of conservative parties for high defence spending, “big government” and politicised social welfare, what normal, rational person doesn’t occasionally dream of a democracy where the major parties get a taste of their just desserts?

The “third party” or outsider fantasy that Borgen depicts is not so much of a stretch for Danish politics, where the government is regularly lead by coalitions of smaller parties; but it does remain a stretch for most of the rest of us. The Westminster breed of government and certainly a fair proportion of the adversarial electoral systems that are prominent internationally are structurally configured to encourage big, powerful parties at the expense of smaller ones. The United States remains the textbook case; an ironclad bastion of major parties, albeit with a Republican Party wracked with internal division courtesy of the evangelical Right and the Tea Party movements. Will we see a President of the United States who is not either a Democrat or a Republican in our lifetimes? Almost certainly not.

In the United Kingdom, of course, Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats are two years into their warm embrace of the Conservatives in government; they are finding that the embrace is slowly suffocating them. In local elections this week, the Lib Dems lost 329 of their 767 councillors. Since the 2010 election, support for the Liberal Democrats has fallen from 22% to 11% in a recent YouGov poll, behind even the somewhat barmy UK Independence Party (Ukip). Everyone with a bit of conscience who cared about democracy “agreed with Nick” in the lead-up to the 2010 poll, but you’d be hard-pressed to find many who do so now. It was inordinately fashionable to agree with Nick back then – even The Guardian editorialised in support of the Liberal Democrats in 2010. Now the Lib Dems have the look of a party sleepwalking towards disaster when the next national election swings around, unless some drastic changes can be made to the way they are doing business with their Tory masters.

In Australia, we’ve had our momentary dalliances with minor parties in the last couple of decades, but only impressionable students, members of the Greens, or the pharmaceutically inspired could argue that Labor and the Liberal Party are significantly waning in terms of support at elections more than they are waxing. Tony Abbott is leading the Liberals with a civilisation-crushing 51% of the primary vote, according to Newspoll; Labor may be in the doldrums at the moment on 27%, but then they have been doing a bit of foot-shooting of late and Julia Gillard is well and truly on the nose in suburbia. The Greens have showed quite an admirable level of staying power over the course of the last decade, consistently sitting at 10% or thereabouts, but arguably, Australia’s close relationship with George Bush’s Republican administration in the first half of the noughties and Bob Brown’s recent resignation may have seen their political high watermark come and go. Bob Brown was always a fairly dignified, relatively likable figure, enjoying a not inconsiderable media profile. Christine Milne, and/or whoever follows her is going to find it desperately difficult to “maintain the rage” whilst maintaining and growing their current fledgling level of support nationally. The fate of the Democrats, another worthy minor party, hangs heavily on the shoulders of would-be innovators in the Australian political scene.

For us, the Brits and the Americans, Borgen is just a twinkling of utopia; it tells the story of a place that our own countries, at least without a drastic and unlikely overhaul of our respective political systems, simply cannot be. There is more than a dash of “grass is always greener” about this, of course. Danish viewers of Borgen would – let’s not kid ourselves – probably snort derisively at any suggestion that their decidedly multilateral incarnation of parliamentary democracy is necessarily something to covet. The often brutal level of compromise and imperfection that modern democracy delivers in spades, regardless of which political party is in office, is not something that anybody yet really has the answer to. Canberra, Westminster and Washington, for many, feel so distant and so alien that they may as well orbit Alpha Centauri, for all the good they do and all the meaning they have in people’s everyday lives.

But yet, through the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, and yes, the British National Party, our collective “third party” fantasy lives on. Unless this fantasy transforms itself into an organised movement for electoral reform however, it will remain a fallacious mirage: a distraction from the far more profound structural problems that so bedevil democracy in the 21st century.

Major parties and minor parties at the end of the day are playing the same game by the same rules, and sadly, it’s a damn sight easier and sexier to make a few more little, largely ignorable chips off the old block than to think about fashioning a whole new block.

You don’t know how lucky you are, boy

The recent presidential “election” in Russia creates some interesting moral conundrums for the rest of the democratic world. One could be forgiven for wondering whether things have really improved for those living in the largest country within the former Soviet Union since the heady days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s perestroika. It is indeed true that Vladimir Putin’s Russia is by and large a friend of the broader West, at least, much more so than was the case when the Communist Party controlled the Soviet Union. And yet, he is, in a not dissimilar way to Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan, a dictator. He personally wields a truly disgusting amount of power for a single individual, ruling over such a large country.

The latest, blatantly obvious manifestation of Putin’s near-monarchical control of his power base is the Russian presidential election, won convincingly (numerically speaking) and yet unconvincingly (transparent process-wise) by the President’s chosen candidate, Dmitry Medvedev. Putin, of course, is continuing on in true dictatorial style as Prime Minister, where one would think he will likely continue to pull the nation’s strings. As David Hearst comments in the Guardian, Medvedev is somewhat stuck between a rock and a hard place in his new role:

But even greater danger lies in Medvedev being too successful and becoming his own man. For then, he will be sucking both limelight and power away from his political master and that is a dangerous thing to do, unless Putin agrees to it first and is planning his early retirement. There is no indication that he is. In the short term at least, Medvedev has to steer a middle course between failure and success. He has to be competently mediocre.

It will be interesting indeed to observe how the international community works with Medvedev (and Putin, his putative puppet-master) moving forwards. Gordon Brown has already extended something of a fig leaf, in the hope that relations between Russia and the United Kingdom might stand to improve as a result of this change in leadership at the top. True to form, President Bush admitted, a couple of days ago, not knowing much about Medvedev. As far as I can tell, neither Foreign Minister Stephen Smith nor Prime Minister Kevin Rudd have been asked about their thoughts on developments. One hopes that the international community takes a constructive approach, but also attempts in the most diplomatic way possible to remind Putin and Medvedev that they are not painting a particularly rosy picture of the state of Russia’s democracy with their tag-team approach to the government of the nation.

Postcards from the birthplace of democracy

To be honest it was not much to look at. While throngs of tourists on the streets below rambled along the main drag on the winding route up to the more highly renowned Acropolis, this little patch of space, known as the Pnyx, sat all on its lonesome, with only a couple of people in sight or earshot. 

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But would you believe it if I told you that this was the meeting place of the world’s first known democratic assembly – and that it is believed that this happened over five hundred years before the birth of Christ?

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While in Athens recently, I found it hard to truly comprehend and come to terms with the relics of history that were often thrust into my immediate contact. Awe does not quite capture it; it’s something beyond awe. Bewilderment, perhaps. A small reminder that in case you had forgotten, you are just another insignificant piece of fungus along for the ride on this ball of rock of ours; a ball of rock that is constantly turning and moving the seasons ceaselessly onward. A hundred years ago objectively speaking is a long time for most, at least in terms of individual human experience. To just sit back and consider that over 2500 years ago, right here in this particular location in Athens where one can potter around today, the essential germ of what we know as democracy was arguably born, is a fairly humbling thought.

The view across to the Acropolis from the Pnyx is also somewhat humbling. 

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Glory be to secularism in an unpredictable land

Booker Prize nominated writer Mohsin Hamid has a nicely written piece in the Guardian that sums up his feelings about the election results in Pakistan. What is truly wonderful about the result, as he points out, is that it does seem to offer credence to the idea that Pakistan has a secular heart:

Instead, Pakistan managed a relatively free and fair election that delivered a crushing defeat to the ruling party of Pakistan’s unpopular President Musharraf. More than that, the country’s religious parties were assigned to the electoral dustbin, with voters even in the supposedly conservative Northwest Frontier province that borders Afghanistan flocking to secular candidates. The winners were moderate, centrist politicians – suggesting perhaps that Pakistanis, notwithstanding acres of newsprint to the contrary, are at heart a moderate centrist bunch.

There’s more detail on that point over at OpenDemocracy:

The MMA, the major alliance of Islamist parties, won only three seats in the National Assembly. In 2002, the MMA won 63 seats in the country’s parliament. Tellingly, the godfather of the MMA and the Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Islam, Maulana Fazlur Rahman, lost in his constituency.

Assuming that President Musharraf goes soon and goes quietly, one wonders if there is a lesson to be learnt for the West from these election results. If Musharraf had not been so amenable to the West during his time as dictator, his administration would surely have been targeted by the Bush Administration for a spot of regime change during the heady period immediately following 9/11. It is hard to imagine secular elements within Pakistan achieving the same levels of support today if a more hawkish approach to Pakistan was taken back then; disliking America and the West would have been all too easy a trend to create for extreme fundamentalist groups around the country.

Instead, democracy has been allowed to run its course in Pakistan, and although it is perhaps too early to be sure, the results are promising.

Public pow-wows and reality television

For some reason when I first read about the Rudd Labor Government’s latest intriguing proposal for a summit of 1000 eminent Australians, my thoughts immediately turned to a reality television show that I don’t recall ever watching. The 1 vs. 100 reality game show seems to be doing alright in the United States market, but from memory, it tanked when it debuted in Australia some time last year. Somehow one doubts that the government plans to run its national summit of the learned in quite the same way, but it’s an amusing thought.

In short, I think the summit is a grand idea. It’s another small step towards re-engaging the general public with the state of the nation, and to be frank after the disconnect of the Howard years, every new possibility seems worth exploring. I do have some concerns over Rudd’s assertion that selection of those invited to the summit will be “based on individual merit”. Who will select the invitees? To what extent are they going to be politically motivated? Are we going to get a fair mix of people with all sorts of political views, from Keynesian “socialists” through to libertarians, radical environmentalists and everyday folk? It would seem important that whatever recommendations come from the summit do actually attempt to distill what “the nation thinks”, rather than just a distillation of elite political opinion of any particular stripe.

I would also be interested to know how the government plans to “plug” the results of the summit into its policy program. Rudd has already promised that already announced Labor policy is sacrosanct, and that the results of the summit would not immediately become government policy. In order for the summit not to be a public relations exercise, the government needs to make sure that there is a clear process in place for reviewing its outcomes, and determining which of those should drive policy moving forwards. One of the political dangers of this exercise is that some participants may emerge down the track to condemn the government, if some of the summit’s recommendations (as is inevitable) are ignored or not pursued. This is particularly likely should the government do the right thing in a democratic sense, and invite Australians of all political stripes to participate.

In any case, the whole exercise will be fascinating to observe. This is bold, interesting policy for Australia.