Voters are going to the polls this weekend in two European countries. But even as we traverse the worst economic crisis in half a century, the election campaign in Germany has been the dullest in recent memory, and the buzz in Portugal has revolved around scandals involving the Portuguese presidency. A striking contrast to the G20 summit in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where the leaders of the planet’s biggest economies brainstormed ideas for changing the world, though without necessarily having the means to put them into practice.

So who is to blame for this disconnect? According to German philosopher Richard David Precht, the electorate have simply become too individualistic to take an interest in the major issues facing their country. Novelist/journalist Elke Schmitter, on the contrary, points to politicians trying to “run with the hare and hunt with the hounds”. As a result, everyone seems to succumb to apathy, while all agree on the need to save the planet and regulate the economy; and voter turnout inches down another notch with each passing election – it may be down around 65% this year in Germany.

People complained that the last European elections did not interest anyone. We realise now that this apathy even affects countries with an eventful history and a tradition of lively debate. But another major European matter is soon to be decided at the polls: viz. the fate of the Lisbon Treaty, in the Irish referendum on 2 October. A vigorous debate is now going full tilt there, even if both the yea- and nay-sayers sometimes resort to simplistic arguments. But the issue is clearly defined and the political parties are not shying away from the fray.

From the lofty speeches of Pittsburgh to the people’s verdict on Lisbon, democracy covers a lot of ground. But it is not always as engaged or engaging as it should be. E.M.