Slogan: "Democracy - Proud to be Tunisians" - In central Tunis, April 2011

Short lesson on the weaknesses of democracy

In Tunis, a Volkskrant journalist witnessed the extraordinary spectacle of young Spanish indignados demonstrating outside their embassy. Their dialogue with passing Tunisians offers the basis for a reflection on our political system.

Published on 6 June 2011 at 14:01
Slogan: "Democracy - Proud to be Tunisians" - In central Tunis, April 2011

“Democracy is more than the simple right to vote,” points out a Spanish demonstrator to a Tunisian passerby. She hands him a leaflet, which explains that “Spain is a democracy in name only, because its election law favours major political parties. A formal democracy is not real democracy: it’s not enough.” The young Tunisian nods in agreement and begins to read the leaflet.

There is something astonishing about the gathering of protesters outside the Spanish embassy in Tunis. On the last Sunday in May, 50 Spaniards (who account for approximately 10% of the Spanish population in Tunisia) turned out to show their support for the indignados, who, over the last few weeks, have been camping out in public squares in cities across Spain. It is astonishing, because in a country where thousands of citizens recently endangered their lives for democracy, this group of expatriates is intent on arguing that democracy is not wonderful as all that.

The Tunisian passerby, a 23-year-old employee at a neighbouring tennis club, appears transfixed by the protesters, who are dancing to the music of their djembes. “It’s more of a party than a demonstration,” he remarks in a slightly jealous tone. “If we had protested like that, Ben Ali would still be in power.”

He says that he understands the demand for changes to Spain’s electoral law. But finally concludes: “If we could obtain a Spanish style democracy, I would already be very pleased.”

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He is happy to accept the faults and excesses of democracy: unfair electoral law, the dominance of major parties, self-interested political schemes, overblown populist rhetoric, horse-trading for the appointment of senators who are elected via indirect suffrage. And even the lack of politicians with a perspective that goes beyond the next election.

Young protesters often too playful in their approach

He may not be fully aware of all of this, but he wants it warts and all. Anything but a dictatorship. As Churchill put it: “democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."

That said, the quote dates from 54 years ago, which begs the question: why have we remained stuck with this least bad form of government? Why have we not changed it or at least attempted to improve it? After all, the protesters in the Spanish squares are not the only ones to point out that democracy is in need of an overhaul, and elsewhere in Europe the rise of populist parties, protest votes and the widening rift between citizens and politics have highlighted weaknesses in the structure of democracy.

It is understandable that Tunisians should accept the defects of democracy after of 50 years of dictatorship. But in the wake of of the Arab Spring, European citizens would do well to wake up to the realities of their situation: why do we not do something to address these defects? Why do we not take better care of a political structure which is clearly so precious to the citizens of Arab countries that they are prepared to sacrifice their lives for it?

The young people of Spain appear to be the first to have woken up. Their actions have been the subject of a large amount of criticism, much of it justified. The young protesters, who have failed to propose concrete alternatives or define a precise objective, are often too playful in their approach. But they have raised a relevant question: now that dictatorship has given away to democracy in Tunisia and Egypt, is it not time for our democracy to be replaced by an improved version of itself?


Anger of a "sacrificed generation"

Although the demonstrators in Madrid’s Puerta del Sol and the young Greeks who join in nightly protests in downtown Athens have yet to number in their millions, "the movement launched in Spain in mid-May, inspired by the March initiative of a handful of Portuguese youth, is nonetheless an expression of outrage on the part of a generation, which our political and economic elites would be wrong to ignore," writes Mediapart.

For the French news website, the movement has been prompted by the disastrous social conditions endured by the under-30s in Europe — a “sacrificed generation” which has been forced to contend with a rate of unemployment that has grown twice as fast as it has for other age groups in the 34 countries of the OECD, particularly in Southern Europe.

This transnational protest (which has already mobilised greater numbers than the Euro-demonstrations organised by the European Trade Union Confederation) is not simply a response to the crisis. Although it may appear muddled, the ‘angry ones’ movement is a clear expression of the anger of a generation.

Anger with capitalism, which has encouraged states to privilege bailouts for banks over the future of their citizens (and in particular their youngest citizens) and the paralysis of politicians, who have been transformed into puppets with no room for manoeuvre, condemned to implement a single unchanging policy.

Anger with social systems, which, in the countries of Southern Europe (and that includes France), protect insiders — workers and civil servants who benefit from permanent contracts and special social insurance schemes — and exclude outsiders — unskilled and temporary workers, the young who are left to fend for themselves or to depend on the charity of their parents — to whom the welfare state can offer what sociologist Louis Chauvel has described as “crumbs”.

Anger with timid and inward-looking political systems that are impenetrable to civil society and immune to its development. Fury with a political class that is too disconnected from the society it is supposed to represent because its members are too old, too uniformly white, too likely to come from privileged backgrounds, and too male.

And lastly, anger with trade unions that are too eager to reach agreement with authorities and obsessed by the defense of the interests of their members – who, once again, are mainly middle aged, mainly white and mainly public sector.


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