“Democracy is very fragile” – A conversation with TI-NL, FIDE and our program manager

Lousewies van der Laan, director of Transparency International Nederland (TI-NL), is committed to more transparency and integrity in our government, politics and the business world. Yves Dejaeghere, director of the Federation for Innovation in Democracy Europe (FIDE), aims to promote a democracy in which citizens can express their opinions effectively. Together with our Public Interest program manager Martijn Roos, they discuss democracy — a key topic in our Public Interest program. What can we learn from them?

How do you view the state of our democracy?

Yves: “Citizens have higher expectations from democracy, which is a positive development. The big challenge is meeting this increased expectation. The challenge revolves around the legitimacy of certain forms of influence on policy and around ruling power between elections. There are hardly any doubts about the relevance of elections in itself. What we need to talk about is the four years in between them. How do you organize participation during those years? When can you, as a citizen, share your opinion outside elections? I could talk about this for hours. I’m a recovering academic; I’ve taught at universities for many years.”
Lousewies: “And I’m a recovering politician, so we have that in common. As for democracy, it is like a garden. Similar to a garden, the rule of law is never complete. You have to keep planting, weeding, watering, watching which flowers bloom… As Transparency International (TI), we look at the state of democracy at a global level, and that perspective is extremely worrying. In some countries, such as Somalia, Turkmenistan and Nicaragua, most of the vegetation in the garden is already completely withered. Overall, the trust that people had in politics and government systems has suffered an incredible number of blows, also in the Netherlands. Here, there are concerns about the way the childcare subsidy scandal is being handled, how the victims of the gas extraction in the province of Groningen are being treated and the extremely non-transparent way in which the coronavirus – and in particular the so-called ‘face mask affair’ – was handled.”

Minister Hugo de Jonge talks to the press about the so-called ‘face mask deal’ with Sywert van Lienden. Foto: ANP/BART MAAT

Yves: “And on top of that, there is the issue of the fragility of democracy. Look at Rotterdam. The voter turnout during the local elections was below 40% in that region. A coalition with the support of around 20% of the electorate governs the city. In other words: 80% of the inhabitants of Rotterdam did not vote for the parties in the coalition. What if next time only 20% votes? This fragility is significant if you do not organize another form of citizen participation. You need a second parachute, or you’ll come crashing down.”
Martijn: “To elaborate on Lousewies’ metaphor, there is also a persistent weed in that garden: social media. How do you handle that in a democracy?”
Yves: “Social media is volatile. Twitter has a character limit, but that hasn’t stopped politicians from seeing it as some sort of political forum for discussion. That says something – the fact that sound bites, one-liners and the small number of citizens who respond to them have become a kind of frame of reference.”
Lousewies: “Although social media also gives citizens a voice, I have noticed that politicians often revert to their old ways and don’t really listen. The most worrying figure I saw recently was in our Global Corruption Barometer: 42% of Dutch citizens feel that the political elite is predominantly concerned with themselves. An elite that puts self-interest before the public interest and is closely linked to corporations.”

French Prime Minister Élisabeth Borne delivers a speech at the opening of the citizens’ debate on euthanasia. Foto: Alain Jocard / POOL / AFP

Which role can NGOs play?

Lousewies: “The reality is that MPs get very little support. When you receive 500 e-mails a week, how many can you possibly answer with one employee at your disposal? I believe that we, civil society, play a very important role. I noticed this in the case of the Dutch Whistleblowers Act. We told MPs over and over: there are certain areas where this Act falls short, and these are the amendments you can propose. We also told them to talk to trade unions and listen to the Dutch Whistleblower Authority. As a result of the collaboration within civil society, we were able to create a much better Act than the House of Representatives would have produced without our input.”
Yves: “Coincidentally, one of the last papers I wrote as an academic was about how ‘politicians process information’. It is true that politicians receive more information in 24 hours than they can process. It’s challenging even if you mean well. What’s more, you have to deal with the underreported topic you just mentioned, Lousewies: how fragile democracy is because it’s based on a group appointed by a small group. FIDE tells politicians that we rely too much on the responsibility of that elite to uphold ethical standards or to sound the alarm if they think something is wrong.”

A protest against the government's response to the earthquakes in the province of Groningen. Foto: ANP/Anjo de Haan

How can trust in politics and institutions be restored?

Lousewies: “Especially in a world where everything changes all the time, you see that the greater the fear and uncertainty, the more important it is that people feel they can actually do something. I’ve also seen this among TI members. People have said: ‘I’m so happy we can finally do something! We’ll join a TI working group and then our voices will be heard by the House of Representatives.’ It makes a difference if you can be part of the solution.”
Yves: “But you have to keep in mind what most citizens think about politics. What’s does someone who has the closing shift at the supermarket five days a week at 11:00 p.m. think about politics? That person will say: ‘I am tired, I have three children and I still have to get those benefits back from a few years ago. That is what I’m worried about’. You cannot expect citizens to keep up with all political developments. But for that specific person, it is important that a supermarket employee, someone like him or her, was involved in developing policy. Look at what happened in Ireland with the famous citizens’ assembly on abortion. Catholics didn’t leave the assembly as atheists. It is nice to hear people say: ‘I am still the person who I always was, but I have heard all the arguments and I think we need to make changes anyway’. Such a statement means a lot to others who identify with the stance of that person. That is why representation in citizen panels matters.”
Martijn: “It’s very striking that we’ve been through major crises recently and the solution seems to be relatively simple: just get people talking and listening to each other. Even if you are in a position of power, don’t be afraid to take a step back and also partially distance yourself from that power. To quote the famous professional football player Johan Cruyff: football is a simple game, but playing simple soccer is the hardest thing. This also applies to democracy in a way. It might not be all that difficult, but doing it right is very complicated.”

About these partners

Transparency International Nederland focuses on a world in which government, politics, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption. They aim to improve integrity, transparency and accountability in Dutch society.

The Federation for Innovation in Democracy Europe (FIDE) is an international non-profit organization dedicated to the participation of everyday citizens in policy-making. The organization advises governments on the use of deliberative democratic methods, such as citizen assemblies. A citizen assembly is a group of people that meet and examine a specific policy challenge. They deliberate on possible measures and formulate policy recommendations for the government.

“We look for energy in society” – program managers Public Interest
We are heading in a new direction with our Public Interest program. Program Managers...