Analysis

The French Election Will Show the Stuff Modern Democracy Is Made Of

Perhaps the main problem facing Western democracy isn’t the rise of radical parties and extremist candidates, but a collapse in the system of political parties in general

Far-left candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon reacts after voting in the first round of the French presidential election, Paris, April 23, 2017.
AP / Francois Mori

Slightly more than 40 percent of French voters are expected Sunday to propel two candidates into the second round of the country’s presidential election. The candidates who place third and fourth will, at least according to the polls, receive nearly as many votes as the two front-runners. The country’s future is to be decided by a minority of voters and what looks like little more than a statistical coincidence.

A week ago in Turkey, after a referendum campaign that was marred by allegations of government favoritism and serious fraud in the vote-counting, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan eked out just 51.5 percent in favor of changing the constitution and hugely increasing his powers.

Meanwhile, in Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap election for the mother of parliaments in what is universally predicted to be a landslide victory for her Conservative Party not so much because it has done a great job in power or has immensely popular policies, but due to the debilitating weakness of Labour, the main opposition party, under the hopeless leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.

France, Turkey and Britain are just three examples from a week of politics across Europe. You can add the fact that in the White House a president who lost the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes is about to complete his first hundred days, and here in Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu is hailed as a serial election-winner, he’s actually the prime minister with one of the weakest election victories in Israel. Likud won just 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in the last election, and only Ehud Olmert, Ehud Barak and Netanyahu himself in 2009 made it to the Prime Minister’s Office with less than a quarter of the vote.

In none of these cases can the outcome be realistically called an expression of the will of the people. And yet we continue to cling to elections as the ultimate expression of democracy.

This is not a case for reverting to monarchy and other forms of more and less dictatorship, but the weakening of the elections ingredient in the democratic recipe means we have to focus on other fundamentals that ensure we live in relatively free societies. And they are weakening as well.

Take political parties. Out of the four candidates with a chance to get through to the second round of the French presidential election, only one, François Fillon, represents one of the two main political parties that have shared power since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958. And even he was originally considered the outsider running against favorite Nicolas Sarkozy.

This suggests that maybe the main problem facing Western democracy today isn’t necessarily the rise of radical parties and candidates on the far right and far left, but a collapse in the system of political parties in general. Naturally, the potential success of Marine Le Pen and far-leftist Jean-Luc Mélenchon is the immediate fear, but the vacuum that allows such candidates to come to the fore was there before.

For generations, political parties have been the organizations within which young men and women received experience on the back benches, were tested in junior positions, and worked their way up to senior cabinet and leadership positions. The party machine had control over the advancement of aspiring politicians, and the media awarded attention to candidates according to their seniority. The internet and social media let inexperienced candidates gain unaccustomed prominence long before the current reality TV president, as in the case of Barack Obama, who was a senator for all of two years before he launched his presidential campaign.

Likewise, the election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Canada would have been unthinkable a generation ago, and now the frontrunner in France is Emmanuel Macron, a 39-year-old centrist who has never competed in an election in his life.

The hollowing-out of parties, which in any case have become little more than personal platforms for candidates’ campaigns and as we can see now in France not even that has been inevitable. The weakening of political parties has not only changed the way leaders and governments are elected, it is has also greatly diminished the power of the traditional opposition in democracies.

By necessity, the role of parliamentary opposition parties in holding to account those in power has been filled to a large degree by the courts, the media and civil society organizations, cuing anger from governments and their supporters over the new powers of the “unelected elites.” The stuff every democracy is made of is being shaken and stirred into new and often explosive cocktails.

The success of a centrist newcomer like Macron could be proof that the accepted narrative of an erosion of liberal values and corresponding rise of populist leaders is only part of the story. Xenophobia, populism and extremism didn’t disappear during the long decades of moderate governments from the center-right and center-left. They just didn’t have the space to grow or mainstream platforms to broadcast from.

The liberal middle ground hasn’t fallen away, but it’s naturally taking longer to evolve and get used to operating in the new environment to which the fringe players were much quicker to adapt. The French election is crucial not just to France and Europe. The results will show how liberal democracy can adapt and succeed in the future.