The State, Democracy and Civil Society, 23.3.2009

Nordic, Baltic, Belarus Conference on The role of Politicians in Changing Societies

Crown Plaza,  Vilnius 23.3. 2009

So far in history there is not a single example of any genuine democracy worth the name, which does not include freely constituted political parties, competing with each other in free and fair elections.

I state this categorically at the beginning of my remarks, not as an answer to those who in the 20th century used to claim that single party-regimes, whether of the Communist, Fascist or Nationalist variety, were somehow superior to multiparty democracies, which undoubtedly had, in many instances, rather poor track records in terms of producing stability, wellbeing and efficient government for their peoples, particularly in the 20’s and 30’s. In those circumstances ,and even after the second world war, apologists for single-party regimes could also point out how their single parties in an almost mystical  way had solved class and other conflicts in their societies by harmoniously bringing together the nation in the only party allowed, usually under the leadership of a wise and benevolent Dear Leader.

Even in today’s world one may find such examples in many places, and not only in the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea. China is of course a much more sophisticated and economically an even admirably well-run country, but it nevertheless is a non-democratic single party state. The Chinese regime no longer seeks to justify its continuation primarily in terms of Marxist-Leninist or any other ideology, but rather as the system of government, which not only is necessary to achieve undeniable economic success, but is also the only reliable way, in which such a vast country can be managed and kept together in a stable manner.

But the remark about multi-party democracy is, at least in a European context, no longer needed to stave of off calls for single-party regimes. Rather it is necessary because in most if not all of our more established democracies in Europe there is a growing dissatisfaction with democratic institutions in general and with political parties in particular.

This dissatisfaction is often reflected in falling voter turnouts in elections and in a sometimes not so cordial loathing of political leaders, but so far not in any real demand for replacing democratic institutions with authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, with or without one or more political parties. Most of those dissatisfied with party politics are not calling for single-party or other authoritarien regimes, rathar they are engaged in a wishful hankering for some sort of more direct democracy, which gives a direct voice to citizens.

But however dissatisfied we are, and irrespective of how justified this dissatisfaction is, we should remember that political parties are a necessary condition for any real democracy, just as are parliaments acting as legislators, no matter how corrupt, undeserving or just plain stupid we may deem our elected representatives to be.

But while parties are still a necessary condition for real democracy, they are not sufficient. There are, of course, also many countries around with ourwardly open elections and quite a host of parties, but which do not necessarily meet our understanding or real democracy, but this is not the point. The point, rather, is that even countries like the Nordic countries, which we like to think meet all the requirements of genuine democracy with a free press and no manipulation whatsoever of elections etc., would be sorely lacking if they did not have vibrant and free civil society working alongside with and sometimes challenging the political establishment and its established political parties.

Historically all the Nordic countries have a long tradition of civil society and popular mass movements interacting with the political system. Indeed, most of the present-day political parties have their roots in popular mass movements. This is obviously true of the labour movement and the Social-Democratic parties (as well as some of the former Communist parties), who, notwithstanding continued membership losses, still qualify as mass parties, and who retain close links with the trade unions and other labour organisations. The trade unions still remain strong in our countries with the highest degrees of unionisation found anywhere in the world, but many of the other mass labour organisations have been weakened and some have even more or less vanished. The labour sports movement is mostly history except in Finland, cooperatives openly identified with labour have suffered and completely disappeared.

But other parties too have their roots in mass movements. This applies to the former agrarian parties, some of the minority parties (such as the Swedish peoples party in Finland), even some liberal and centrist parties which have has roots in Nonconformist churches and even conservative parties, such as the Finnish kokoomus, as heirs to the nationalist movements of the late 19th century.

Mass organisations transcended party structures. It may be hard to believe, but up to WW II the temperance movement was a political force to be reckoned with, as were obviously the established Lutheran churches.

In today’s societies both political parties and civil society have undergone substantial changes. The most obvious trend has been the radical erosion of membership in political parties. Membership in the four biggest political parties in Finland has developed as follows.

Year                   Left party       Center                Coalition

1951                    63 000                71 000                169 000              81 000

1962                    61 000                44 000                270 000              86 000

1970                    51 000                60 000                288 000              81 000

1979                    55 000                99 000                306 000              72 000

1989                    33 000                85 000                286 000              70 000

1995                    16 000                70 000                257 000              47 000

2008                      9 600                50 000                176 000              40 000


Name changes aside, in real terms the only significant totally new political party in Finland which was not already in some form around in the 1920’s is the Green Party, which, notwithstanding its almost 10 % support in elections, has only about 3500 members.

In Sweden membership in political parties has also fallen in a similar way:

Year                    Left party           Soc.dem. party      Center                 Moderate coalition

1962                    25 000                  836 000              178 000              199 000

1970                    16 000                  907 000              182 000              129 000

1979                    17 000                1198 000              141 344              149 000

1991                    11 821                  260 346              163 105              116 497

1995                    11 313                  228 428              128 048                86 572

2006                    11 076                  120 091                47 866                59 501

2008                                                 100 639                                           54 858

It should be noted, that many of the traditional NGO’s, which have been (and in many cases still are) mass organisations, have also suffered significant membership losses, albeit not on a similar scale as political parties.

Does this mean that interest and participation in political affairs has fallen in a similar manner? Not necessarily. The Nordic countries have traditionally had a rather high rate of voter participation in National elections. This has slightly declined but remains at a relatively high level, except in Finland which has seen a more dramatic fall.

                                                                                                              Participation rates in Nordic national elections 1960-2000



So even if people have become disillusioned with traditional means of political participation, even including voting, many of them have started to rely on other, new means of political involvement. Instead of joining parties or NGO’s they may take part in demonstrations, sign petitions or otherwise join in campaigning on some concrete, contemporary and/or limited issues. Increasingly this will take place in the internet.


The social networking website Facebook was founded in February 2004 and by June 2008 it had over 70 million users world-wide. At the same time MySpace had even more, over 100 million. In Finland hardly a day goes by without something happening in Facebook which the printed media have to refer to. The concept Blogosphere, which is as much a mystery if not a menace to the traditional audiovisual and printed media and traditional politics, was first used less than 10 years ago. Even if I am a blogger myself – who isn’t ? – I am much of an analphabetic dinosaur in all matters of internet and IT in general. But I take solace from the fact that so is the vast majority of internet users. 

Even with my limited technical knowledge and understanding it still is easy to recognize, how new information technologies have changed the world and politics in many fundamental ways. When I have been asked to comment on what brought down the one-party totalitarian command economies, my answer is not Reagan or the Arms race, not the Pope or the Trade unions. While all of these contributed to the event, the single most important factor to my mind is the micro-chip, that is the constituent element of new Information Technology (IT). When the first computers were introduced in the 50’s they were giant machines in big buildings and one could have thought, and many did, that they were powerful instruments for enhanced centralisation and collective control; but instead they turned out to be powerful vehicles for decentralisation and individual innovation, with every communicator in our pockets now having many thousand times more computing capacity than the first calculating machines.

Those societies whose centralized regimes were so suspicious of their own citizens that they could not even allow, in the extreme case of Romania, them free access to such a 150-year old technology as the typewriter without a sample of the type print being deposited with the Securitate to allow unauthorized publications to be traced, were increasingly unable to tap the benefits of IC, leading their economies and societies to increasing stagnation and finally collapse.

It would be naive to believe that the spread of new Information Technologies, mobile phones, internet connections etc., has somehow brought about a new era of unlimited democratic openness and influence and put a stop to authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. Even if I belive these regimes are fighting a losing battle – banning Facebook as Syria and Iran have done, is merely a finger in the proverbial dyke – it is not clear that democracy will be the irresistable winner.

Modern IT raises also many issues about media concentration and control, privacy and reliability. But perhaps the most fundamental question in the context of our discussions today is the anonymization, individualization and fragmentation that these technologies also promote, and its effects on civil society.

Civil society, to quote the LSE Centre on Civil Society, ”refers to the arena of uncoerced collective action around shared interest, purposes and values. In theory, its institutional forms are distinct from those of the state, family and market, though in practice, the boundaries between state, civil society, family and market are often complex, blurred and negotiated. Civil society commonly embraces a diversity of spaces, actors and institutional forms, varying in their degree of formality, autonomy and power. Civil societies are often populated by organizations such as registered charities, development non-governmental organizations, community groups, women’s organizations, faith-based organizations, professional associations, trade unions, self-help groups, social movements, business associations, coalitions and advocacy groups”.

N.b. that the quoted definition does not explicitly mention political parties, but even so presumably covers them under social movements. But in real life there are political parties that do not always meet the criteria of real civil society, as when political parties are established, funded and more-or-less directly controlled by governments. Even parties. which originally have reached government through democratic elections, can sometimes degenerate into a dependency on the state and act as an arm of government, but this is certainly the case in societies where it is the government which has created a political party or even multiple ones with the supposed opposition under its supervision as well.

To conclude I will reiterate my central points:

– free and fair elections with freely constituted political parties are a necessary, but not a sufficient condition for democracy

– political parties alone can never fullfil the requirements of democracy without a vibrant and free civil society, and they should not assume they have any monopoly to representing the people, their voters or even their members

– modern IT constitutes a powerful influence in favour of an open society, but it should be undestood as a complimenaty instrument in the service of civil society. Civil society cannot exista in cyber space alone without physical face to face interaction between real people

– how well a country fulfills the criteria for a democratic state cannot be judged only by looking at formal parliamentary structures or the party system, it has to be estimated also on the basis of how freely civil society can function

And last but not least, to quote Rosa Luxemburg: ”Freedom is the freedom of dissenters”.