THE END OF A FAIRYTALE?
On Tuesday 21st of November 2017, Denmark will once again (as we do every four years on the third Tuesday of November) call upon all citizens of voting age to turn up at the voting stations around the country to elect representatives for 98 Municipal Councils and 5 Regional Councils. Considering that many of the services most of us consider to be important – like health, education, water, and waste management – are managed by local or regional authorities (accounting for around half of all public spending) – you would want a very high level of participation in the election, as well as a lot of enthusiasm for the right to exercise your democratic rights.
In working with political parties around the world, I have always pointed towards the local level democracy as a defining feature of the democratic culture in Denmark, and the importance of having political parties and their local members engage at the local level. I have argued that while it is true that the level of voter participation is higher in the parliamentary elections, people can engage more directly and effectively at the municipal level, and they can also more easily and directly hold the councillors accountable than is the case with the members of parliament.
Cover of the report – unfortunately it is only available in Danish.
However, a new survey indicates that the Danish fairytale story may not be as optimistic as I would like to believe! The survey has just been published, and it was undertaken by the National Research and Analysis Centre for Welfare. The study is titled Local Democracy and the Citizens, and it builds on responses to a detailed questionaire by 970 representative citizens. The questions cover issues about the interest, knowledge, and participation of citizens in affairs of the municipal council. The questions also look at the trust of citizens towards those elected to sit in the councils, and what issues they consider to be of greatest importance.
DEMOCRACY VERSUS SERVICE DELIVERY
The debate in Denmark has focused very much on how the 970 survey participants have responded to the following question: What is more important – how the local democracy functions, or how the municipality manages the service delivery situation? Only 39% point to democracy, while 61% focus on service delivery. In the 2013 municipal election, almost 47% pointed to democracy as the most important aspect, so we have clearly seen the ‘democratic culture’ dimension being weakened or diluted. The indication is that this is a trend we have seen develop over several decades, with citizens caring more about a sevice delivery democracy than a community based local democracy.
Does this mean that our understanding of ‘democracy’ is different today than it used to be? Does it mean that we attach less importance to how our democracy functions? I am not convinced that it is as simple as the 39% versus 61% scenario indicates. This is too black-white. At least I would like to believe that many citizens appreciate (without necessarily knowing the details of what is taking place inside the municipal system) that the service delivery dimension is closely linked to how our democracy functions, i.e. without the ability of different parties to come together peacefully and work out long-term agreements, it would not be possible to deliver good and sustainable services in areas like water, waste management, and schools.
INTEREST IN LOCAL POLITICS DECREASING
But this does not mean that I want to reject the general message of the survey that citizens are loosing interest i local level politics. As documented in the figure shown below (apologies for the Danish text), in 2001 54% of the population had a high interest (the dark red part of the column) or some interest (the light red part) in local politics. This is down to 48% in 2017, and in particular the group being very much interested has been decreased from 16% to 8%. This is not a good sign at all, and it needs to be taken seriously by the political parties.
However, what is really striking – and maybe to some degree also surprising – is that citizens today seem to be more interested in national level and international politics. This is partly documented in the figure shown below. The dark red color shows the percentage of people feeling a very strong attachment to a particular level; the medium red color shows moderate attachment; and the light red indicates weak attachment. The top horizontal bar shows the local area in general; the middle bar is about the municipality; and finally the last bar is about Denmark. The conclusion is that 73% of citizens feel strongly attached to the national level, versus less than half – only 35% – for the level of the municipality.
Again, you need to be careful when you interpret the numbers in a survey. A first look may indicate a clear black-white situation, but at a closer look you can see the gray zones as well. Looking at the period 2001-2017, the numbers show that strong attachment to the local area has decreased from 50% in 2001 to 41% in 2017, and when asked about the attachment to the municipality, the decrease is from 39% to 35%. Considering that during the period looked into, Denmark implemented a reform which reduced the number of municipalities from almost 400 to a mere 98, meaning that the distance between the individual citizen and the democratic forum of councillors increased, the weakening of attachment to the municipality is actually fairlow small. Many have argued that the reform would in fact make the attachment between citizen and municipality much weaker.
My concern is not that citizens consider their attachment to Denmark to be much stronger than to the local level or the municipality. In a world where the nation state is increasingly part of and dependent on a larger global community, both economically, politically and environmentally (and whether we like it or not), citizens will look to the national level politicians and the government for guidance and direction. Irrespective of how much daily service delivery the municipality is responsible for, at the end of the day the overall framework for how Denmark can develop is defined at national and higher levels, not at the municipal level.
DANES STILL WANT TO VOTE
Denmark continues to be one of the countries in the world with a consistently high level of voting at both parliamentary and municipal elections, with more people voting in national than in local elections. When asked if they would vote if there was a municipal election tomorrow, 70% respond that they would definitely vote, and 17% would most likely vote. This means that only 13% state that they would most likely or definitely not vote. The reasons given are that people deel any of the political parties share their views; to vote or not to vote does not really matter; not voting is an expression of dissatisfaction with parties and politicians.
Seen over en longer period, it is important to note that in general the wish to vote remains at a high level, above 75% when you combine the two groups shown in the figure above. However, it is significant that the group stating that they will most definitely vote has decreased from 86% in 2001 to 70% in 2017. This is a decrease of 17% in only eight years, reflecting a general decrease in interest in local level politics. This does not say anything about what the participation will be in the upcoming municipal election in November, because much depends on other factors. In 2001 participation came to 85% because the parliamentary election took place at the same time. In 2009 participation fell to 66%, and it rose to an unexpected 72% in 2013, probably because of a lot of media attention and some targeted mobilisation of young voters and women.
WHAT ABOUT THE YOUTH?
Several surveys show that youth (18-24 years in particular) participate less in both national and municipal politics and elections than the average citizen. Around 11% of the electorate belong to this age group. When asked if young people believe it is irrelevant or uninteresting to participate in local level politics, only 21% disagree (the two bars at the top of the figure shown below). This means that four of five young people indicate that it is really not particularly meaningful or important to participate. Considering that we know how important it is to root a democratic culture at an early age for people to become active participants in our democracy long-term, this is of course a serious challenge to our democratic system.
The survey also asked the youth if they would be more interested in local politics if there were more young councillors elected. Close to 30% agreed that this could make a difference, although only 11% were in full agreement. Almost 40% said that they disagreed that this would make a difference at all. A similar survey undertaken in 2013 showed that almost half of the youth agreed that more young councillors would make a difference to their motivation to engage. Why there is such a difference between 2013 and 2017 is not clear.
END OF A FAIRYTALE?
Denmark is still a strong democracy, with a deep-rooted democratic culture. We are in the same league as our Nordic brothers and sisters, Sweden, Norway and Finland. Participation in both national and local level elections is relatively high. Politics is usually more an effort of finding a consensus than an exercise in creating confrontation. Political ‘enemies’ or adversaries can fight it out during debates in the run-up to an election, but they can still enjoy a beer together in the local bar. Just to mention a few of the features we normally associate with the Danish democracy – and features also recognised by visitors from other countries.
As I have argued for some time now, there is no room for complacency! The institutions, procedures, values and attitudes we have built slowly and diligently over more than a hundred years, can more quickly and more easily than we would like to think be challenged, undermined and eroded. Just like we have the ‘international’ wing of the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy, I believe it is now time to also establish a ‘national’ wing.
This survey is yet another argument for making a push for the re-invigoration and re-thinking of our democratic culture, to make it relevant for the challenges of our time, and for new generations. In particular we need to make our democracy relevant for the large majority of citizens who today can find no reason to belong to a political party. We need to make sure that our political life does not end up as a mirror of the rest of our consumption-infected society. Some aspects of the survey indicate that we have moved in that direction.
Personally, I do not believe that we will ever return to the same type of political parties we had 50 years ago, where people joined a particular party with the expectation of a life-long relationship, almost as a marriage. I believe less can do – but parties need to find ways of doing something, and so far what I have seen from the majority of political parties does not tell me that they are serious enough about confronting the challenges to our democracy lurking in the shadows.
Fortunately the survey also mentions areas, where there is reason to be happy and optimistic. We often see media outlets publish surveys about which groups in society citizens have confidence in – or not. In recent years, politicians and journalists have been fighting to avoid the lowest level of confidence on the list! However, in this survey, 64% state that in general, they believe local politicians are considerate about listening to the sentiments of the local citizens; and 72% state that in general local politicians are skilled people, who know what they are doing. This is good news indeed, although there are also information in the survey that points to a decreasing level of confidence in the local politicians, like we have seen for national level politicians.
Denmark was the home of Hans Christian Andersen, but Denmark is not a fairytale country! We live in one of the richest countries in the world, and we contribute in many ways to global cooperation, just like a small country needs to do. But we need to do more, also at home, and one of the areas we must target is the re-design of our democracy, to make it strong enough to resist the pressures we see at play right now, both here and elsewhere. We also need to do this to maintain the necessary credibility when we travel abroad to support others, like we do through the Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy.
In a little more than a month, on Tuesday 21 November, elections for municipal and regional councils will take place. In the run-up to election day, I will regularly publish small stories about people and issues that are part of the election campaign. On 21 November itself, I will be volunteering as an election official from early morning when voting stations open until late evening, when the votes have been counted. That will also be part of my storytelling.