Democracy and its possible downsides

Author: Ricardo Castanha

The goal stated in DiEM25’s manifesto is “The EU will either be democratised or it will disintegrate!”. However DiEM25 is not the only movement pleading for more democracy in European politics or in the politics of European nations. Nor is such pleading new. However, there are some risks to this ideal.

The Dutch party D66 was formed in 1966 with the aim of introducing more democracy in Dutch politics. Since then it has run for Dutch local and national elections with a programme including direct elections of prime minister and mayors, and the introduction of more referenda. In recent years parties like the Swedish born Pirate Party, which run for both the 2014 Icelandic national parliament elections and the 2015 European Parliament elections, and the Dutch born Geen Peil movement, which will run for the 2017 Dutch national parliament elections, have also been promoting democracy as one of their main ideals.

Each of these movements/parties has a different ideological background than DiEM25. But, and apart from the more established D66, the remaining movements/parties promote a similar way of working with having the public at large, or its members, electing directly each of its policy standpoints. This is in opposition to more traditional parties where an elected central committee defines its political course.

The recent advent of movements/parties with this direct policy election represents a commendable desire to bridge the gap between politicians in their ivory tower and disaffected and disillusioned citizens. However, there are risks associated with this.

First of all, it makes it difficult for an individual member to agree or disagree with the movement/party course since that course can be modified based on polls on individual issues. I joined DiEM25 because i had faith in the initiators of the movement, as i assume most of the other members. But i have no guarantee that the majority of members agree with my viewpoints. It’s perfectly possible that either on a generic level or one specific topic that happens to be a non-negotiable topic for me, the majority of DiEM25 members decide to go on an direction that i do not agree with.

Secondly, it allows, in theory, a majority of members to define a course that is not in line with the original objective of the party/movement founders. It is only logical that people joining DiEM25 subscribe to its manifesto. However, once you have joined, the democracy of the movement allows, by definition, the members to define a course that may be different from what is the minority that the movement initiators represent.

And thirdly, it runs the risk of negating the fact that policy is in essence a work of compromises. Specifically budgetary policy requires that choices are made with finite resources having to be allocated to specific goals at the expense of others. An example of budgetary policy gone wrong partially due to the lack of compromises is that of the state of California and its ‘Wall of Debt’. Regardless of the circumstances, if you ask citizens if they would like pay lower taxes they will say yes, while if you ask them if they would like better public services they will also say yes. But the two things are, in many cases, mutually exclusive, and the job of politicians is precisely setting a direction while taking the need for compromises into account.

As a member of DiEM25, these are concerns that I have and that I feel require a broad discussion on:

  • How can we guarantee that the DiEM25 democratically selected policy does not end up being the same as that of the Pirate Party or that of GeenPeil?
  • How can i know that the political course of DiEM25, democratically selected by its members, represents my own views?
  • To what extent, will the democratically selected policy proposals of DiEM25 stay in line with the intention of its founders?
  • How will DiEM25 balance its commitment for democracy with the pragmatism required to define a financially viable policy?

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