Politics Without Parties
From Poland to Iceland, citizens’ groups are taking matters into their own hands and bringing about genuine political change from outside the party system.
It has become a truism that political parties are the fundamental political actors in modern democracies, where elections are usually considered the main way for citizens to participate in democracy. Yet the last decade has seen trust in political parties and democracy decline dramatically in countries where those institutions seemed most consolidated—including in Europe.
The 2007 to 2008 financial crisis, corruption scandals, and journalistic exposés of politicians’ unethical behavior (like those in the Panama and Paradise Papers) have spread the view that political representatives either don’t have the public interest at heart or aren’t able to resist the influence of efficiently organized private and vested interests.
Today, almost 80 percent of people in the European Union “tend not to trust” political parties, and governments and parliaments don’t fare much better, according to the latest Eurobarometer survey. And, worryingly, citizens “have also become more cynical about the value of democracy as a political system, less hopeful that anything they do might influence public policy, and more willing to express support for authoritarian alternatives,” according to a much-cited paper by Roberto Foa and Yascha Mounk, published in July 2016 in the Journal of Democracy.
It is democracies, often including faulty and low-quality ones, that allow for citizens to self-organize to become political actors in order to defend and promote the public interest beyond the parties and the electoral cycle. Many citizens who in the past might have joined a party or would have been content with voting are opting for a different course outside of traditional electoral politics.
After spending nine months in Latin America as an aid worker, Carlos Macías felt frustrated with the lack of impact of his work and decided to move back to Barcelona, his hometown. It was May 2011, a time when economic recession and the austerity policies imposed on Spain prompted the indignados movement to take over the squares of many Spanish cities to protest against those policies and demand “real democracy.”
“I concluded that I didn’t have to travel far away, that if I wanted to change the world I could start at home,” Macías told Foreign Policy. He was a political science graduate, but his distaste for political parties had kept him away from any kind of political engagement. He wasn’t alone: One of the protest anthems was “They don’t represent us!”—“they” being elected politicians.
With political parties a no-go zone, Macías felt attracted to a group he’d heard about that was succeeding at stopping home evictions: the Mortgage Victims’ Platform, known by its Spanish acronym as PAH.
PAH was founded in Barcelona in 2009 by five friends who foresaw that the financial crisis and the draconian Spanish mortgage law—which mandates that those evicted from their homes still carry most of the debt burden after the bank repossesses their house—would condemn many people to homelessness and a lifelong debt.
Macías attended one of PAH’s meetings and was shocked at the many eviction threats and heartrending dramas happening on a daily basis in Barcelona. Many people—including children and the elderly—were forcefully expelled from their homes by the police, many lost their belongings in the process, and some were sleeping rough if they didn’t have anybody to take them in.
Most shockingly, there was an increasing number of suicides among people threatened with eviction. But he was also inspired by PAH’s activists, most of whom had been affected by the mortgage crisis themselves and then successfully fought the banks to keep their homes or have the debt written off.
Macías became a PAH activist and went on to become the group’s national spokesperson. He succeeded Ada Colau, one of PAH’s co-founders, who became known all over Spain after calling a senior member of the Spanish banking association “a criminal” in parliament and telling lawmakers: “Most people in this country … think that voting once every four years is not democracy, that it’s not enough, that it’s not a blank check for parliamentary groups to do whatever they want thinking they are backed by the majority of the population.” In 2015, Colau left PAH to run for and win the Barcelona mayoralty as the leader of Barcelona En Comú, an independent citizen political platform.
PAH managed to fundamentally transform the public debate—which had long placed all the burden on mortgage holders—to shift part of the responsibility onto the banks, a view replicated by Spanish and European courts, which have since found the Spanish mortgage law unlawful. There have been eight rulings by European courts, and quite a few by Spanish regional and national courts, condemning the Spanish government and finding the banks guilty of criminal practices according to EU law due to abusive clauses in the mortgage contracts.
Some banks have been forced to pay money back to mortgage holders. PAH also drafted a citizens’ initiative, currently going through parliamentary procedures—even though conservative parties had been blocking the debate about that law proposal, which now with the upcoming general election it risks being stuck in parliamentary limbo for a while—and it has successfully pushed regional and national authorities in Spain to increase tenants’ and homeowners’ protection.
“I feel useful and capable of doing things. This may seem silly but actually that is not easy to find: feeling that you can actually change things for the better,” Macías said. While PAH may represent the prototypical grassroots organization, it’s by no means the only example of citizens self-organizing in Europe.
Back in 2002, over tea and cake in an English town near London, John Christensen, a 62-year-old economist and forensic auditor, was asked rather ambitiously by three visitors: Would you please help us rescue Jersey from the banks?
Christensen, who is himself from Jersey, had to leave the British Channel Island in 1998 after participating as a source in an investigative report in the Wall Street Journal that described Jersey as a tax haven. He had tenure as an economic advisor to the local government and couldn’t be fired, but he’d lost friends and received threats, and he finally had decided to move to London, where after the visit from his fellow Channel Islanders he ended up co-founding the Tax Justice Network (TJN), which today he chairs.
TJN is made up of economic and financial experts and accountants who get access to high-profile forums and conversations through their expertise—but also act as research-grounded activists. The strategy is to force their research into the public debate and then call for measures that are difficult for reasonable people to oppose. On paper, it works.
As the vanguard of the tax justice movement, TJN has been key in making the OECD, the G-20 and the EU accept new norms like country-by-country reporting (making corporations disclose their economic activity by country of and type of operation, which would show the profits they register in tax havens where they don’t generate income), automatic exchange of financial information (making different jurisdictions share tax information with each other by default), and public disclosure of beneficial ownership (revealing the actual people who in the end benefit from financial assets).
TJN has also expanded the definition of corruption—as for instance conceptualized in Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perception Index, which had become one of the international standards to measure it—to include those who enable it: the big, usually Western law and accounting firms that help corrupt political leaders, wealthy individuals, and corporations to hide their money and avoid paying taxes.
“We are not aligned to any political party or political movement. But we are very much trying to bring a technical expert voice on behalf of the wider public to discussions from which that public have been excluded for decades,” Christensen said.
The rise of grassroots activism is not limited to economic policy. On April 1, 2016, Polish media began covering a citizens’ initiative that aimed to allow abortion only in case of direct danger to the mother’s life, and to criminalize seeking an illegal abortion. Poland already had some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws; if passed, the new law threatened to forbid termination of a pregnancy caused by rape—and a person trying to do so could be jailed.
At first thinking the proposal was an April Fools’ joke, Agata Majewska, a 35-year-old graphic designer from Warsaw, created a Facebook group to discuss the proposed law. She named it Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (Gals for Gals), invited a few of her friends to the group, and went back to work.
When she logged on to Facebook later that day, the group had grown to around 5,000 people, almost all women, many openly discussing abortion and sharing their rage at the proposed law. Majewska was shocked; she had never seen such a thing online in Poland, and this was in a group she had just created herself. Later that evening, there were around 30,000 members, and in a week the group reached almost 100,000 (with about 103,000 members today).
On April 9, during a protest the Dziewuchy page had co-organized, two of the group administrators read a speech onstage on behalf of the members: “For many of us, this is the first time we voice our opposition, the first such a strong commitment in our lives. … Our discussions made us realize that we have the power to take matters into our own hands and to fight for our rights.” From an online forum, Dziewuchy had quickly grown into a real community that gave its members a sense of political identity and belonging.
As Dziewuchy became more visible, politicians from opposition parties approached its leaders to explore the possibility of collaboration—yet most members held politicians in contempt and didn’t want anything to do with them. “[But) what we do is actually politics, and we decided since the beginning that in all our news info and press packs we would use that phrase: that what we do is political, but we are not a political party,” said Barbara Ewa Baran, one of the group’s four original members.
As well as providing a safe online space for women in Poland, Dziewuchy helped coordinate the big Black Monday protest in October 2016—which saw about 100,000 people, most of them women wearing black, take to the streets in Warsaw and over 60 other cities and towns across Poland to protest against restricting access to medical abortion—and other demonstrations and events, and its members self-organized to collect signatures to support citizens’ initiatives that aimed to liberalize access to abortion in hospitals. “Since April 2016, we’ve gained the awareness that law isn’t an abstract thing, that it’s touching us, that even if we are not interested in the law, the law is interested in us,” Majewska said.
In 2009, Iceland demonstrated how an unexpected opening could give citizens a chance to gain access to state power in a rich and highly-developed country. The financial crisis led to the failure of the three biggest Icelandic banks; Iceland itself had to be bailed out by the IMF and several European countries. After several weeks of protests, the heads of the Financial Supervisory Authority and the Central Bank were forced out, and the government resigned.
It was an awakening for concerned citizens—and they took action. Some developed online platforms to allow for direct democracy and citizen participation in political decision-making, others embarked in a citizen-led process to rewrite the country’s constitution, and yet others created citizen political movements to run in parliamentary elections.
However, the inertia of the system and the resistance of some conservative parties and actors meant the online platforms only had an impact at the local level in Reykjavik, the newly written and progressive constitution hasn’t yet been approved, and the citizen parties didn’t gain enough power—and now some critics accuse them of having become institutionalized.
Still, many people think the atmosphere is different now. “Even though people are much more calm, we’re not taking to the streets with the pots and pans every day, there is a level of knowledge that the power is ours that was not there before … and that is really precious,” said Katrin Oddsdottir, a human rights lawyer and one of the citizens who wrote the new constitution. “And I think the basic foundation is just this real deep love of democracy, seriously. It sounds corny, but I think it’s like we have the power. It’s like we have been living in a lie, but we were able to break it.”
The political game may or may not be rigged, but it’s certainly skewed toward those with access to money, media visibility, and influence. And when public debate runs on sensationalist headlines and clickbait, extreme views tend to be favored.
To compete in such an environment, citizen political platforms need to be strictly nonpartisan and develop communities where members share a common vision and sense of mission. They need to be strategic, plan for the long term, and be ready to take risks and to compromise. They also have to develop proposals based on expertise, and to find ways to become sustainable and maintain momentum until their goals are reached.
Unless such citizen political engagement becomes a check on the excesses of electioneering and the rise of extremism, violence and conflict may instead become the continuation of politics by other means.
Jose Miguel Calatayud is a journalist based in Barcelona. He has covered East Africa and in Turkey for the Spanish newspaper El País and was a 2017-2018 Open Society Fellow. Twitter: @JoseMCalatayud