British Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call a snap general election on 8 June has added another electoral contest to the busy political calendar of Europe. Already the direction of European politics depended on the outcome of the French presidential poll and the German election in the autumn. Earlier in the year the Turkish and Dutch governments entered into a bitter public feud as their electoral campaigns spilled over into each other’s territory. And 2016 was punctuated by the election victories of anti-establishment forces in the US and the UK.
All this points to a stark new reality: elections are now the key formative events, and national electorates the key actors, of world politics. International affairs have become electoralized. The implications are far-reaching. No complex international compromise is safe against the intense scrutiny of domestic public opinions. The interaction of multiple national (and even sub-national) electoral cycles is increasingly dictating outcomes on the international stage. And the importance of elections opens a back door for new strategies of influence from partners and disruption from foes.
Of course not all of this is new. Politicians have always acted in the international arena with an eye on staying in national office. And foreign policy elites have always had to take into account important domestic constituencies, from influential factions in royal courts to political parties to organized economic interests to transnational advocacy coalitions.
But today’s context is different in many respects. First, international negotiations and agreements are reaching further and further into national policies and regulations. Such agreements, from trade to climate change, are commonly designed and implemented by national executives – politicians, bureaucrats and experts. Often governments are happy to tie their own hands with international commitments to justify unpopular decisions at home. But as electorates realize the effects of such decisions, they clamour for more control over them.
Second, electoral democracy has become a powerful normative reference point that policymakers cannot dismiss or ignore. Since the end of the Cold War, even semi-authoritarian regimes need an electoral façade to legitimize themselves. True, there are exceptions to the global spread of the electoral norm. Leaders in countries like China and Saudi Arabia do not have to worry about being openly challenged at the ballot box. But even these leaders have to keep a constant watchful eye on public opinion.
Third, social change in Western countries over the last half century has undermined the rigid structures of hierarchical, ideologically driven parties. Electorates have become more individualized, and voters’ choices more fickle. Democratically elected leaders have to satisfy voters who can easily switch allegiance in the next election. The policymaking deadlock in the EU, for example, is to a large extent the result of this development towards less structured party politics in mature democracies.
Fourth, the global emergence of populism is in itself a proof of the tensions between the increasing interconnectedness of a globalized world and the demarcation of democracy along national lines. Populism addresses primarily frustration with a sense of representational impotence vis-à-vis global processes that the state fails to tackle effectively. Once the hope was that globalization would foster a global civic society. Instead, national governments and international institutions today have to wrest with multiple restive electorates asking for more control over processes of global magnitude.
New policy challenges
In such a world of electoralized international politics, the window of opportunity for making and ratifying treaties, trade deals or security commitments shrinks substantially. International agreements are contingent on the interaction of successive electoral outcomes. As a result the backdrop of international politics is becoming fluid and uncertain.
All of this creates a series of new policy challenges. First, it calls for more awareness and sensitivity to the domestic consequences of far-reaching international agreements. For example, a more public strategy to win the support of domestic constituencies for deep and comprehensive trade deals could have forestalled the anti-free trade backlash in the US presidential election or the Walloon ratification mess of the Canada-EU trade deal.
Second, security experts must think of mass and electoral politics as new targets for disruption and meddling by foreign actors. This can happen both in the public sphere (think how President Recep Tayyip Erdogan used the Turkish diaspora to influence elections in the Netherlands and bolster his support in a constitutional referendum in Turkey) and covertly (witness Russia’s meddling in the US election).
Third, leaders must decouple the uncertainty created by electoral politics from processes of international cooperation. A lot of the backlash against globalization today is the product of the feeling that international rules and processes deprive voters of effective choice. Hence, elections become a contest about whether a state should participate in these processes at all.
Instead, leeway in policymaking in some issue areas should be returned to the national level – as envisaged in one of the five scenarios for the future of the EU presented by the European Commission recently (or indeed, as David Cameron argued for in his doomed renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership). This should be coupled with clearer demonstrations of how, in a globalized economy, international cooperation is in fact a more effective means of ‘control’ than states acting in isolation, as populists assert.
Elections will continue constraining politicians on the international stage, but the key is to make them relevant again for national policy outcomes, rather than contests for the survival of the international system as a whole.
To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback