24th Sep 2023


Do democrats really *want* to win?

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Raymond Aron, the French philosopher, once said that at the end of the day, "I think democracies will win. On one condition, however: they must want it."

In today's Europe, there is again reason to doubt this.

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  • Why do centrist parties allow themselves to be seduced by radical populists, even if those openly disregard parliamentary democracy?

See, for instance, how easily Austrian rightwing conservatives form regional governing coalitions with the far-right FPÖ — four years after a secretly shot video exposed how corrupt, pro-Russian, unscrupulous and anti-democratic FPÖ party leader and then Austrian deputy prime minister Heinz-Christian Strache was.

In the video, he eagerly promised someone posing as a wealthy Russian businesswoman public contracts if, in exchange, she would buy Austria's largest tabloid newspaper and secure positive coverage for the FPÖ.

The ensuing scandal brought down the coalition government of the conservative ÖVP and the FPÖ.

For prosecutors, the video was — and still is — a treasure trove full of leads, not just to possibly criminal offences by the FPÖ, but also by the ÖVP. Under the chancellorship of conservative wunderkind Sebastian Kurz, European security services stopped cooperating with their Austrian counterparts for fear information would be leaked to Moscow; opinion polls were rigged; newspapers were bribed with huge ads paid for by the finance ministry; and political cronies were appointed everywhere in the state system.

In October 2021, Kurz resigned.

In August, he was indicted in Vienna for allegedly making false statements about some of these things to a parliamentary inquiry in 2020. He denies all accusations. His trial starts in October.

After the publication of the video, the FPÖ was decimated. But now, under its most extremist leadership ever, polls indicate it has become the country's largest party again. Nevertheless, the ÖVP has formed majorities with them again in three Länder — as if nothing ever happened.

Do democrats really want to win? Or would they rather go for short-term electoral gain?

One cannot help but wonder, nowadays. The French social democrats have let themselves be hijacked by radical-left demagogue Jean-Luc Mélenchon. The centre-right Républicains copy Marine Le Pen's far-right discourse, making her programme mainstream.

While the Republican party in the US surrendered to Donald Trump's whims, the UK Conservatives were swallowed by a few radical backbenchers.

Meanwhile, in view of European elections next year, the European People's Party (Europe's centre-right family) has taken a sharp turn to the right by trying to row back parts of Europe's Green Deal and adopting some of the far-right's steamy slogans on migration.

In the Netherlands, the successor of prime minister Mark Rutte's centre-right VVD party has opened the door for cooperation with the far-right anti-immigration party PVV, whose leader has called parliament "a fake parliament".

And the list of moderate parties abandoning the political centre is much longer.

Why do centrist parties allow themselves to be seduced by radical populists, even if those openly disregard parliamentary democracy? Well, just read Biedermann und die Brandstifter, a short play by Max Frisch, a Swiss architect and writer.

Frisch, who died in 1991, wrote it in the 1950s. Today, though, his main question is still strikingly relevant: why are men often so weak when evil comes their way?

The main character, Biedermann, who has become rich by selling hair produts, reads in the newspaper one day that arsonists are active in the town. Pretending to be 'homeless', they go to the houses of the rich asking for food and a bed for the night. Once inside, they set the houses ablaze.

These arsonists deserve to be hanged, Biedermann says.

Then his doorbell rings. Not only does he open the door, he even offers the 'homeless' man food and shelter. He is mistrustful but tells himself: one needs to do good sometimes. Immediately, his guest brings petrol cans, wood, wool and wicks into the house. He also takes in a companion, Herr Eisenring, who says out loud what they are up to.

Biedermann, though, bursts out laughing and invites the two for a festive dinner, telling himself that when you make friends with bad people, they will do you no harm.

"Whom are you taking us for?" Eisenring asks Biedermann, before telling him he has three tactics for winding rich people around his finger: making jokes, being sentimental about personal suffering and, above all, telling the truth. "The simple, naked truth. Funnily enough, nobody believes that."

Why does nobody believe that? One explanation, according to Eisenring, is that affluent people often have things to hide. If disaster strikes, skeletons may fall out of the closet. The rich man is so afraid of scandal and the risk of losing his possessions and status that he'd rather ignore the danger and play along, pretending all is fine. "Hoping evil is not evil", he embraces it.

In the end, it is Biedermann himself who hands the two arsonists the matchbox they ask for. Babette, Biedermann's wife, asks him why. "Why not?" Biedermann retorts. Moments later, his house is on fire. The house, of course, stands for institutions that are supposed to protect democracy from political arsonists.

The story ends with Biedermann and Babette arriving in hell. After all, they were the ones with the keys to the house and the ones handing them over. The metaphor is clear: had they refused the arsonists access, the house would still be standing.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter in a Europe correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a column in NRC.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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