Without a Government, Belgians Innovate

by Dr Alison Smith

After 600 days without a government, the ever-worsening euro-zone crisis finally forced Belgium’s bickering politicians to form a government.  But a grassroots movement, G1000, had already moved to fill the void.    Their idea?  That 1000 randomly selected people should gather in Brussels on 11th November 2011 and discuss a set of pre-determined proposals.  After that, a smaller group of citizens would work with experts to thrash out detailed proposals, eventually making recommendations to the whole country in April 2012.

The G1000 movement argues that elections are no longer a useful part of the democratic machinery.  They happen too regularly, and voters are so assertive and critical that politicians live in a permanent state of pre-election neurosis.  They make promises at election time, and then refuse to compromise for fear of being punished by their core support.  This problem is particularly acute in Belgium, where the electoral system means that no compromise equals no government.   However, the spectre of squabbling politicians failing to reach cross-party compromise can also be seen elsewhere. In the last few weeks, the United States’ deficit reduction ‘supercommittee’ drew a blank after several months’ deliberation, its members fearful of losing core support and big funders.  At some point, it seems, compromise and principled decision-making became mutually exclusive.

So, how did the Belgian G1000 experiment go?  Around 700 people turned up in Brussels, and 500 more joined via satellite meetings.  An impressive turnout.  The most popular proposals were fairly right wing: limiting unemployment benefits to a fixed period, lowering company taxes and compulsory integration tests for immigrants.  These ideas had all been around the political carousel a few times, but had never found a majority in parliament.  The G1000 organisers will now flesh out these proposals and report back in April.

There are obvious risks in such a system, not least that the tyranny of the majority could have a damaging effect on minority rights.  The European Convention on Human Rights would act as a strong break on worst lapses. But the inaugural meeting confirmed that 1,000 randomly selected citizens are not particularly sympathetic to the needs of the long-term unemployed or immigrant groups.  What might happen to the interests of other minorities with low political capital, for instance people with disabilities?

The central premise behind G1000, that elections are harmful in modern democracies, is an interesting one that deserves further debate.  Would politicians make better decisions if they didn’t have to answer to their electorates every four years?  Would a group of 1000 ordinary citizens, randomly selected from an electoral role, be better at making difficult decisions than career politicians?  How would accountability work in such a system?  Or do elections fail to provide accountability anyway?

This blog will follow the G1000 as it develops.  Having effectively involved new people in political discussion, it may yet become an influential pressure group, reminding politicians of the need to rise above party politics in these difficult times.  But are we witnessing the end of representative democracy as we know it?  Probably not, but it does no harm to experiment with new ways of making decisions.