Books

David Van Reybrouck
Against Elections

This Flemish Belgian political writer disputes that elections, even free and fair ones, equal democracy. If so, why do citizens want more than they are getting in Western countries? Politicians, media and business are pulling each other down in a “Bermuda Triangle” of incapacity, reducing political debate to a “daily soap opera”. Australia has just had a drawn-out election that has resolved nothing. Van Reybrouck’s Belgium set a record by going 541 days after its 2010 elections before a government could be formed. The anti-politician, anti-party backlash is in full swing. But Occupy-type movements and protest parties offer no lasting remedy.

Van Reybrouck looks to history for answers. The fathers of the American and French republics saw elections as a way of installing a non-hereditary aristocracy, he says, a way of filtering democracy. Further back, mediaeval Italian city-states and the Athenian republic relied not on elections, but on “sortition”, whereby offices of the state were allotted by ballot among enfranchised citizens, for short terms. The governed had a shot at governing, or at least a lot of them did, with reduced risk of corruption and popular manipulation. We still rely on sortition for one of the less popular duties of government, deciding innocence or guilt in the courts. If 12 ordinary citizens, chosen at random, can be trusted to master evidence and law, why not apply the jury principle to legislation?

Van Reybrouck shows us some recently applied examples of sortition: successful in constitutional revision in Ireland and Iceland, less so in electoral system reform in Canada and the Netherlands (where elected politicians baulked at proposals by citizen forums). The essence of this participatory democracy is random selection, as in polling, and adequate remuneration for those so obliged.

How not to do it, Van Reybrouck says in his main reference to Australia, came with Kevin Rudd’s 2020 Summit. Its thousand “best and brightest” had to nominate themselves, list their qualifications and goals, and pay their own way to Canberra. Citizen participation then became a “meritocratic conclave”. 

Selection by ballot for at least one chamber of parliament could head off revolt by the alienated citizenry, Van Reybrouck suggests. Why not? At least Keating’s senate “swill” would be representative. This stimulating book points to new mechanisms of democracy for the connected Information Age.  JF

Bodley Head, 208pp, $27.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 6, 2016 as "David Van Reybrouck, Against Elections". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: JF