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The distance between the three powers and the popular mandate PDF Print E-mail

Yiannis Zisis kasetina lgThe issue of the distance observable between each of the three powers and the popular mandate is fundamental to the political situation in any age of history, but has taken on special importance in our own, because it is in this that societies have acquired and have achieved a certain degree of popular sovereignty, even if only at the level of constitutional formulation. Some serious problems arise in connection with the popular mandate as an expression of popular sovereignty.

1. The initial difficulty concerns the question of what is the content as such of the popular mandate. There is a generalised reference to the popular mandate as identified with a supposed consensus on any political option or decision, simply and only by reason of an electoral victory. However, there must be a measure of truth to connect the political act with the mandate.

(a) The way in which it is attempted to apprehend the so-called 'popular mandate' is not consistent with the truth: neither, that is, with the true intentions of those who seek votes nor with the actual conditions, which usually a people is not aware of. In addition, the programmes of political parties deal with matters in a general way and with some special issues - but not the issues as a whole - and the citizens usually vote with a single issue of interest to them in mind, indifferent to the rest, or, sometimes, compelled by the need to survive, skirt round them. This resembles those - so-called recently - necessary laws which have to be voted as provisions tacked-on, with nothing to do with the subject of the draft laws, and so pass by sleight-of-hand, literally without the necessary consultation. This is not a new, but a very old, phenomenon. In ancient Rome, for example, this happened with the law of the praetors (jus praetorium). In a democracy, however, this is a major problem and cancels out democracy itself.

(b) Apart from this, frequently the citizen is indifferent even to the party programmes, and is impelled to vote for emotional, vague, or quasi-ideological reasons, and, consequently, the 'mandate' which he gives has no rational content. In this case, popular sovereignty is assailed at its qualitative core; that is, the citizen votes for himself and not for the whole - but without the concept of the whole, there is no popular sovereignty, but competition between different power groups.

(c) The flow of information is not unimpeded, nor is the information itself always correct, so that the people can vote for what they want in the light of actual circumstances. And public opinion is shaped in a variety of ways, starting from the models promoted in everyday life, which affect indirectly, but strongly, the political orientation of the citizen, and are usually misleading, and that extends to any information on any specific issue.

(d) To this we should add that any decision of a people would not necessarily mean that it was right. In Rome, the Senate was frequently the city's salvation, unlike the plebs, who easily inclined towards dangerous wars. This complicates issues of democracy even further, and shows that it is not enough for the framework for the exercise of power to be correctly structured, but that the input of citizens is also required. The factor of quality in the expression of the general will is the one most important pivot of democracy because it is the subjective consideration which can support or destroy the other pivot - that is, the institutional organisation by means of which an attempt is made to realise democracy and the rights of the citizen.

2. The difficulty of achieving popular sovereignty and of observing the popular mandate on the part of politicians as representatives of the people has been clear from the beginning. This difficulty is both practical and false and hypocritical. The dividing lines are often difficult to distinguish.

This is because the matters to be handled are not all known to begin with, and, furthermore, because the people's will is not easy to interpret, as in the instances given above, among others.

3. Representation itself is not to be identified with democracy, since the directness of the citizen's participation in governance is lacking. Popular sovereignty has come to be regarded more as correct political management on the part of politicians which has the common good as its aim, when, however, the citizen passively awaits the results of this management. But again this is not always the case in practice, since political management does not fulfil its aim, it does not serve the common good, and the citizen does not play a part in governance.

Consistency with these observations should lead to certain conclusions and thoughts as to how these large gaps can be filled between, on the one hand, theory and practice, and, on the other, within the theory itself as to conceptual definition both of democracy and popular sovereignty, as well as individual rights.

First, none of these concepts is absolute, or, rather, cannot be presented in an absolute form, because their very nature does not coincide with an organised form of administration, but simply uses these organisational forms for its fulfilment. These are, chiefly, concepts which evolve in terms of interpretation, but, in any event, in order to live up to their name, must be construed in a way in which the participation of society in governance progressively increases. If it does not increase, this is a failure of politics. They are evolving because their interpretation depends on human apprehension of them in every age.

Second, popular sovereignty cannot be expressed only in the course of an election, but must be respected in all the other expressions of public and private life where fertile soil can be found for the shaping and cultivation of the tendencies in the will of the citizens, otherwise distortions arise which, in reality, cancel out its benefits. Human will exists throughout the full range of life, and not just during the electoral process. Consequently, conditions must be facilitated which ensure the freedom of this will, but this is something which calls for major investigation both as to what this freedom means and how it will be achieved, so that we are not led astray either into irresponsibility or coercion.

In any event, the factors of quality and organisation must be harmoniously combined - in the long term, of course - otherwise democracy and rights will remain unrealised.

Ioanna Moutsopoulou, lawyer

Member of the Secretariat of Solon NGO


Photograph by Yiannis Zisis


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