The Eurozone crisis has led to a perceived rise in ‘technocratic’ governments, led by unelected bureaucrats. Duncan McDonnell argues that caretaker governments are often used as a synonym for technocratic ones by the media, but that not all caretaker governments are led by technocrats, and nor are all technocrat-led governments caretakers. He writes that when governments are composed of technocrats, this occurs with the consent of mainstream parties who can no longer carry out their core business of government. This leaves the door open for anti-establishment parties who promise to restore responsive democratic government.
With a narrow vote in the Bulgarian parliament at the end of May, Plamen Oresharski became the latest unelected, non-party prime minister of an EU member state. The ‘Bulgarian Mario Monti’, as he is being described in some quarters. Given Bulgaria’s low profile in the Western media, we’re unlikely to see again the flurry of headlines that occurred in November 2011, when Monti became prime minister in Italy at the same time as former vice-president of the ECB, Lucas Papademos, did so in Greece. Then, with nods to George Orwell and Aldous Huxley, we were warned about the sudden invasion of our governments by grey men, armed with statistics and new rulebooks, usurping democracy from the people and imposing the one-size-fits-all policies of European elites.
A piece in the New Statesman was typical, both in its apocalyptic tones and flawed historical analysis. We were told that ‘for the first time in a generation, European countries are now headed by individuals who have had no popular endorsement at the ballot box’. Nonsense. As Marco Valbruzzi and I discussed in a paper we presented at the European Union Studies Association Conference in Baltimore last month, there is nothing new about this. Up until early 2013, there had been 24 governments headed by technocrats in the current 27 EU member states, many of them in previous decades. And almost half of these were ‘caretaker governments’. In other words, they were short-lived administrations put in place to ‘mind the shop’ until new elections can be called and duly-mandated party governments re-installed.
Unfortunately, just to add to the confusion, ‘caretaker’ is often used as a synonym for ‘technocratic’ in the media. For example, both the BBC and the Financial Times referred to Monti’s technocratic government as a ‘caretaker’. Wrongly so. Not all caretaker governments are led by technocrats (we find them led by party representatives in countries such as the Netherlands and Belgium). But nor are all technocrat-led governments caretakers. Monti was put in place not to ‘mind the shop’ for a short period of time, but to gut it and cut it over the course of 18 months. His administration was, as Valbruzzi and I have termed it, a ‘full technocratic government’. By this, we mean that the prime minister was a technocrat, the majority of ministers were technocrats, and the government had the capacity to make major changes such as the introduction of new taxes, pension reforms, liberalization measures and so on.
Qualitatively, in terms of both its non-party composition and extensive remit, this ‘full technocratic’ (or ‘full Monti’?) is a very different species of government to a caretaker. But it is a rare one. At least according to our definitional criteria, there have only been three full technocratic governments in the last ten years in EU member states: Monti in Italy (2011-2013), Gordon Bajnai in Hungary (2009-2010), and Jan Fischer in the Czech Republic (2009-2010). To return to 2011, the Papademos government which was constantly bracketed alongside Monti’s was very different: it was composed mostly of representatives from the two largest parties, PASOK and New Democracy. Indeed, 12 of the 18 ministers in the Papademos cabinet had been PASOK ministers in the previous George Papandreou government. Similarly, Oresharski’s new government, despite its technocratic façade, seems heavily influenced by the Bulgarian Socialist Party. By contrast, Monti’s government contained not a single MP or party member – and lasted nearly three times as long. If we want to make an Orwellian reference, of which the commentators in 2011 were so fond, we might say that some technocrats are more equal than others.
None of this, of course, is to claim that governments led by technocrats do not raise important concerns about how our democracies are functioning. They do. In particular, when the key members of a government in a parliamentary system are unelected technocrats, charged with taking major governmental decisions, there is clearly an issue about the chain of democratic delegation.
Governments composed of technocrat prime ministers and ministers have not been elected on a platform presented to the citizens. And, given that technocrats are not party politicians, they are not – in theory – constrained in their actions by the fear that voters will throw them out at the next election. I say ‘in theory’, since technocrats too can be subsequently seduced by the lure of political competition (as we have seen recently with both Monti in Italy and Fischer in the Czech Republic).
However, what should be most worrying about these governments is what they tell us about political parties. Above and beyond the attention-grabbing noise about technocratic invasions, it is important to bear in mind that these governments occur with the consent of mainstream parties. More specifically, they occur when those parties wave the white flag and openly admit that they cannot perform what should be their core business: government.
Indeed, in cases such as Italy, the main parties of centre-right and centre-left abandoned both government and opposition in the face of a technocratic government. They announced to the world their inability to do their jobs. Or, to put it kindly, they took a very public sabbatical. However, that leaves the door open for other parties which offer not only opposition, but the promise of restoring responsive democratic government to the people. And these multi-coloured outsiders of Left, Right and no-fixed ideological abode, may be much more dangerous for established parties in the longer term than the grey men.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics.
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Duncan McDonnell – European University Institute
Duncan McDonnell is Marie Curie Fellow in the Department of Political and Social Sciences at the European University Institute in Florence. He is the co-editor of Twenty-First Century Populism (Palgrave, 2008), the 2012 ‘Politica in Italia/Italian Politics’ yearbook and has recently published on the Lega Nord, Outsider Parties and Silvio Berlusconi’s personal parties. He is currently working with Daniele Albertazzi on a book entitled ‘Populists in Power’ which will be published by Routledge. He tweets at @duncanmcdonnell.