Wednesday, November 07, 2012

Internet Freedom may make Estonia the first e-democracy

Living in the country with the freest Internet in the world opens up some interesting and surprising lines of discussion. Now that nearly 25% of the population choose to vote online, there are some very interesting implications that are coming out. 

Firstly there are the short term implications of more e-voting. The fact of being able to vote, even if you live overseas, keeps the Estonian diaspora far more in touch with home. In the recent Lithuanian election, for example, where online voting does not happen, the nearly a million people who live overseas from Lithuania had to make a significant effort to register and to vote- the result was that of the 74,000 Lithuanian citizens estimated to be living in the UK, for example, less than 9,000 actually voted. Had more voted from overseas, it is quite likely that the Conservative-Liberal government would have been returned to office rather than the currently deadlocked situation based on the controversial Labour Party-Social-Democrat-Paksas partnership. In Latvia and in Estonia, which both do have e-voting, the reforming parties were able to maintain themselves in office, despite being forced into radical austerity measures. Younger, more tech-savvy people have been among the most eager to adopt e-voting, but are also the most eager to spend time overseas. The political implications are therefore obvious.

Yet there is also a longer term set of issues. The fact is that the use of e-voting opens up the prospect of more issues being put the the voters directly. Although this has not happened yet, it can only be a matter of time before the first e-referendum takes place in Estonia. In fact the discussions around this subject go right to the heart of what makes a democracy actually so democratic. Simply asking a referendum in isolation tends to lead to knee-jerk or extremist responses, but where that question is proceeded by a nuanced debate, the results can change markedly. On the one hand the risk of populist and shallow responses, on the other the clear impact of a full debate- and the desirable result of far greater citizen participation in the political process. Given the many compromises that our so-called "representative" (in fact often deeply unrepresentative) democracies impose, the creation of a more open political system has very radical implications.

Estonia, like many other democratic states, has a troubled relationship with its political parties, and in particular how those parties are funded. There have been a series of escalating scandals which at various times have touched all the political parties, and yet still, no-one has devised sufficient safeguards to prevent such activity. Parties are unpopular in principle, yet they remain critical for the functioning of a stable representative democratic state. Yet part of me is beginning to think that the emergence of e-voting presents the first significant challenge to the status of modern liberal states as the bulwarks of freedoms. As e-communities emerge across the web, cannot a country also form an Internet community? Another plank of Politics 2.0 seems to be coming into place.

It already seems to be happening in Estonia.

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