Sam van der Staak – International IDEA

Sam van der Staak – International IDEA

Summary of Sam’s presentation

30 November 2017

Sam lead the International Idea workshop-day on the 29th of November which was held between 60 political parties from Europe, the US, and Asia, discussing democratic innovation by representative democratic parties.

International IDEA, an Inter-governmental organisation, established 22 years ago to support democracies worldwide. There are offices and headquarters in Stockholm but also across the world, with 31 member states, all democracies. What they do is really to help those who are trying to reform their democracies by providing them with comparative knowledge, showing what has been done in the rest of the world and see how it can used yet in another country. Representatives of International IDEA also go to these countries and support them in their reform efforts.

For International IDEA democratic innovation is mainly focused on the following question: “How to reconnect political parties with it citizens?”

We see an increase in protests all over the world, people are looking for new ways to express their thoughts, they seem unhappy with the traditional ways of representation. People do no longer go only to their elected representatives to voice their concerns, but they take to the streets more and more. We see that democracy is broken, or at least not functioning as well as it used to.

We see that the global average turnout of voters has been decreasing for decades, and in fact, Europe is represents a large portion of this decline, people are not going to the polls as much as they used to.
In some European countries, we can see that the parliamentary makeup is very different nowadays from what it used to be.

In case of France for example, a completely new party which didn’t exist a year ago has now the majority share of parliament. In Spain we see that two relatively new parties have managed to push back the traditional power holders to just over fifty percent, a situation which was completely unthinkable a couple of years ago. And even in Germany we see that parliament is fragmented, more parties are now in parliament, which makes it more difficult to form stable coalitions. There are new comers that citizens are turning to, to be heard.

The traditional forms of representation, the traditional bodies that we used to vote for are getting smaller and smaller. When we look within these parties, we see that party membership in Europe is also declining, since the 1980’s, membership numbers have halved, there are some exceptions, but in general, the situation is not looking good. From further investigation, we see that in some of these traditional parties, the average age of members is 59. How representative are these bodies, how well do they reflect society and how do people feel about it, when they look at these bodies and see they are the ones deciding for them?

The outcome are these protest movements, which we have seen emerging everywhere around the world, and quite rapidly. It all started way back, since the French revolution or even earlier, all the way up to the hipsters today who are taking to the streets and squares with a smartphone and cafe latte. It is not the same everywhere, but these protest images are ones we all recognise. These are often aided by new technologies like social media which make it easier for people to go out, to find each other, to mobilise masses.

International IDEA, in the last year, produced a search engine, a portal, for IT tools, which were used by political parties around the world to innovate their democracy. This portal is for those political parties which want to innovate themselves, there they can find these tools to help them with electronic voting, online policy making and other innovations.

In the workshop on the 29th of November many of the participating parties were very young. Some of them not even two or three years old, but many of them are today in parliament, being the second or third biggest parties in their country. They were very successful in the last elections, and thereby disrupted the electoral landscapes, responding to new citizen requests. During the workshops in-depth insights came up, into how these political parties are changing themselves. How they are revolutionising the way political parties operate, and how citizens movements, these protest movements, are transformed into political parties.

The discussion was also about primary elections, and how citizens are drawn into the party without being a member, and are able to co-decide on who the new party leader is. They exchanged their experience on micro-targeting. How political parties are able to find what voters are interested in, by combining big data and looking at what are the behavioral patterns, to use it to send campaign information, influencing how people vote. And lastly they talked about crowdfunding, how political parties can raise money among citizens, among voters, more easily, using digital technologies.

The main three outcomes were:

  1. These trends are everywhere. It doesn’t matter if you listen to a party from the US, from the Czech Republic, or from Asia. All of them are experiencing the same phenomena of citizens looking for new ways of being represented. Political movements are responding with innovations to show they are better able to listen to what the citizens need. There are differences in how they portray themselves, but a lot of the techniques used are very similar. We can all learn from each other for this is a trend which cuts through all traditional barriers.
  2. The established parties seem to have a structure but are looking for a crowd; where as some of these young parties, have a crowd but are looking for a structure. The challenge here is how to connect those two? How can our established parties reconnect with the crowd and how can we make sure that those, who have captured the crowd and the minds of the people, can translate the crowds’ desires into workable policies, parliamentary debates, and other necessities of a functional democracy.
  3. Are these “techniques” micro-targeting, and crowdfunding, are the future of Democracy? All of these technological innovations can be used for good things, not only for the manipulation we constantly hear about lately. If we are able to reach citizens better, to understand how they think and what they require from politics, we are able to build trust. Then we can respond better to their desires and to deliver better as politicians.


Democracy support organisations like NIMD, International IDEA enable the parties to use the techniques and the developments discussed in the last two days for good purposes. They can help make democracy deliver again and enhance trust among citizens and political parties.