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Meeting on participatory democracy at the World Social Forum in Tunis

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Meeting on participatory democracy at the World Social Forum in Tunis

March 28th 2013 New Compass together with Transnational Institute of Social Ecology (TRISE) organized a meeting on participatory democracy at the World Social Forum in Tunis. The aim of the meeting was to discuss how forms of participatory democracy that now are being practiced by social movements across the world can be spread to the rest of society and what a participatory democratic society would look like. To find out, we explored some of the existing institutions and practices of local direct and participatory democracy around the world.

The room was full and there were not enough seats for every one. The number of participants was between 50 and 60. The meeting started with introduction speeches by Dimitri Roussopoulos, Hadrien Delahousse and Nidhal Mimouni, followed by other participants sharing their experiences of local direct and participatory democracy. Our intention was to divide into groups in the last part of the meeting, however the arrangement of the room and a lack of time did not allow for this.

Dimitri Roussopoulos: Democratizing democracy
Dimitri Roussopoulos is a writer, editor and founder of the publishing house Black Rose Books. He has co-edited Participatory Democracy: Prospects for Democratizing Democracy.
The fundamental concept of participatory democracy was born in the 1960s with the protesting youth movement. This movement arouse as a result of a tremendous antipathy towards the old left which consisted of the Marxist-Leninists and the social democrats. New forms of participation, of dialogue and debate were created that gave rise to practices of participatory democracy. There was a desire to democratize society, beyond mere consultation and mere representation. Democracy is about more than voting every four or five years; a democratic society allows people to take part in the decision making process, it is horizontal, not hierarchical. This sensibility gave rise to the women's liberation movement, the ecology movement and the peace movement.
Experiments in participatory democracy. Politicians say we live in a democracy – but we want to democratize democracy. In the 1980s, in the Brazilian city of Porto Alegre, the municipal government in association with civil society undertook a remarkable experience called participatory budgeting, in which citizens decide how to spend the municipal budget. Participatory budgeting now exists in over 230 cities across the world.
In the city of Montreal, Canada, they have drafted a Charter of rights and responsibilities to the city. Here the concept of citizenship entails the citizenship in the city. In this document the citizens of Montreal can see what the city's responsibility is towards them (e.g. proper housing, clean and free drinking water etc.). The Charter, which includes economic, environmental and cultural chapters, was adopted unanimously by the city council in 2006, and is now law. Anyone who lives in the city are citizens of Montreal, you don't have to be a Canadian citizen.
Among other things, the Charter gives a right to citizens’ initiative, in which ordinary citizens can intervene in formal public policy by undertaking a petition process and enforce politicians to have a public consultation. Any citizen of Montréal can participate in the debates in defining the public policies. This has contributed to taking away a certain amount of power from the politicians.
The idea of a charter of rights is so important, that now there is a global charter of rights. Across the world cities are being asked to adopt the charter of rights for the people who live in these cities. Dimitri urged everyone to get their local city council to adopt this charter of rights as it will be an important instrument in democratizing our cities and societies. Most people now live in cities, so the right to the city and to democratize the city is essential.

Hadrien Delahousse: Local experiences of direct democracy
Hadrien runs a website,, about present and past experiences of local direct democracy around the world. At the meeting he spoke about some of these experiences.
Africa: Local direct and participatory democracy has a strong tradition and actuality across the world, especially in Africa. There, in past and recent practices of the people, we can find concrete examples of the social and economic advantages of direct democracy, of how a local assembly, open to everyone, can work, and how a community, a village, a city or a neighbourhood can self-govern democratically. Methods of decision making in these assemblies vary; some make decisions by different forms of majority voting, others by consensus or unanimity. In his book, Indigenous African Institutions, the Ghanaian professor George Ayittey gives a detailed presentation of indigenous African institutions, including participatory democracy. The works of professor Jospeh Ki-Zerbo in West Africa and the Senegalese historian Cheikh Anta Diop about federalism in Africa and the tradition of political autonomy and collective decision making processes can also be recommended.

In African Anarchism: The History of A Movement (chap. 3), I.E. Igariwey Sam Mbah describes practices of participatory democracy, self-governance and communalism in traditional African societies. And in Provisional Autonomous Zone, Or the Ghost-State in Madagascar, David Graeber writes about local assemblies in Madagascar.

In South America the idea and practice of self-government has grown stronger and is spreading to more and more towns. It has also been enshrined in the new constitutions of Ecuador, Venezuela and Bolivia. The assembly system is fundamental to the Zapatistas in Mexico. For a few months in 2006, the city of Oaxaca was a free society ruled by the Popular Assembly of the Peoples of Oaxaca.
In Europe, centralisation of power and statism make it difficult for citizens’ movements to enter the political sphere. However, in 2011 new movements and grassroots initiatives practicing local direct democracy through popular assemblies emerged in Spain and Greece, as well as in other European countries like France, UK, Portugal and Italy. To some in these movements the assembly institution had the potential of becoming a tool for the population to take back their political liberty and power from the hands of the politicians and experts. Most of these assemblies didn’t last longer than a few months. However there are also examples of more long-term experiences of local direct democracy in some European villages and small towns.
In the villages Vandoncourt and Tordères in France, citizens running for municipal elections on a direct democracy program have been elected and have transformed the villages into assembly democracies where all decisions are made in thematic and general assemblies open to all inhabitants.
Marinaleda, a small village in the south of Spain, is an example of how direct democracy can lead to concrete improvements of the everyday life of common people. In Marinaleda farmers and inhabitants fought through occupations and food strikes to take back abandoned land for agriculture. 1200 hectares of land were transferred to the village and turned into an agricultural cooperative. Marinaleda is now a direct democracy operating through assemblies that vote on all matters concerning the management of the village, including a system of participatory budgeting. Many cooperatives have been created and the village is self-sufficient. The inhabitants consider Marinaleda to be “outside of Spain”, an autonomous town. While in Spain, the unemployment is more then 30 percent, in Marinaleda, it’s only about 3 percent. Almost everyone in the village has proper housing, due to a housing policy whereby everyone who has lived there for two years, gets materials to build their own house. You can read more about Marinaleda here and here.

Nidhal Mimouni: The revolution and independence of Redeyef
Before the revolution of 14th of January 2011, there were several other manifestations and smaller revolutions in Tunisia. Lots of people have fought and have been killed in these struggles for liberty and democracy. The most famous of these is the revolution during 2008 in the small village of Redeyef in the south of the country. Although Redeyef is full of mining resources, the people living in the village and the region are suffering from poverty and are neglected by the government. The students of the region were the first to revolt. The answer of the Ben Ali regime was brutal police repression; over 10.000 policemen surrounded the village, many people were killed and injured and thousands were sent to prison. The men of the village escaped to the mountains around the city, and during night they went down to confront the police. During the day, the women of the village demonstrated and occupied the streets. In this period, which lasted eight months, the village declared itself to be independent from the state. A very democratic way of living was developed. Nidhal said that we should study in depth and take lessons from this experience.
More about the revolution in Redeyef:
One of the participants at the meeting, a Tunisian from the region of Redeyef, told us about other towns in the region which also had revolted during that time and even before.

Designing participatory institutions
Olga, from France, talked about her experience working for a cooperative in France that specializes in designing institutions for participatory processes. They work together with local authorities on projects on urban planning, water management and other forms of resource management. They help to design institutions and mechanisms in which citizens can take part in the planning processes.
One important point about participatory democracy is to make sure that the institutions really empower the citizens. Often “participatory democracy” is just a political move made by the local authorities to attract votes, a communication move that only serves to legitimate decisions that already have been taken by the authorities. To ensure real participation and decision making power to citizens, the cooperative has created the Intervention Charter. Local authorities committing to the charter are put in front of the people and held to account. The idea is that it is the people who are the experts. But implementing such a practice encounters several difficulties: the fear of the local authorities to be directly confronted by their citizens, and the difficulty of convincing both citizens and experts that ordinary citizens know what is good for their community. Low participation of citizens can also be a problem sometimes. It is not easy to mobilize people to participate nowadays.

Constitutionalizing participatory democracy
A Tunisian teacher of law spoke about his experience when he was invited by an organization to participate in a conference cycle about participatory democracy in November 2012. He also said that the term participatory democracy now has been included in the new Tunisian constitution.
Dimitri urged people in Tunisia and in other countries where the constitution is under review to study and take inspiration from the Brazilian constitution. The Brazilian constitution is one of very few constitutions that gives real power, including economic power, to the municipalities.

How to encourage participation
An issue that came up several times during the discussions was the problem of low participation of citizens. Participatory democracy takes time, and work, school and family obligations make it difficult for people to find time. Also many people don’t prioritize participation enough; they are consumed by their private lives. A man who’s member of a neighbourhood association in Tunis told us about their difficulties in mobilizing people to come. A reason for this, he said, could be the lack of democratic mechanisms in Tunisia after decades of dictatorship in the country. But others pointed out that participation is also low in countries like France.
However, people are often more willing to participate if they have real decision making power, like in many places where participatory budgeting gives the citizens power to make decisions about the municipal budget. But it also takes time to build trust in participatory institutions, so we have to be patient. Dimitri highlighted the fact that in Porto Alegre, it took 16 years before people really trusted the process and participated in large numbers. To encourage participation, we also need to find all sorts of mechanisms that make it easier for people to participate, like free buses, family suppers, etc.

Participatory democracy in North Africa
A man from Algeria involved in the civil society organisation "Rassemblement Action Jeunesse", working for the development of citizenship and political empowerment of the citizens, urged us to build on the traditions of participatory democracy in the Berber culture in North Africa.
He told us about the experience of Kabylie, a small commune in south of Algeria. In 2005, the state had dissolved all the Djeemas, the traditional local assemblies in Kabylie, which had constituted a democratic decision making system at the communal level. The youths have revolted against this total political disempowerment, and citizens’ committees have been created. They also used the last municipal campaign and elections to raise these issues and try to get back their political liberty and power.

An audio recording of the meeting can be downloaded here.

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