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Open politics, the story so far

David Hayes
17 March 2005

The spectacle of politics around the world in the early 21st century presents what might be called a “democratic paradox”. In western states especially, there is widespread, tangible dissatisfaction with existing political structures and processes. Falling electoral turnouts, the decline in membership of political parties, and the substitution of slogans for argument in public debate reflect the withdrawal of many citizens from active engagement in the political realm.

Alongside this, however, everywhere there is evidence of people’s profound hunger for change: for more freedom, justice, and prosperity, but also for a new relationship with power.

Each national and local experience has its unique characteristics. But from the “orange revolution” in Ukraine to near-insurrection in Bolivia, from constitutional battles in Kenya to convulsion in Lebanon, from election earthquakes in Spain and India to mass demonstration in Hong Kong, there is tangible evidence of a collective, even universal yearning.

How to name this yearning? What is it about? openDemocracy calls it “open politics”.

Open politics is not a movement or an outcome but a commitment to a process of change – democratic, humane, and essentially peaceful – that we believe is contained in and embodied by these worldwide struggles. Open politics lives inside the “democratic paradox”. Open politics seeks ways of resolving it by understanding and clarifying the connections between the diverse experiences of citizens in relation to power across the globe.

The debate, which we call “What is open politics?”, is just beginning. It starts with an interview with Mary Robinson of the Ethical Globalisation Initiative, who draws on her experience as United Nations High Commissioner of Human Rights to argue that the very definition of “human rights” has to be extended to include social and economic rights. The implication is not just that poverty is a human rights issue, but that there is a direct connection between the private intimacies of deprivation and universal principles of justice. But only if institutions of power, international as well as national, are made accountable will such a connection be made.

How is this to be done, and who is to undertake the hard political work – organising, debating, persuading, connecting – that it involves? Two kinds of institutions offer themselves: political parties and non-governmental organisations (NGOs). George Papandreou, leader of Greece’s opposition Pasok party and the country’s former foreign minister, draws from his experience the lesson that political parties need to reinvent themselves to address the new identities and demands of modern citizens. The age of the mass party is dead; the age of the new – mobile, accountable, committed to change, in an active relationship with its members and with society – is starting.

Paul Hilder responds to George Papandreou with a panoramic survey of party-related democratic experimentation around the world – local referenda, participative budgets, meetups, internet-based campaigns. If globalisation, its technologies and cultural impacts, is transforming the nature of politics as Papandreou suggests, what models are available to political parties wishing to re-establish their relevance in these new conditions?

The radical and elite gatherings of the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre and the World Economic Forum at Davos (the latest in January 2005) offer a different set of answers. Both were packed with NGOs, many of which today have adopted the language and ideas of “civil society” as their inspiration or their mantra. But what does this concept mean and can it embody the hope of a new, progressive politics? Neera Chandhoke, the Indian political scientist, is sceptical: the idea of civil society is too vague, its evasions of democratic agency too evident, the movements that proclaim it too incoherent or compromised, for it to present the alternative model of political engagement that is needed.

The “open politics” debate is about the attempt to understand how power can be made accountable and challenges to power effective as well as principled. This is democracy in the 21st century.

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