The National Political Context & Limitations of Local Power

 A view from local power

Avina democracia Abierta
11 September 2017

Within the framework of this year's "Fearless Cities" summit, Fundación Avina and DemocraciaAbierta established a special collaboration to explore some of the most exciting poltical experiences arising from Latin America. 

Bringing together relevant actors in the field that are directly involved in political innovation at the local level, in Latin America, we have sought answers to four major issues shared by all the projects: a) Vision of innovation; b) National political context and limitations of local power; c) Influence of the international political context, and d) The question of leadership.

In this page, the innovators share their answer to the second of these topics:

TOPIC 2: National dynamics have a direct influence on local political action processes. For democracy to advance, considering that national politics sets the agenda, it helps that local power achieves some degree of harmony with regional/provincial/state power, including strictly national power. This is especially important when it comes to democratizing, distributing power and bringing it closer to the people. Some tensions arise here about the strategic concept of what innovating and raising the level of democratization – not only through decentralization - mean.

In the light of the national political agenda and calendar, how do you see the situation in your country? What obstacles do you perceive, or on the contrary, do you foresee windows of opportunity?

Exercising local power is also a way of influencing other levels of governance. What are, do you think, the limitations of local power, and what are the opportunities? What are the different forces at play in the actual distribution of power and how do they relate to each other?

Javier Arteaga Romero, Nariño (Colombia)  

We are doing innovative things, things that have never been done before, at a regional level, and we find that our proposals are not easy to understand from the point of view of national (and also local) politics.

I will give two examples, which are complex but very illustrative of the difficulties we face. The first is our Chair for the Future Program, which constitutes our initiative in the field of educational innovation. The aim of this program is for children to learn, to acquire knowledge at home, and go to school to carry out their projects - in other words, the aim is to invert the educational process. But our national policy is to extend school hours - that is, to keep children in the classroom longer. So, there is a blatant contradiction between national policy and our project, which costs seven million dollars and needs to be publicly financed, which in turn requires the project to be approved at the national level and be supported by the Ministry of Education. They are two completely different, colliding proposals. We argue that we are carrying out a project which represents an educational innovation, but the Ministry is thinking in absolutely different terms, about setting up new contracts for canteens, or investing in infrastructure, and keep up with the whole corruption system that these investments involve. The last thing they care about is the children - that is, the education system – while we are putting them at the very centre of our policy, for we believe that the essential thing is that they should learn. So, this is where the problem lies between our politics and national politics.

The other example is our Peace Actions Program. We believe that we need to empower citizens, to map public spaces that are not currently in use and decide where housing developments should be set up. But national policy tells us that it is impossible for us to get a single peso from public funds unless we previously identify who owns the space, and which population exactly is going to benefit from it. However, in line with our policy of empowerment, we do not know yet what that space will be, for citizens have to map the territory before making a decision. At national level, they say it cannot be done, and so it cannot be done. This has blocked our policy. We invested nine months in this project, but then everything got paralysed by that different vision of politics which prevents innovation.

As for the limitations of local power, this is precisely an issue that we have raised in the department of Nariño. Our Open Government policy, for example, which we have promoted at the regional level - that is, at the level of the regional government -, has not been implemented by any municipality. Not even municipalities which are very close to our regional government have managed to carry it through.

At the national level, our tactics have been different. We ask ourselves how we can generate national public policies on the basis of what we are doing. But this is difficult. The national government, for example, has an initiative called Open Government Index (IGA). What this index measures, however, has nothing to do with what our Open Government Program is all about, so we do not get a single point. In other words, according to national policy, we come in last in the Open Government Index, despite all the things we are doing in this area. In the end, we have been able to exert media pressure to get them to update the IGA and oblige, at the micro level, the 1.100 plus Colombian municipalities to adapt to the new Open Government Index. They have not changed the things they are measuring, they have just added the things we are doing in Nariño. In the end, we have made good progress, and now there is a compromise between USAID and the Attorney General, who is the one who carries out the measurements, to implement an agenda that incorporates up to six actors.

If we succeed in this, it will be a great success: to have the Attorney General change the national policy of measuring an index which is very important for each municipality and each government and adapt it in line with what we have been doing in Nariño. This would set an important precedent, for it would show that it is possible to incorporate a regionally-conceived innovation into national policy.

At the micro level, on the other hand, we are using tools such as the Open Government Index to create things aimed at raising the awareness of municipalities and get them to join in. For example, in the municipality of Santander de Quilichao (Cauca) we were able to get the mayor and his cabinet to launch an open government portal. This is the first municipality in the country to adopt the new Open Government system. So, we have Nariño, at the regional level, and we now have that first municipality in the country. We are working in two directions: upward, changing national policy, and downward, incorporating the municipalities.


Áurea Carolina de Freitas e Silva, PSOL, Belo Horizonte (Brazil)

The global politics of dependence and domination are also present in our smaller practices through the colonization of the mind. The values we have are a reflection of a much larger system, which only exists because it is based on people's behaviour. I am not saying that if people change their behaviour, then they can change the system completely, but it seems to me that it is impossible to change the system if we do not change what is closer to us, right? And for this, the municipal level is the most important dimension – its impact is huge. If we change things there, in the neighborhood, in a cultural group, in a network which occupies public space, in the town hall, in a school, in our way of coexisting locally, the change scales up.

In order to scale up, however, change must be very strong from the beginning: it must come from the people's certainty in their own strength. Municipal policy has thus to show a framework of ethical commitment, which national politics cannot change, built on another idea of leadership, powerful personalities, autonomy, self-management, co-responsibility, and all the things that people share. But now, in Brazil as in many other places, when we look at the political class, it is extremely hard to see people there who can represent the wishes coming out of communal local processes.

In my opinion, we are still going to experience a very negative phase in which new practices will indeed emerge, but nationally and trans-nationally we will have to endure the worst kind of politics. So, in order not to be discouraged by this, we must create our own national and trans-national networks. This is why this municipal meeting (Cities without Fear) is like clean air for us to breathe: we share many ideas, we identify with each other. Our experiences in the cities, however, are not hegemonic. Our small municipal experiences are still very exceptional. I myself am a city councillor in Belo Horizonte, there are two of us: me and my colleague, Cida Falabella. There are 39 other councillors, 41 in total. We are a very small minority and we are not strong enough to counteract so much force on our own.

At the local level, the fact that businessman Alexandre Kalil won the mayorship at the last elections in Belo Horizonte is a worrying development. He won with the slogan: "Enough with politicians" - as if he was not a politician himself! All day long, he keeps on repeating that he and his team are not politicians, so as to confuse people. Not all the people, obviously, because people do have critical sense. But he won with that discourse, and this is worrying.

The same idea applies elsewhere: Joao Doria, the mayor of São Paulo, is not a professional politician either, but an entrepreneur, and Marcelo Crivella, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro, is a business manager, a religious man and an engineer. There are many others. A very dangerous discourse is increasingly fueling the idea that politics is useless, that politics is bad, that it is corrupt, that it is something we have to get away from - and a lot of people are following this train of thought, unfortunately.

In our campaigns, we try to tell people: listen, politics is beautiful. There is another way of doing politics. Politics is something that can emancipate us all, politics is an adventure for discovering who we really are in this world. We tell them that the best of what we have is what comes from our generosity – towards everybody and everything. And, well, it is hard to get the message through, because people say: "Yes, of course, of course", but they do not really believe it. Although some people do say: “yes, that is what we need so as to believe that it still makes sense to bank on politics”.


Caio Tendolini, Update Politics, Sao Paulo, (Brazil)

I believe that working at the local level is strategic, because the regional side of things is essential. For me, when we say local, we are saying 'in the territory', although the territory is not necessarily the cities. But it is there, in the cities, where the territory becomes more present in political life.

I believe that the strategy of speaking about working and taking action in the territory has to do with a transcendental issue, which is trust in politics. I mean, politics must be close-up. The more you move away from the territory, the more abstract politics becomes and the more difficult it is to see, the more difficult it is to inspect, the more difficult it is to access.

I believe that we are witnessing a dynamics of self-affirmation at the local level. It is important to ask ourselves whether we understand municipalism, and local political action, as a path to scaling up the challenge to the higher level, or not. Or whether we understand it as a rupture with the structures which generate pressure from above – that is, from the national level. I do not have an answer for this, but it does seem to me that regardless of what the answer may be, we now have the ability to act locally. Taking part in national or state elections is much harder, much more expensive. It is more difficult to connect with people. Things become less tangible. 

Despite the obvious limitations of local power, I think it is strategic to start with the cities and find out if and how the politics there connect with the national level. At the same time, it seems to me that the challenge is that, although we are active at the city level, there is always an upwards trend which tends to place political debate higher, at the state and federal level. So, one of the challenges we are facing when building candidacies such as the Activist Bench is combining a very real connection with the territory with a very large call to the country as a whole.

The political situation in Brazil demands that we all feel concerned and be ready to take action - to see what we can do. However, this seems a bit of a trap to me, because I do not think that we have the capacity, as a collective, to really have an impact on Brazilian politics at the national level. In São Paulo municipal politics, yes we do; but in Brazilian national politics, I do not think so, and in São Paulo state politics, I do not think so either. We do not have the muscle for that yet. But, at the same time, we cannot remain oblivious to what is happening in our country. There are elections next year, and everyone, individually, feels called to do something about it, to strengthen something, to get more people on board.

I believe that there is a conflict here, which has to do with the limitations of local power. I also do not know how to solve it and we have not responded to it at the Activist Bench. But it does seem very strategic to me to be working in the territory, because peoples' trust has to be rescued. There is a broader debate, even at the international level, about the discourse and narrative of anti-politics, which is gaining ground. We can see it when the mayor of São Paulo, or Donald Trump, say: "I am not a politician."


Sâmia Bonfim, Activist Bench, Sao Paulo (Brazil)

There is a tension between the scope of the city and the national level. São Paulo is a very large city, with a population of 12 million and very extensive. It is much larger and more populated than many countries in the world. This dimension also makes it powerful at the national political level.

I usually say that São Paulo is many cities within a single one, and very unequal. Some elite neighborhoods are very rich, with a very strong cultural, even political life, but there are some city districts where housing is very precarious, and people have no access to health and education. This means that the forms organisation and social participation take in the city are very different.

In the neighborhood where I live, Pinheiros, a central one and more elitist, there are organisational spaces: many NGOs, groups, plazas, places to meet. But if you go to a neighborhood on the outskirts of the city, you will find that sometimes the only contact with other people happens in the church. And when there is a local cultural centre, it is very precarious and usually lasts a short time. In that sense, I think that local issues are often more difficult to deal with than some national issues, because there are huge inequalities: there is nothing that unifies the discourse of the city, it is necessarily very fragmented. The narrative of the city depends on each neighborhood’s specifics, while the narrative at the national level is unitary.

In this context, promoting movements and political organisation is very hard. And because São Paulo is a very large city - the largest economy in the country -, national issues have a great impact. The leading national political cadres come from São Paulo. What happens in São Paulo has consequences across the whole country. This was the case with the protests of June 2013, for example. Although the protests had already happened in a small city in the south, Porto Alegre, when they hit São Paulo they acquired a national dimension. Politics in Brazil since then has revolved around the contradictions and disputes that were brought out into the public space, onto the streets - first by the Left, and then by the Right.

We were born out of the lack of any other option, everything started from this. I think it is important to make local templates flourish, because they  dialogue necessarily with national ones. Now, for example, from my mandate in the city hall, I understand the functioning of the culture movement much better. Culture in São Paulo is conceived through many projects in the periphery, territorial projects - musical education, artistic education, theatre projects – which end up becoming political movements.

Recently, we have had severe financial cuts, a freeze of almost 50% of the culture budget. So, these movements people did not know existed are now occupying the streets and going downtown to voice their demands before to the mayor, before the city council - and this, I believe, is a channel. There were cuts in Sao Paulo because they are cutting the budget at the national level as well. President Temer is holding back the money, and so the mayors do the same. The territories are mobilising for that too. We will see how these general issues end up being reflected in the territories, for the territories are where public, State-financed policies are most inadequate.

In the case of  São Paulo, the city council is very large – there are 55 councillors -, and it is in permanent contact with the national level. It is the largest city council in Brazil, one of the largest in Latin America, maybe the largest, and so what happens there has a lot of visibility. Also, our mayor is a presidential candidate at next year’s elections, and he uses São Paulo as a political laboratory for his electoral program.

Being as I am in the opposition, I am fully aware that what I do ends up having some impact, some visibility, because many eyes are focused on São Paulo.  São Paulo sets the trends and determines the politics in Brazil. The media also pays a lot of attention to what happens in  São Paulo, and this stimulates other areas: many people from the north, and the north-east – places I have never been to – are getting in touch with us because they say they like my mandate, they are interested in having someone pugnacious in the largest city council in the country.

Others have suggested that I should run nationally, so that my mandate could benefit them too. If I stay in São Paulo, these people can see the potential of what we are doing here, but it does not affect their local policies. For example, Áurea Carolina, from Belo Horizonte, has been carrying out a really interesting mandate - really democratic, open, horizontal -, but she has ended up with less visibility than us because she is not in São Paulo - even though she has really interesting experiences to show, more so than mine.


 Susana Ochoa, Wikipolitics, Jalisco (Mexico)

There is a way to look at local power which can even improve the way you look at national power. I will give an example. One day, an academic from Guadalajara was presenting a civil society project and he displayed a picture of a big monster. He explained that this was what our country's problems looked like. And he started to zoom in, the monster began to pixelate, and so it did not look so threatening anymore - you could see its flaws. I think that is how we should analyse the issue of power.

I do not think we should eliminate power, since power is what enables you to do things. But I do believe we have to rethink how we de-centralise it. This has to do with practices like, for example, Pedro Kumamoto’s. Being such a visible figure, a moral leader even at the national level, his office is his first and foremost counterweight. Many politicians are surrounded by people who are constantly telling them that everything is going to be okay, and that they are the best, so that it is, I think, very easy for them, as a political class, to lose touch with reality. The crux of the matter is how you de-centralise power, and thist has to do with how you generate weights and counterweights within an organisation.

At the national level, this is more complicated. But if you think about it within your organisation, within your team, you can extrapolate.

In any case, we have to start from the micro level, from the personal reflection that every political figure in power has to do regarding why they want to do things and how they can generate institutional trust. I think that is important. We believe that this must be the issue: how to generate institutionality, and not do things the way we did when we started Wikipolitics, which was like a group of friends who had things in common. We realised that you cannot create a political movement on such a basis, that of reciprocal, emotional friendships, because then you become a fascist group. You have to create clear, transparent rules which enable you to control power.


Jorge Sharp, Valparaíso Citizen Movement, Valparaíso (Chile)

I think it is a mistake to think that the problem of our cities is just the same as that of other cities, when it is rather a problem which has to do with our national, or even continental, character. We cannot turn our backs on the balance of power between those political levels. Therefore, a way of approaching the problem of the national, or continental, level is precisely the construction of local power in a given territory. A way of challenging national dynamics is by entering, proposing and influencing them.

In Chile, this is expressed as follows: the Valparaíso process, our triumph, has helped to catalyse what is happening today in national politics, and the formation of a new political territory, called the Broad Front. This has been an innovative local political process, with aspects of both continuity and change, which has had an impact at the national level.


CarenTepp, City of the Future, Rosario (Argentina)

The situation in Argentina since the elections of 2015 affects us who ran then for the first time. Being organically part of Kirchnerism, we understood that a victory of Cambiemos would represent a setback, not for a particular government, but for Argentine society as a whole, and particularly for transformative political projects - for the triumph of Cambiemos is not an isolated fact which occurs in a given regional and international context.

In that sense, our aim is to strengthen local processes in the city of Rosario and try to win and govern our city in 2019, and we also assume the challenge of running for the first time at the national level. We believe that to address this regression and fight neoliberal policies, we need to move away from polarization - the "crack", as we say in Argentina -, and diversify the forms of resistance.

We have the duty not only to be challenging the measures and policies of Mauricio Macri’s government, but to offer alternative options. Because of the threat of closures, we are considering the possibility of recovering factories and companies, as happened in Argentina after 2001. But it is not only a matter of resisting, but of moving forward in workers’ self-management of those means of production. Our city and our province have witnessed many cases of successful self-managed cooperative enterprises, like La Cabaña or Mil Hojas – companies which have found, precisely in times of crisis, the possibility of going forward, and even improving their performance. That is, I think, a different perspective we can offer today – with examples for anyone to see in our province.

In our campaign at the national level, we also want to put on the agenda the issue of local and city government. We carry proposals defending local governments as key actors for proximity politics, for distributing power, for building power from the bottom up. We are convinced that one of the main lessons in recent years in Latin America, and from the different progressive governments with their different leanings, lies in fact that what it is built from the top down tends to crumble. We have thus to think about a new horizon for inclusion in the coming years, and think about a new political practice for another way of achieving power - from the bottom up. It is here, during our campaign tour of the province, that the idea of the City of the Future appears, and that of its possible expansion throughout the territory. We want to change the way in which political building is done, so that each territory is empowered, and starts to organize autonomously, and so that, perhaps, this is the provincial- turned-national tool we need against neo-liberalism: the confluence of different experiences of change with territorial roots.

We very much like a sentence that says that the question is not changing one power for another, but building a different kind of power. In this sense, it is important that each territory governs itself, that each rules its territory, so that we all take our decisions. This is something which is absent from the national agenda. Despite the fact that it has now become evident that territories have their own problems and challenges to face, we are still missing the hierarchy-changing paradigm shift according to which real politics, real transformative power lies progressively closer to the territory. In that, local governments and municipalities have much more to contribute than the great national tools.

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