The Question of Leadership

 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 fourth and last topic:

TOPIC 4: No innovation is possible without a new logic behind political organisation that can deliver results and implement actions which can distribute and democratise power. In this, leadership is all important. Political parties operating as apparatuses for accessing and exercising power within the system often result in “partitocracies” which segment leadership and end up excluding the promoters of change and innovation. What is your opinion on this issue? How does it affect the dynamics of your project?

Javier Arteaga Romero, Nariño (Colombia)  

Today, Camilo Romero, the governor of Nariño, is a widely recognised figure in this country for his skills as a leader and his empathic character. But this, while positive, represents a great risk to us within the context of the political map of the country.

Camilo began to appear in the mainstream national media and became a reference point in international meetings. This has afforded him prominence and has placed him in the spotlight, but this also means that they can deal us deadly blows with a single media headline. If a person says that Camilo Romero supports their political group - for example, Senator Claudia López, the candidate at next year’s presidential elections, Claudia López will be constantly monitored. And although this is indeed important for democracy, it could very well be that whatever information can be used to undermine her, will immediately be turned against Camilo Romero.

We live in constant struggle, fearing that a mere disqualifying word in the newspapers could discredit Camilo and put an end to the Nariño governorship's process of innovation. That is not only one of our great fears but also, I think, one of our main weaknesses, because we are a small political actor, we do not belong to large economic groups, we are not part of any traditional political lineage, and neither are we the children of any president - far from it. And this, in the game board of Colombian democracy, is important. We are also aware that the moment we pose a threat to someone or something important, they can finish us off very easily.


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

The new leaderships are made up of powerful teams. They are hardened people, fond of democracy and community. And we must do our best to encourage the emergence of new, committed leaders. These current leaderships are not meant to promote individuals who are going to save the world, as the traditional Left used to do. "We need a man who..." These men do not exist, they should not exist. You cannot found leadership on the strength of individuals, because that is very costly. It is costly in terms of health, time, energy, and emotion, and it is our duty to protect the people involved, who dedicate their lives to these processes.

I think that we are working along another line, another way of leading which has nothing to do with competition and obtaining advantages or privileges. We are thinking more in terms of leadership as a provider of services. It may sound idealistic, like saying "Now they are all very holy, giving all they have", but if you do not make a commitment to values, then things become very difficult. This is an ethical change, yes, an ethical and practice-based change, because practice is what reveals how people are - how they behave, how they interact. The leaders who are the most firm in democratic terms are those who are capable of mobilizing the most, of opening paths, of attracting more people, of inspiring and bringing change to society.


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

I think that we are culturally accustomed to seeking a savior. The greatest meme in the history of mankind is a saviour. The greatest symbol is a saviour, and changing that is a very, very complex thing to do.

What we have seen, and tried to build, is that it is possible to move away from the idea of a messianic leadership and to go towards the idea of prominence. Because there is also a great fallacy in horizontal constructions, in the idea of horizontality, which is to pretend that prominence does not exist - but it does. There are people who are better at some things than others. There are people who are better than others at times.

The difficulty lies in how to migrate from the idea of leadership to the idea of prominence. This can happen because of the way relational processes work. The difficulties arise because, while we know that the notion of leadership is limited, we know that it gives people a lot of comfort: making another person responsible for providing solutions is very comforting, as a psychological mechanism, when we cannot face reality. And the complexity of today's reality puts almost all of us in that position. We ask: who has the answer? Where is this thing I am looking for? A good discourse, a strong idea, embodied in a strong leadership model, is something that continues to convince many people.

Even so, I believe that experimenting with new organisational forms is a path that needs to be addressed. We have to create institutions and communities that are able to move forward. And when we get out and grasp this notion of prominence and put it up before democratic institutions, before the political parties, we can see how they have enormous difficulties in carrying out this transformation we are talking about. Because this is a transformation is something that is done from very close-up, and parties are very large institutions, very far away. Prominence depends very much on trust, and parties are very conspiratorial institutions.

In Brazil, for example, one thing we are currently doing is seeking a way to put forward independent candidates, which do not exist in Brazil, to break the monopoly of political parties. The best way to challenge a monopoly is to create competition. We are not denying that parties are important. Political parties are the most important institution that we have been able to come up with for representative democracy - there is no doubt about that. But let us go back to the original idea: it is not that we do not like political parties, but these parties and how they are operating need to change. It is necessary to create other spaces, other institutions, and other organisation formats. This is, in my opinion, absolutely essential if we are to advance in this issue and respond to the necessary transformation of leadership.


Sâmia Bonfim, Activist Bench, Sao Paulo (Brazil)

One of the main problems of Brazilian politics is the lack of alternative options, of tools with which to challenge power. Especially when there is polarisation between two major parties: the PT and the PSDB, the old left and the old right. Both are involved in the same schemes, defend the same political platform, have the same figures, the same completely worn out leaders.

We do not have a third party representing a front of movements, groups, social organisations that can challenge power. This has to do, I think, with media coverage, which is very much oriented by what happens in the United States - bipartisanship - and tries to transplant the same dynamics in Brazil, as if there were only two possibilities.

But it also has to do with the Brazilian electoral system. We do not have independent candidates, there is no such possibility, it is very difficult for a candidacy without big money behind it to get elected. This is indeed very anti-democratic, because the power-wielders end up electing their representatives, while people from social movements cannot reach that party structure. Even the most democratic, most progressive parties still have “bosses” in Brazil – we call them caciques, which is a term that originally referred to the indigenous communities’ chiefs. The parties still have their caciques, the big names in politics, and this is an endemic dynamics to the way politics is done in Brazil.

I think social leadership experiences like mine, like that of Áurea Carolina, like those spontaneous movements in the cities, need to be courageous and try to pierce the blockade and occupy politics, because there are examples that show that it can be done. Brazil has opened up a discussion on political reform. Some proposals could make it difficult, but others can help. For example, the question of whether the district vote should be allowed or not. That is currently being discussed in Brazil but, at the same time, they want to eliminate small parties, such as PSOL, for example – that is my party. So, people like me, where would they go? How would it be possible for us to campaign in this two-party challenge, dominated by their caciques?

On participation, democracy and leadership, we find ourselves today at a crossroads. There is a crisis of representation, an economic crisis, and a discrediting of politics. So, our challenge is to get people to discuss the directions this political reform should take, at a time when people do not trust politics. That is the challenge: to regain confidence. And, for that, we must bring new people to the institutions.


Susana Ochoa, Wikipolitics, Jalisco (Mexico)

The question of leadership has been a subject of much reflection within Wikipolitics because, for a long time, we fetished horizontality. Now we know that horizontality is an aspiration, but that we are definitely far from it. We can move towards it, de-centralise power a little. In our election campaign, for example, Pedro Kumamoto always talked about 'us', and he was always very explicit about the fact that there was a team behind him.

But shared leadership is difficult, because people are accustomed to delegating change: they think that a person will come to save them. This is what López Obrador represents, for example. In Mexican history, we have almost always had a lot of saviours. But we at Wikipolitics are now in the middle of a debate on horizontality and collectivity, which is definitely a way to move forward – and there is no turning back.

However, in the end, when people vote, they vote for a person, a leader that represents things, and that leader has other people around him. The person who is to lead the list is also part of a team but, at the end of the day, it is that person who gives the interviews, it is that person who stands up and talks to people, it is that person who is on the ballot. The challenge is how to build new leaderships, how to reinvent them and make them more collective, but we definitely cannot do politics without leadership. And that was hard for us to understand. We had to work on it, but I believe we have now made some progress in that sense.


Jorge Sharp, Valparaíso Citizen Movement, Valparaíso (Chile)

Every political process, on any level, whether local, national, or continental, has a face: the face of women or men who must fulfill certain roles, such as leading. That is not the problem. The problem is when that leadership is constructed in a way which makes it remote and distant from the collective political process that supports it.

Leadership must always have both feet firmly placed on the ground, well rooted in the collective process from which it arises and of which it is a part, connected to that from which it derives its strength. When it disassociates itself from this, we have a problem - messianism. If we do not keep leaders firmly rooted in the collectivity, our political projects of change weaken and our opponents easily trump them. This, to me, is the central question: leaderships must arise not from an imposition from above, but from what people give rise to, whether through a primary, an assembly, or through a concrete social struggle that catapults a social leader forward. The leadership we want is the leadership that is built from the collective rather than the one that is determined behind walls.

But there is a threat: the fragility of the leaderships that do not  have an apparatus behind them. If they knock off the head, they knock the whole thing down. That is why it is critical to strengthen the collective process that drives that leadership. Failing this, leaders can be easily pushed aside.


Caren Tepp, City of the Future, Rosario (Argentina)

All of us who are today involved in City of the Future carrying out some public service task fully understand that we do are not following any personal career, but are proudly expressing a collective political project and only temporarily managing the things we are responsible for.

It is also important that decisions are taken within the organization which cement this attitude and make it sustainable over time. Those of us who are today City of the Future councilors, are donating, from the very first minute, 70% of our salary to the organization, we live on the same salaries we had before becoming councilors, and get paid the same as the advisers who are part of the team at the Council. We try not to create privileges, not to be part of the political corporate class, not to lie to ourselves. We make sure that what we are donating goes to strengthen the organization, the projects we run at the margins of the State, and make it very clear that our way of life - militancy is a way of life – is diametrically opposed to certain privileges.

I believe that 21st century leaderships are those which embody movements coming from the cities. To me, Ada Colau expresses this perfectly. Behind her, you can see the Indignados movement, the fight against evictions, the Barcelona in Common teammates, and you can see a brave woman, steadfast in her ideas, empathetic and passionate about everything she does. This, I think, is a crucial way to access the State institutions, which are governed by logics that are patriarchal, where aggressiveness and the idea of power as domination are essential values, at the core of what we have to transform. 

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