‘Many seeds are brought here’: hands up for participation?

The World Forum for Democracy 2017 discusses whether participatory democracy could be an antidote to populism.

Robin Wilson
11 November 2017

Paula Castello, Training and Participation Department Chief, Defender of the Public of Audiovisual Communication Services,Argentina addresses Lab 5.Council of Europe/Klara Beck, November 9, 2017. All rights reserve.The august panel had spoken. With just ten minutes of 90 remaining in the session, the chair opened the floor to discussion and a forest of hands went up. The theme? Participatory democracy.

It would be easy to be cynical about this ‘Lab 5’ session of the World Forum for Democracy – and any discussion of democracy tends to attract more than its fair share of knowing cynics. But that would be a cheap shot.

There are no simple answers to how democracy is best extended beyond the representative arena into the wider public sphere – and, if it is, what the relationship between the representative and the participative should be. Max Weber’s definition of democracy, nearly a century ago, as the election of politicians who then tell their voters ‘Now shut up and obey me’ clearly will not do for an era of an educated citizenry no longer deferring to established élites. But genuine questions arise, in particular as to the legitimacy of participatory democracy, which need to be addressed. And that does entail listening to individuals who have expertise or experience to help shape thinking on that.

The first speaker in the session in Strasbourg, Paula Castello from Argentina, tackled one of the challenges – how to ensure marginalised voices are equally heard. In representative democracy all those who vote – though not all can, as with too many African Americans – have an equal say: all votes count equally.  But in the public sphere, without intervention, the most socially powerful dominate debate.

Costello works for an organisation called the Defender of the Public of Audiovisual Communication Services, set up by a 2009 audiovisual communications law which, for the first time, defined communication in the language of rights. She gave a fascinating account of citizens’ participation in public hearings in Argentina, engaging face-to-face with public servants on the functioning of radio and television: ‘We believe it is a way to build a new relationship between the media and the people.’

She said Argentina, a huge country, was centralised around Buenos Aires, with local media few and weak. Commercial media were also concentrated and state media had been seen as an instrument of propaganda; only recently were community media given a legal status: ‘The media are seen as a business rather than a human right.’ Yet audiences should be heard, to play a fundamental role in democracy.

For her the biggest challenge was to change ‘consumers to full subjects of rights’. Public hearings allowed citizens to voice their opinions and since 2013 there had been 20 regional hearings across the country with 5,000 participants; workshops and preparatory discussions had embraced 11,000 people. Annual themes were decided, such as in 2016 how to strengthen audience rights. A young female participant said at one such event: ‘Many seeds are brought here and they need to be scattered.’

When youth was the theme in 2014, young people said the media did not represent them, that relevant topics were not discussed, that they felt discriminated against by the media and often ignored – they wanted to have airtime to speak their minds. Yet an analysis of 17,000 stories in 2016 found only 2.8% were about children or adolescents and half of these were about crime.

The hearings were based, Costello said, on principles of transparency and participation; the forums and workshops prepared those who took part to do so and there was sign language for the deaf as well as online streaming. Reports followed hearings – the Public Defender organisation has to report to the Argentine Congress – and those had led to new projects and public policies. In an environment of big corporate media, social inequality and lack of public participation, she said: ‘Public hearings are innovative initiatives that allow citizens to make proposals and find solutions, recognising people’s right to participate in decision-making.’


Paula Castello and Sharon Finegan, Secretary to the Citizens'Assembly, Ireland, at Lab 5. Council of Europe/Klara Beck. All rights reserved.The Irish Citizens' Assembly is another example of that right being recognised. Its membership of 99 (plus a government-appointed chair) was selected by a rigorous process of ‘sortition’, by which an initially random sample is adjusted and whittled down to reflect as closely as reasonably practicable the demography of the population according to gender, age, social class and region. This is what gives such ‘mini-publics’ legitimacy – the notion that were another such representative sample to be similarly empanelled, its members would likely arrive at similar conclusions after a similar process of deliberation.

Sharon Finnegan, secretary to the assembly, linked the initiative to the academic debate on ‘deliberative democracy’, which she said had shifted the emphasis from the output of the democratic process to scrutiny of its quality. The Citizens’ Assembly had been approved by the Irish parliament after the 2016 election, building on the experience in 2012-14 of a Constitutional Convention – whose recommendation to support marriage equality had translated into a referendum and then legislation to that effect. The assembly had already reported on the first of the five topics allocated to it – abortion (still heavily constrained in Ireland).

Its members met periodically for a weekend at a time in cabaret-style format, Finnegan explained. All its meetings were live-streamed and archived on YouTube. Submissions had been received from the wider public, including some 13,000 on the abortion issue. With the assistance of expert advisory groups on each topic, members heard evidence, including from practitioners and advocates, arriving after exchanges and their own deliberations at recommendations on which they voted.

She said key principles were openness, fairness, equality of voice, efficiency, respect and collegiality. A parliamentary committee had been established specifically to look at the report on abortion from the assembly and the government had already committed itself to a referendum, which would if passed amend the 1983 constitutional ban.

A new élite?

Etienne Chouard organises ‘ateliers constituants’, or constituent workshops, in France, seeking to transform ‘voters into citizens’. He told the session that the weakest needed a constitution to protect them against the most powerful. Constitutions thus had to limit power and so should be understood not as a contract between the people and the government but among citizens who decided between them to give birth to the powers it comprised. Who got to write a constitution thus mattered: if it was the powerful they would produce an oligarchy rather than the democracy which citizens would draft. His ‘Plan C’ organisation aims for a new French constituent assembly, its members selected by sortition.

Chouard, however­ – greatly exceeding the time allotted for his contribution – flamboyantly dismissed representative democracy as 'an oxymoron'. Yet no participatory form can be both macro- in scale and assuredly inclusive – since by definition then all members of the population would have to be simultaneously involved. The only way participatory democracy could replace (as against complementing) representative democracy would be if those citizens who wished to participate were allowed to rule as a new élite – rather as Lenin substituted the soviets for the Constituent Assembly in Russia in the wake of the October revolution. This led inevitably to a one-party state, rather than its ‘withering away’ as the Communist Party leader had foretold, as the party became the necessary vehicle to organise those otherwise amorphous loyal citizens.

Etienne Chouard addresses Lab 5, World Forum for Democracy 2017, November 9. Council of Europe/ Klara Beck. All rights reserved.Joseph Spiegel, a local mayor, followed his compatriot, ‘taking the floor as a practitioner’ and a ‘realistic utopian’. One could not pose as a ‘magician’ for citizens, he said – this should be seen as a ‘co-construction by citizens and governing persons’. It was genuinely difficult to engage citizens around complex issues without ‘demagoguery’. To say ‘everything is possible’ would be ‘a denial of democracy’ and there were genuine issues of ‘democratic engineering’ involved. Refusing to oppose politicians and citizens, he said every public initiative should lead to a political demand but the democratic process then had to be respected: ‘You become a citizen. You aren’t born a citizen. Yes, democracy is slow. It has to be slow.’

Nastimir Ananiev, a former member of the Bulgarian parliament, concluded the discussion by addressing the question in the title of the session as to whether participatory democracy could be an antidote to populism. The latter, he said, filled the gap left by a lack of information. And citizen engagement should be associated with becoming more informed. ‘We don’t want people to participate just for the sake of it,’ he said.

Adult politics

He pointed to how this thrust of democratic thinking had been the subject of a recommendation by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, representing all the member states, in September. The recommendation, on civil participation in decision-making, begins with some strong pronouncements, articulating the significance of public participation in the enrichment of democracy:

Considering that the participation of citizens is at the very heart of the idea of democracy;


Considering that representative democracy, based on the right of citizens to freely elect their representatives at reasonable intervals, is part of the common heritage of member States;


Considering that direct democracy, based on the right to take part in elections and to launch and sign popular initiatives and requests for referendums, is a long-standing tradition in certain member States;


Considering that participatory democracy, based on the right to seek to determine or to influence the exercise of a public authority’s powers and responsibilities, contributes to representative and direct democracy and that the right to civil participation in political decision-making should be secured to individuals, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and civil society at large;


Emphasising that responsibility and accountability for taking decisions ultimately rests with the public authority that has the democratic legitimacy to do so …

As always with such resolutions, the grandeur of the preamble is followed by rather more mundane practical proposals. But this is a notable assertion by the leaders of Europe’s representative democracies that, challenged by the faux democracy of populism from below, Weber’s dismissive élitism will no longer do.

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