Some thoughts about participatory democracy

EESCJogging on the more familiar terrain of the Foret de Soignes this morning, a number of experiences came back to me and I list them here in no particular order. The first was some three years back, in Huangshan, China. Our guide one day was a young university student, eager to learn and completely open to discussion. He and I became engrossed in a discussion about political systems and at some point I made a dismissive comment along the lines of ‘but you don’t have real political parties’. ‘But of course we do!’ he replied, astounded, and then he listed some; a green party, I recall was among them, but not the Communist Party. ‘All right,’ I said, ‘and what about the Communist Party?’ ‘Ah!’ he replied, ‘but that’s the government.’ In the same period I participated in a seminar in Budapest with a number of television and newspaper journalists and was asked for my reaction to the recently-published Commission White Paper on Democracy, Dialogue and Debate. So I gave my reactions, in passing regretting the lack of emphasis on the role of political parties. ‘Political parties!’ they all exclaimed. ‘We’ve had enough of political parties! We don’t trust them at all! We’d much prefer to receive information through other vectors.’ And then there was that meeting in Moscow in the White House three days ago with the Vice-Prime Minister and three clearly very powerful figures: the business and trades union leaders and the President of the Civic Forum. I thought back to Italy and the Christian Democrats’ lengthy de facto monopoly of government (what Giovanni Sartori called ‘polarised pluralism’). What happened in that case was the evolution of ‘currents’ within the governing party, with competing personalities at their helms. Is that not what has been happening in China? And in Russia (where the United Russia party has 315 out of the 450 seats in the Duma)? One-party (or one-party-dominated) states are not necessarily monolithic nor are they necessarily undemocratic (or democratic) but clearly something new or different is occuring in these systems. Other organisations, in many cases with mass membership and considerable resources, are also ‘players’ in the system of governance (as they have always been, of course). But there are new such players and the balance of forces seems to be changing. When AICESIS President Antonio Marzoni explained the emerging concept of participatory democracy, about how civil society organisations’ legitimacy was drawn from the ‘real worlds’ which they represented, Zukhov and Velikov sat up and replied enthusiastically that that was what was also happening in Russia. And then I thought, last of all, about what the new European Parliament President, Jerzy Buzek, said to the EESC’s President, Mario Sepi, when the two met a few weeks back. ‘The Committee,’ he said, ‘is an important part of the democratic equation.’ Something is definitely going on, whether or not the term ‘participatory democracy’ is to be found in the Lisbon Treaty and it’s not just happening, or even not happening primarily, in the EU.


  1. I am not convinced.

    The problem with the systems you describe is that you need to become a member of parties to have any influence. You have to move up the hierarchies before you are allowed to decide anything of substance. You have to adapt to the rules of intra-party conformity, and you are supporting the machine even if you disagree with the outcomes.

    In these one-party systems, the voter has no effective choice on the elites chosen for top state positions, nor can s/he influence the policy debates by showing which alternatives are preferred when it comes to a vote.

    Discoursive plurality is a nice thing, but only if all voices have an equal chance of being heard – and most one-party systems make sure that only certain voices can be heard, only a certain kind of facade- or power-plurality is allowed in order to keep a nice picture to the outside and to balance power within the organisation in favour of single leaders.

    Maybe I misunderstand you, Martin, but if I don’t your thoughts might be going in a quite dangerous direction.

  2. Martin

    What are you not convinced of, Julien? I am of course not arguing for single party systems, and I am certainly not arguing for a lack of democracy. But I would urge you not to be too insular in your attitude. There are many places (alas, too many!) throughout the world where voting and political parties are discredited or doubted and where the only viable alternative for democratic governance is through civil society organisations. Take your comment (and I quote): ‘only a certain kind of facade- or power-plurality is allowed in order to keep a nice picture to the outside and to balance power within the organisation’. Now, if you tried (as I did in Moscow) to explain the recent decision about the positions of President of the European Council and High Representative to Africans, Latin Americans and Asians, you would understand that that is precisely what they think happened. But that wasn’t the main point of my admittedly meandering post. I just think that representative democracy needs to be flanked by participatory democracy and, curiously, it seems that democratic and non-democratic systems are simultaneously converging towards that realisation.

  3. Julien Frisch

    I have to admit that I read into your post the argumentation that you think the one-party systems with intra-plurality should be compared to the EU system, and that if they can have a well-functioning intra-plurality there, this should be okay (and enough) for the EU, too.

    When it comes to your summarised argument that representative democracy needs to be flanked by participatory democracy, I do agree indeed.

    What I think is missing still is a clear definition which functions both shall have in a modern democratic society.

    I don’t have made up my mind, but I see the representative part of the democracy as the part where legitimate choices are made about which voices shall be heard, which arguments voiced through participatory channels are taken into account in law- and formal decision-making. We may like these choices, we may criticise them, or, at a last resort, we may punish them with a negative vote at the next elections.

    This is why I feel that a participatory democracy cannot exist outside a well-functioning pluralistic representative democracy. In a non-functioning representative democracy, the choices of the political system cannot be legitimate and they cannot be effectively criticised or punished by elections.

    Politicians in powerful positions in those systems can chose freely what kind of voices they want to hear, and they will only chose those that fit into their plans, their power games. And afterwards they will use these choices to sell their decisions as taking account of the will of the people.

    And to be perfectly honest:

    I think the EU is neither a representative nor a participatory democracy today. We might see some changes under Lisbon, but there is almost no possibility to punish EU politicians through votes. And the political system does almost not respond to citizens voices, and if they are taken into account than only as long as it favours the politicians and administrators within the institutions.

    As an insider, you may disagree. But this is how it looks from outside Brussels.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

© 2024 Martin Westlake

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑