Forum for the Future of Democracy, Yerevan, October 2010
Session 2A Democracy and representation
Yerevan, 19 October
Speech by Günther Krug, Vice- President of the Chamber of Regions of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to begin my statement with two suppositions. First, that democracy in its traditional form is undergoing a crisis of both public representativity and public confidence. These are two interlinked notions characterised by the growing belief in the eyes of the public that elected representatives are increasingly distant from the people and stand but for their own interests or those of large economic groups. This, in its turn, fuels a considerable loss of public trust in democratic representation and representative institutions.
Second, that as a result of this crisis, new forms of social interaction are being sought, and are appearing, triggering the transformation of the traditional model of representative democracy into genuinely participatory democracy. This new model is characterised by a broader base for power-sharing and decision-making, a greater diversity of social forces participating in the process – including, for example, organised civil society and even individual citizens – and modern forms of interaction between social groups and the provision of public services, through the use of new communication technologies and e-tools. E-democracy seems to be increasingly an integral part, or form, of participatory democracy.
At the same time, with the loss of public confidence in the highest – European and national – level, people are increasingly turning for representation and defence of their interests, and response to their needs, to the level closer to them – regional and local. Pubic opinion polls show that people are steadily placing more trust in local politicians than they do in national governments and elected representatives.
Let us look in greater detail at these suppositions.
A recent report of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europespeaks about the crisis of European democracy, caused by destabilising effects of globalisation and modernisation, in the absence of adequate international counter-powers. This crisis manifests itself in an increasing distance between citizens on the one hand and democratic institutions and institutionalised procedures of democracy on the other. Surveys show that voters feel disempowered and have difficulty believing that their vote makes a difference.
This situation is aggravated by institutional deficits of democracy, such as the lack of an effective right of citizen participation, the weakness of parliaments vis-à-vis the executive, unsatisfactory and insufficiently transparent financing of political parties, and governmental work that is geared to short-term electoral success and lacks long-term vision. The report also accused the media of being politically ambivalent and trying to set the political agenda.
So, where do we go from here, and what at are the future prospects?
For us in the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, the way out of the crisis and the way forward is further decentralisation of power. It makes sense economically: local and regional authorities know best the needs of their communities and businesses and show a better economic performance in optimising the use of their resources, which is why, in most cases, a higher level of decentralisation is related to stronger economic growth.
It certainly makes sense politically: “proximity governance” provides better opportunities for political participation of citizens and serves their interests in the most tangible way. It provides greater transparency and accountability of elected representatives, thus filling in many of institutional deficits of democracy that are mentioned in the Assembly's report.
Finally, further decentralisation of power feeds into the continuity of the democratic evolution. Up to a point, the history of European democracy has been a history of growing local and regional self-government to prevent and counterbalance an excessive concentration of power in one centre, be it national or Europe-wide. It has been a history of persuading national governments to recognise to an ever greater extent the relevance and expediency of sub national autonomy.
Bringing power-sharing and decision-making to the level closest to the citizen also makes sense if we are to re-awaken people’s interest in democratic processes, to restore their trust and to boost their commitment and involvement.
It is already happening. Local and regional elected representatives, for example, can no longer take life easy between elections: they have to be constantly accountable and to take into account the input from their citizens who want to contribute much more to running the show.
At the same time, we are witnessing rapid change in society, the breakdown of traditional social structures, a growth in individualism. As a result, new forms of interaction are appearing. The rise of the internet, for example, has led to a disempowerment of traditional democratic institutions such as political parties, and a decline in their influence. They have lost the monopoly that they long held as the organisers and purveyors of political power and influence.
Media scrutiny has become much more powerful, compelling politicians to learn to be in the spotlight. New social media are appearing based on the direct participation of citizens implying a direct accountability which leads, in its turn, to a much greater transparency in public interactions and procedures. Parliamentary government is facing a growing challenge from direct democracy in the form of referendums and online partitions.
The simultaneous rise of individualism and new communication technologies has resulted in an interesting phenomenon: while people are increasingly disenchanted with “organised” participation in democracy – such as turning up to vote in elections or attending government-organised rallies – we are seeing a growing individual involvement of the citizen in politics and political processes, to a great extent through the use of new media. If we check chat rooms and social networks, we will see that people’s interest in politics is far from dead – it is alive and well, and we are even faced with growing mobilisation of voters, and their growing demands. They want to be able to communicate with their representatives, and they want to be heard.
At the same time, paradoxically, our voters are getting lazier: we are seeing a surge in armchair audience voters, who want continuous action but don't like going to meetings, preferring to stay at home behind their screens, preferring to communicate via laptop and mobile phone.
The rules for representation need to change, to adapt with the moving times. We need to ensure, for example, that foreign residents and migrants are properly represented. Migration is much more common today than it used to be, but voting rules have not kept pace with this evolution. Too often you lose your vote when you move.
I should remind you that the Council of Europe Convention on the Participation of Foreigners in Public Life at Local Level, which was opened for signature in 1992, deserves more support and more ratifications. In this context, last week the Congress, together with the City of Strasbourg and its Council of Foreign Residents, organised an international conference on “Integrating foreign residents into local public life: challenges and prospects”. The conference brought together municipalities that have established foreign residents’ councils with others that are actively pursuing different forms of local integration, to compare experience. The conference showed that more people than we might think are actually active and ready to participate in democracy, if given an opportunity.
We also need to empower young people. For example, we should look at lowering the voting age. Greater youth and child participation in politics could go a long way to rejuvenating politics. The Congress has been a pioneer in this respect, with its European Charter on youth participation at local and regional level.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to conclude by stressing once again our conviction that the way forward is local. Paradoxically, the era of globalisation will also be the era of the local community. Local representation and participation in decision-making have a much better chance to succeed, to take root and bring about tangible and practical results.
For its part, the Congress is an instrument in the toolbox of the Council of Europe to monitor the situation on the ground in our municipalities and regions, and provide a meeting place for elected representatives at local and regional level. We are also constantly reviewing the legitimacy of local and regional representation, and have recently mounted action in different areas to increase citizens’ participation – not least by seeing through the adoption of an additional protocol on democratic participation to the European Charter of Local Self-Government.
There is a lot to be done in seizing the opportunities offered by participatory democracy, and the Congress is there to spearhead the Council of Europe action locally and regionally.