Forum for the Future of Democracy, Yerevan, October 2010

      Session 3B Democratic political culture: democracy's oxygen

      Yerevan, 19 October

      Speech by Gudrun Mosler-Törnström, Representative of the Chamber of Regions of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, Council of Europe

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      The position paper for this session rightly states that democratic institutions and practices are only viable if they are imbued with a broadly shared democratic political culture. I would add that they are only viable if they are rooted in the democratic participation of citizens fuelled by this culture, if by “democracy” we understand what the word stands for – the power of the people. Indeed, participation in power-sharing and decision-making seems to be a key requirement of modern democracy, which is moving fast from its representative model to a broad-based participatory model, spurred by new technologies and the environment of the so-called “e-democracy”.

      Is the old model dying, or is it being transformed? Today, we are facing a crisis of political representation, a lack of faith in political parties, the decline of the political party as an institution. Against this background, we are witnessing the growing power of other groups such as civil society, religious groups and other forms of political interaction.

      With this, democratic political culture is undergoing a profound change, fuelled first and foremost by new technology – the internet, social media such as Facebook and Twitter and search engines such as Google. It is also fuelled by social mobility, facilitated by the fall of the Berlin Wall and ongoing globalisation, the rise of English as the lingua franca, and such programmes and agreements as Erasmus and Schengen. Today's youth enter a very different world than the world that their parents grew up in.

      Yet, one thing will certainly remain unchanged: the underlying culture of democracy on which our societies are based – acceptance of difference, respect for the other’s opinion, equal treatment, democratic participation. And inasmuch as democracy is not a state but a constantly evolving process, this culture needs to be maintained, nurtured and reinvented, if you wish, through ongoing and life-long democratic education of our citizens.

      Knowledge, and general education of our citizens, are indispensable for modern democracy. Today’s societies are increasingly fast-paced and knowledge-driven, and therefore knowledge-dependant. This brings to the forefront the role of education as a tool to sustain social and economic development and indeed the very democratic essence of our civilisation.

      Indeed, democratic culture, instilled through proper education, underlies the entire range of elements which we consider to be key to democratic stability, social harmony and eventually prosperity – intercultural and interreligious dialogue and tolerance, gender equality, respect for individual rights and human dignity, inclusion and participation. I must emphasise that all these issues are of direct concern to local and regional authorities and territorial administrations, because of their paramount importance for building a “better life” in our communities, for building a “better society”. This makes education for democratic citizenship as much a matter for local and regional authorities as it is for national governments.

      The Congress is currently preparing a report on the tools and resources available to local and regional authorities in this field education for democratic citizenship. As I have already said, education for democratic citizenship is a life-long activity, and one that is increasingly the responsibility of local authorities.

      One of the tools that our members flagged up during our recent debate on this subject (in Kayseri, Turkey, last month) was that of "participatory budgeting". Participatory budgeting is a process of democratic deliberation and decision-making, in which ordinary residents decide how to allocate part of a municipal or public budget. Participatory budgeting allows citizens to identify, discuss, and prioritize public spending projects.

      It is an exciting new development in local self-government – which grew out of experience in Brazil – and is now being taken up in many of our cities in Europe. It has led to a renewal of interest and citizen engagement in the local politics of the cities concerned.

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      The Council of Europe Secretary General, Thorbjørn Jagland, has coined the term "deep security" to describe the security provided by a mature stable democratic culture, as compared to the military security – “hard security” – promoted by NATO and other alliances.

      Deep security rests on a number of principles that underpin the resilience of our democracy. Human rights are at the heart of this. For the greater part of history of human rights, their delivery has been seen as a matter for national authorities. And yet, the exercise of human rights takes place in the concrete environment of our communities, and it is a prerequisite of democracy and good governance as much at local and regional level as it is at the national. By delivering social services and services of general interest, local and regional authorities are already implementing on a daily basis much of human rights principles and standards set out in international treaties.

      In the Congress, we are convinced that involving local and regional authorities in the implementation of human rights in their communities is one key feature of “new democracy” taking shape today. This is why in March this year, the Congress decided to include the question of the human rights implementation in communities as part of its general monitoring of the situation of local and regional democracy in Europe. It is also our belief that ensuring equal protection of human rights in local and regional communities should be part of a framework for multilevel governance. This is a new concept providing for joint participation of the different tiers of government as equal partners in democratic governance, which, I am convinced, will be another salient feature of the new democratic model.

      Another essential criterion of deep security is tolerance and pluralism, the willingness not only to accept the Other, but also to engage with him. This is the best guarantee to prevent “a clash of civilisations” in a society based on democratic culture and on a multitude of cultural and individual identities – identities that interact with one another and enter into dialogue with each other. This "talking together" requires free and independent media at all levels, including local and regional.

      In the Congress, we insist on the role of the local media in bringing local social and cultural groups together and making sure that every one of them has a voice. Local authorities also have a critical responsibility in fostering intercultural dialogue in their communities and providing space and opportunities for different social groups to meet, interact and express their own cultures. This is why the Congress is calling for the development of municipal intercultural policies and the promotion of interculturalism in our towns and cities, in support of the “Intercultural Cities” project of the Council of Europe and the European Commission. We also encourage cultural diversity in municipal employment and services’ provision, and put forward a number of principles for local authorities to develop intercultural dialogue at community level.

      Another challenge for democracy today is corruption, which is threatening our democratic efforts and taking on a particular urgency across our continent. Most Europeans today qualify it as a major problem in their societies, reaching alarming levels. Local and regional communities are not immune to this scourge.

      Much has been said about corruption eroding the fabric of our society and menacing democracy itself, because it undermines one of the core values on which this continent has been united – the rule of law. Most importantly, corruption destroys trust between citizens and their government, which is one of the foundations of democracy. However, corruption at grassroots, in your own community, makes matters even worse, as it deals a shattering blow to public confidence at the level closest to the citizen.

      In May this year, the Congress and the Committee of the Regions of the European Union held a conference in Messina, Italy, on fighting corruption at local level. Amongst the successful practices, presented at the conference, were the revision of local procurement procedures, introduction of new practices for monitoring decision-making processes and the creation of anti-corruption agencies at local level. The results of the conference will feed into a code of conduct for local and regional politicians and administrations, which is currently being prepared.

      Ladies and Gentlemen,

      As I have said at the outset, a new democratic framework is certainly based on broad democratic participation of citizens, which is inseparable in today’s world from new technologies and e-tools, facilitating e-participation through e-voting, e-inclusion and provision of e-services. As we saw in Madrid, the use of e-tools at local level provides a great opportunity for creating a truly “citizen environment” of consultations, dialogue and participation. Information on local issues (such as planning issues or lobbying events) can be made available much more cheaply and rapidly than before, much as the feedback from citizens on local government action.

      E-democracy is clearly here to stay. People are increasingly turning to social networks to form political groupings, often for specific issues. The new democratic framework compels politicians to change as well, to keep abreast. Much of this change is happening from the bottom up, and much of the future can be seen today in what is happening at local level.

      Politicians have to get used to being answerable online for their policies. They can increase their support by running blogs, they are expected to contribute and intervene on online fora. They are expected to have media skills, to know how to make use of the media in order to promote themselves and their programmes.

      The image - for better or for worse - continues to gain power and influence in our political culture. A good story needs a photo to illustrate it. These days, photos are taken by everybody and transmitted instantly. The political power of the image needs to be properly understood and harnessed, because good policies risk falling victim to bad policies which have a more appealing visual presentation. We may complain about the tyranny of the image, we may insist that this is not democratic, but we have to live with it.

      At the same time, the good news is that citizens are now increasingly empowered to run their own communities. Empowering citizens will certainly boost their democratic participation and will tap into their potential for innovation.

      This empowerment must begin at local level where its results are the most tangible, and must be the core of our focus for the future. It is the oxygen which will invigorate our political culture.

      Thank you.

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