Does political participation need political parties and representation?

Focusing on issues surrounding democratic participation, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA), held a round table on the 26th of April 2017, with the theme “Does political participation need political parties and representation?”.

The panel had five experts on the issue with different profiles, thus being composed by representatives from International IDEA and the academic field, a member of the Swedish Parliament representing the Moderate Party, a member of the Swedish Social Democrats party, as well as the co-President of Global Forum on Direct Democracy (also representing the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe).

Several topics were approached in this round table: the rise of populism in Europe and the United States, the available participatory tools for democracy vis-à-vis the current contextual challenges, and also the role of political parties in democracy.

The Swedish experience was also shared, where it is seen in the younger layers of society increasing political awareness, and youth organization and mobilization, but not political participation. In this specific scenario, the need for local authorities to engage with youth organizations was stressed, in order for the interests of youth to be better fulfilled in the local agenda. On the specific topic of the strengthening and making more accessible direct mechanisms for citizenship participation, related with the growing interest of youth in these matters, Bruno Kaufman (co-President of Global Forum on Direct Democracy) refers that digital means of participation allows for opportunities for more democracy.

After the panel has proved a common agreement that any tool for participatory democracy should be infrastructures for civic education, and thus never instrumentalized by political agendas, other main conclusions were reached. There are two grounds for fostering populism: a legal and institutional one (for example, the constitutional reforms undertaken in Hungary and Turkey), and social and economic instability.  The reason behind this is that basic democratic values become empty of practical meaning for real people. Professor Pippa Norris (Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University) stresses that populism weakens “checks and balances systems” in favor of a “strong leader” approach.

On the other hand, the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis shows growing use of participatory mechanisms (referendums and citizenship initiatives) as well as increased representation of different interests in national and local elections. Thus, the importance of avoiding political power to take ownership these tools is very important, and the results of the Turkish referendum and the political repression contextualizing it are proof of it.  Indeed participatory mechanisms should entail a multi-lateral approach, being a tool for civic participation and involvement.

Last but not least, with regards the role of political parties, it was acknowledged that they should have stronger actions in becoming a platform for dialogue with citizens and social inclusion (for example, reaching citizens with no interest or information in politics), as well as a space for mobilizing citizens and developing leadership. It was also commonly acknowledged that political parties should learn from their mistakes and increase their focus on engaging and enabling citizens, while promoting the values of accountability, stability, and predictability in their political agendas.

In this way political parties could help foster an environment of informed citizens, in other words, people aware that populist parties mobilize people not to allow them to participate, but only to allow a leader to act and decide in name of them (as seen in the last Le Pen’s campaign motto “In name of the People”), and not always in their best interests.

If you are interested in having access to the full content of this discussion, the same can be accessed here.