Summer School: Participation and Democracy

by: Jennifer Florez Torres

Political participation has been influenced by social movements, for example with protests in the 60s, civil activities, social engagement and nowadays with technology and the internet. Evolution of participation was seem´n in the cases of USA (which has a strong elements of participation but a complex electoral system for its citizens), Switzerland (which is a successful and efficient case of direct democracy at the national level) and Uruguay (which has a high level of political culture).

In order to answer if participative and representative democracy is legitimate, effective and just, it is necessary to analyze three important questions: 1. Who participates? 2. How do they participate? 3. How are people empowered by participation?

First, there is different typology of participative citizens and the variety depends on the political culture. Which are: In-activist (little level of education and low incomes, they rarely vote), activist (high income/highly educated and participate in politics), voters (limited education/income, they just votes), campaigners (willing to take strong positions/interest and identification with a political party), communalists (social focus in local issues similar to campaigners), and parochial participants (they abstain from voting and campaign but they contact a local officials regarding specific problems).

Second, the decision making process in participation tools is complex and there is a wide catalog of tools, such as planning agencies, stakeholder negotiations, neighborhood councils, public hearings, social audits, civic engagement and social protest or movements. Depending of the level of information and expertise required could be included just randomly selected participants, self-selected, professional stakeholders and experts. It specifies the level of empowerment of participants in the public discussion or decision-making power of a more inclusive or exclusive process.

Some types or participation work in a specific culture, country and political environment, which do not work in other contexts. The case of direct participation in Switzerland, it cannot be transplanted into a different context without be adapted. Each place, region and country must have an answer for the three important questions raised before (1. Who participates? 2. How do they participate? 3. How are people empowered by participation?).

Some recent cases across the world are showing the effectiveness of the citizen´s participation to change the status-quo. For example in the protest against agricultural free trade in Colombia a few weeks ago shows the effect of social movements to calling attention problems to the government which hopefully forces the government to re-evaluate the threat and its effects. Now the government is making a new agreement with the farmers, due the impact of citizens participation in the national protest that quickly spread over many cities Bogotá the capital, Tunja and Pasto.

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