Popular Participation and the Aims of Liberal Democracy
There is this classical objection to liberalism: it does not enable the active citizenship which is required to sustain and give vitality to democratic institutions. It invites us to be citizens for the one day when we vote and then asks us to go back to our private affairs.
But the kind of citizenship that is required to generate the public goods we want, and the kind of citizenship that allows for the representation, accountability and citizen education that strengthens democracy, demands more. Free and fair elections, party system, constitutional institutions (the rule of law, a separate executive, legislature, and judiciary, a system of checks and balances)—even when backed by a free press and civil liberties—seem to be missing something. The new forms of popular or citizen participation that have arisen in Latin America (and elsewhere) in recent years may be one response to the deficits in the mechanisms and institutions of constitutional democracy.
Looking concretely at specific examples or mechanisms of popular participation, in what ways does such participation reinforce the aims of liberal democracy—representation, accountability, citizen education, stability—and in what ways does it threaten or undermine these goals? Part of the answer to this question may depend on “where you sit” in the class, ethnic, and political structure. But an open and honest exploration of this question is important.
Popular Participation and the Representation “Deficit”
Does popular participation help solve the representation “deficit” that excluded groups experience in a number of countries of Latin America? In some countries elite pacts have allowed a party and electoral system to dominate, and this pact excludes large parts of the population from having their interests represented. In some areas patron-client relations, oligarchic power, and corruption make it difficult for the citizenry to influence or benefit from existing political arrangements.
Popular participation and legislative action: Do new forms of popular participation make it more likely that legislatures are more responsive to public? This could range from lobbying members of parliament to marches and sit-ins demanding parliament pass constitutions (as in Bolivia).
Popular participation in policy making: Do new forms of popular participation devolve more power on citizens groups to make policies (e.g. participatory budgeting) or do they only seem to devolve such power (for example, is the control over resources still centralized)?
Popular participation in policy implementation: Do new forms of popular participation devolve more power on citizens groups to administer, or to monitor and influence, the administration of policy? And what are the pluses and minuses of such participation for democracy (and for the public interest)? Does a particular combination of popular participation and public policy institutionalization enhance or weaken state responsiveness to popular demands? For example, the literature on feminism has pointed to the confluence of feminist movements and state ministries dedicated to woman’s affairs as a good way to advance woman’s issues.
Popular Participation and Stability
Does too much participation de-stabilize governments? For example: civil society coups like the overthrow of Sanchez de Lozada in Bolivia. What about participation that aims to stabilize or defend democracy? For example support for Chavez against the 2002 military coup in Venezuela, for Zelaya in Honduras in 2007, for Aristide in Haiti in 2004? Does a particular kind of popular participation (citizens counsels, budgeting processes, recall) sustain or stabilize democracy—or does it make it weaker?
Popular Participation and Constitutional Reform
Do certain processes of constitutional reform create opportunities for meaningful participation in the making of the new constitutions?
Have the new constitutions created more participatory democracy in ways that strengthen or weaken such things as electoral participation, popular participation, political and civil liberties, representation, and accountability? For example, how would one assess the work done by the constituent assemblies in Venezuela and Bolivia in this regard?
Do the new constitutional reforms empower or weaken legislatures? Empower or weaken political parties? Empower or weaken associations of civil society, and if so, what kinds? Do these constitutional reforms foster old styles of clientelism? Do they increase the centralization of executive power?
Do new forms of participation encourage more and better deliberation: (1) on the part of the legislators and (2) on the part of the public.
Do new forms of participation promote or discourage freer and fairer elections (directly through citizen monitoring groups, or indirectly through community councils)?
Popular Participation and Checks and Balances
Do new forms of participation strengthen or weak important checks and balances? In particular:
Do they enhance or weaken the checks and balances between legislature and executive?
Do they enhance or weaken judicial independence? What influence do mechanisms of participatory democracy have on judicial independence? Do particular kinds of popular participation (e.g. in community councils, in labor unions) promote or discourage judicial independence? Do they encourage or discourage the public to turn a blind eye if the government stacks the courts—or to protest encroachments on judicial independence?
Do they enhance or weaken civilian control over armed forces? Executive control over armed forces? Do they, for example, enhance the likelihood of civilian control over military budgets? Promotions? Investigations of abuses by the military? Of bringing military wrong-doers to justice? Do they make it more likely that states of siege—situations of emergency—are not misused and that human rights are not violated?
Popular Participation and Citizen Education
Democracy demands a population that is informed, trusts each other, is able to deliberate about policy issues, respects the law, is open to compromise, and is tolerant of certain differences. Is there evidence that popular participation educates citizens in these democratic virtues? Does it encourage citizens to deliberate and teach them how to do these things?
Popular Participation and local judicial institutions
Access to justice across classes and at the local level is a critical element of a democracy. If legislatures pass laws that do not regulate life at the local level or do not do so fairly across all classes then justice is not done. The health of democracy depends not simply on what laws are passed but on interpreting the law in an impartial, fair, and egalitarian manner. Usually the attention of scholars and democratic theorists in this regard is on the connections between the legislatures and the judiciary, and how fairly the court system works—who has access to justice. But we’re going further: we’re saying that access to justice needs to be extended into local communities.
We want to look at how new forms of participation may encourage or discourage access to justice. We are particularly interested in how justice at the local level—local judges, courts, public defenders, mediators—encourage or hinder this critical element of democracy in local communities.
One might think about this in various ways.
One example would be the creation of new institutions to increase access to justice at the local level. The peace judges, or “jueces de paz” in Peru are mediator-negotiators at the local level in Peru. They aim to insure popular access to the justice system for dispute resolution which avoids the expense, time delays, corruption, and other problems with the courts. How are they appointed? Is there any local input or accountability in their appointment? What role do they play in local communities? Do they give people better access to the protections that laws are supposed to provide? In addition to their effect on access to justice, do they promote democratic values—teaching local communities about deliberation, compromise, peaceful settlement of disputes, the importance of the rule of law?
Another example would be “judicial pluralism.” In countries with large indigenous populations there are sometimes two legal systems, the state-run system and a local, indigenous system. Do the more traditional systems supplement the state system, work at odds with it, or is there a de facto complementarity? Do they provide an access to justice that the official institutions are not providing? Are these local systems nurtured, ignored, or undermined by the official institutions?
Popular Consultations and Policy Making
Throughout Latin America there has been an increase in the use of mechanisms of popular consultation. The stated aim of such consultations is to give local communities, often local indigenous communities, voice in policy making on issues that will directly affect them. The environmental and cultural impact of development projects (mining, dams) is one example of a policy issue where local communities have been consulted. In Guatemala, for example, over a half a million people in rural, largely indigenous, communities have been consulted about new mining projects.
We are interested in the nature and the impact of such consultations. How are these consultations held? Are they merely local or international showcases of good will or do they provide a way for the voices of local communities to influence policy making? Are they top-down, stake-holder management aimed to forestall future discontent or are they meaningful participation? What role do national laws or international conventions have in encouraging such consultations (for example ILO Convention 169, The Indigenous and Tribal People’s Convention of the International Labor Organization)? Are these legal frameworks the result of popular pressure or efforts at stakeholder management or some combination? What factors make such consultations more or less representative of local communities? What determines the impact of such consultations on the formulation and the implementation of policies?