Political Participation, Direct Democracy and Party Elections

What can we learn from the political participation during last decades and the rise of new ways to decision-making in Porto Alegre and Seville?

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2011

16 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. From a representative and distant democracy to a broad, plural and skeptical political arena

3. The Participatory Budgeting experience, a short outlook
3.1 Porto Alegre: pioneer and model to follow
3.2 Seville: challenge and reference in Europe

4. What can we learn from these experiences?

5. Conclusions


1. Introduction

In this paper I am going to describe the fall of conventional political participation within western European countries. Later on I am going to defend some possible ways to fix it and finally, I will expose my proposal: promotion of direct democracy through the Participatory Budgeting. With the cases of Porto Alegre and Seville, -with different situations and challenges- the values of transparency, participation, deliberation and responsiveness become especially protagonist. Politicians often think that people do not have any interest for the political arena. In fact, rarely they make decisions to try to attract citizens to institutions. Like the current Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, David Cameron, they blame external factors to explain why citizenship refuses in part their representatives1. The separation between citizen's demands and politician's rules could be a possible answer to the tragic riots during last weeks in England. Similarly, the reason for the Spanish Revolution that “pushed” during May and June millions of citizens of varied social groups into the streets is not only the tremendous unemployment rate. We cannot understand any social behavior if we exclude the political variable. Both David Cameron as Zapatero have decided strong economic cuts - hard to understand for citizens - while the voice of millions of Europeans against these decisions were expressed roundly. The sensation of politicians deaf respect citizens and the increasing idea that they do not solve anything is frequent.

At the same time, social movements, demonstrations and claims thrive, creating a democracy with varied and multiple channels where ideas are expressed. Citizens are interested in politics, but the current representative system is marked by slowness and rigidity of the new times. Literature shows us how voter turnout and affiliations to political parties drop dramatically until today, with alarming rates of disaffection, skepticism and distrust to political institutions. People do not find solutions and support from parties, and the divorce is a fact. However, our societies are mature and prepared for more protagonism in decision-making.

We should decide more times than once every four years. We want and we need. We have to walk to a new model of democracy. Then, how are the principal Participatory Budgeting˙s experiences? What can we learn from them?

2. From a representative and distant democracy to a broad, plural and skeptical political arena.

No doubt, during last decades democracy has lived a notable expansion around the world. New democracies emerged in Latin America, Africa or Eastern Europe. Besides, the confrontation between democracy and authoritarian regimes is now clearly won by the first one. Today it is not possible to see a real confrontation against democracies of other political systems2.

However, at the same time that communism, dictatorial rules and other non-democracies were collapsing, in Western Europe and North America citizens showed evident disaffection and distance respect politicians and institutions. Whether in a few corners of the world, citizens dreamed of live in freedom, in developed countries citizens showed some disenchantment. Of course, we can do a basic question: why? Why do people in Germany or in Sweden, with high standards of freedom, economic development and socio-political equality refuse the traditional channels to influence the political sphere? Should they don't defend their system and try to maintain the status quo? Obviously, people did not think so. They were gradually moving away to political parties and extending the political arena.

The current literature can help us to understand the real situation in European countries during the last decades and it also helps in trying to answer why this disenchantment happened. For example, Ola Listhaug (2001: 274) proves how the participation rates in national elections have declined in developed democracies. Citizens, especially young ones, were seduced by new issues, platforms and movements, where political parties lost part of their historic role in representative democracies. No doubt, the rise of ecology, pacifism or even the consequences derived from the 1973 oil crisis 3 were some variables that changed the political landscape. In any case, the conclusions of Ola Listhaug about the drop of conventional participation are not new and they are supported by the literature since years ago.

On the other hand, the role of Mass Media should be analyzed, since Manin (1995: 247-303;|‚ cited by Kriesi 2008:154) finds a negative relation between parliamentary power and public opinion. According to Manin, the political debate left the institutions to settle a broad and multiple panorama: public sphere, where political parties should compete with a constellation of political actors.

In a similar vein, some theories point to possible negative effects derived by the creation of the “catching-all parties” (Kircheimer 1966;|‚ cited by Kriesi 2008:154) and their respective lost of ideology. In short, if the principal political parties fight to achieve a bigger support (votes) of citizens, they can have a tendency to maintain a non-ideological position respect political issues. A possible defense from a socialist or conservative point of view can keep away the “voter from center”, which sometimes decides the winner in the European democracy system. It might result in an increase of volatility and a lost of legitimation. Probably citizens see political parties like a “public agency to obtain votes” and not as proponents of ideologies and solutions.

The idea here is clear: during last decades, citizens have moved away from political parties, turnouts and traditional conventional actions. New values, new ways to understand politics and new challenges have emerged to the political arena. The political participation is more complex and varied than few decades ago, and the developed countries walk to a model where traditional parliamentarism is changing. According to Ola Listhaug (2007: 272) in “contrast to the decline of turnout, the broader political activity of citizens has increased. There is no general civic decline”. And between these changes and new activities, my personal interest is focused on a concrete field: Participatory Budgeting. I know that the Participatory Budgeting (hereafter PB) is not precisely a protagonist of these changes, and I am conscious that the PB comes from Brazil, but the fact that we can find a tool to do the democracy more direct, with less presence of political parties and, especially, the fact that we have a way to renew the decision-making, I think is enough to justify a special attention to this concrete topic.

Hence, democracies around the world are changing. The current financial economic crisis has permitted the apparition of populist parties, massive protest in Spain, Greece or United Kingdom, and the popularity of world's leaders are in a minimum. Neither Merkel, Sarkozy, Berlusconi, nor Obama have significant support in their societies, and maybe “convulsed” is the best adjective to define our current countries today. However, democracy cannot remain indifferent against the drop of political participation, the disaffection respect politicians and the new possibilities to give more “democracy” to citizens. We see now that both party membership and party identification have declined markedly over the last twenty years (Listhaug 2007: 281), besides a marked drop of voter turnout. My preoccupation is that democracy needs participation. It is the base to build any free society. Interesting is to clarify that this fall of participation is always under conventional political activities, since the unconventional political participation has lived a considerable growth in developed countries. In other words, while voter turnout and affiliations to political parties have had a dramatic drop, citizens have chosen a new and wider scope: illegal demonstrations, petitions (including on-line), boycotts, referendums...Because I frame the PB inside the road to achieve more transparency, responsibility and social justice, the best way to fight against a possible depolitization 4 of citizens to institutions is to give them more power to influence, and it is very important to remember that political parties and democratic institutions are crucial for democracy. Despite I appreciate the PB, petitions, referendums or demonstrations, I am very conscious about the significance of these ways to canalize interests and making decisions. There have been during last twenty years “more signed petitions, more boycotts, joined unofficial strikes, lawful demonstration” (Listhaug 2007: 283) with a final result: more political participation and, especially, more direct democracy.

But, why direct democracy? I want to bring up here the explanation of Mark Warren (2003: 247) about why direct democracy is more democratic than representative democracy: “the more voting includes those affected by the issue, the more inclusive the process of agenda formation of all affected by the issue and the more inclusive the deliberative processes preceding the vote”. I do not defend a model purely “participatory”, but I think we need to borrow some tools and ways. Hence, I agree completely with these arguments and, besides, I have to add that PB would be an interesting tool to the political parties and their realignment towards citizens. As we will see later, many authors emphasize that PB and referendum are sometimes a menace to the established power of the political parties, but in my opinion, they must accept a new situation where social changes within societies have reduced their preponderant role of the past. Of course, direct democracy, in their derivations of selection of office holders, referendum, PB or the initiative offer us the capacity to influence more directly in the political agenda, but my principal idea here is: transparency of public goods, responsiveness and deliberation. Citizens only can take decisions every four years in a representative democracy. Truth is that in Germany, the Netherlands or France we have seen some referendums related to EU treaties. And we can find almost every year any voting to elect politicians of the three administrative levels. But those are small possibilities regarding our capacities and potentialities. In fact, the recent changes introduced to increase the options of the voters to express their opinion are very limited. Sometimes politicians rule with decisions hard to understand, as we can see during current financial economic crisis or the last decade with the invasion of Irak. Naturally, the presence of more direct democracy is not the end of controversial decisions, but it means certainly less independence of politicians respect citizens. Celina Souza (2001: 159) adds that participatory budgeting can “rebuild democratic institutions with an agenda that focuses mainly on fighting corruption, improving access to government, and strengthening governmental accountability”. Instead the idiosyncrasy of the PB, the idea to create assemblies, debates and to decide over daily issues show how people are prepared and ready to assume more responsibilities. Budge (1996;|‚ cited by Scarrow 2003: 57) argues “that direct democracy can increase popular support for party dominated representative structures without threatening party dominance, and high party involvement will improve the choices made using direct democracy procedures”.

The pattern is simple: more individualism and less intermediaries between citizens and political decisions. It is exactly here where I focus my attention: during last decades developed countries have made changes to bring the decision-making closer to citizen. It is not enough in my opinion, but in Porto Alegre and over 400 cities around the world and interesting and innovative tool is rising: the participatory budgeting.


1 It is interesting how David Cameron is able to blame bankers, divorces or moral corruption to justify violence during last weeks in England, but he does not believe that their social cuts have any responsibility. We can do an idea about this in this article: http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/europe/08/15/uk.riots/index.html Last Access: 16-August-2011.

2 Clearly the current menace for democracy is within States. Since there is not an evident ideological opposition like communism or fascism in the past. However, the current world economic crisis (Z007-) we are seeing an increasing of populist movements in the US with Tea Party or in Europe with many extreme right parties flourishing across the continent,

3 Very important emphasize here that since 197E the western economies have had a little economic growth in comparison with previous decades. Besides, the cuts in the Welfare State and the rise of the “New Right” formed some social unrest in these countries.

4 I mean, a possible estrangement of citizens respect political parties, institutions and political decisions taken by them.

Excerpt out of 16 pages


Political Participation, Direct Democracy and Party Elections
What can we learn from the political participation during last decades and the rise of new ways to decision-making in Porto Alegre and Seville?
Humboldt-University of Berlin
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Participatory Budgeting, Direct Democracy, Porto Alegre, Seville, decision making, Brazil
Quote paper
Licenciado Ignacio Garcia Marín (Author), 2011, Political Participation, Direct Democracy and Party Elections , Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/180800


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