Citizen participation can recover democracy from the crisis, argues French political scientist Yves Sintomer

An embly formed based on a lottery can propose public policies to meet society’s demands, especially long-term ones, without worrying about the constraints that the electoral period of representative politics imposes. The model is not confused with or replaces the Legislative, and differs from known practices in Brazil, such as councils and the Participatory Budget. In citizen emblies, already held in European countries, members are drawn based on criteria that consider the statistical representation of society.

The person who explains the concept is French political scientist and professor Yves Sintomer, who researches the topic and draws comparisons with other models of participation in the democratic system. He even esses that globally we are facing, at least since the beginning of the 21st century, a crisis of democracy, and points out as one of the routes out of this situation the expansion of spaces in institutional politics so that citizens can participate more in decision-making .

Sintomer was in Porto Alegre at the beginning of this month to participate in academic activities, including a conference to present the idea of ​​the “citizen draw”, held by the Observatório das Metrópoles in partnership with the Postgraduate Programs in Sociology, Political Science and Ufrgs Public Policies. In this interview with Commerce Newspaperhe explains the concept of the conference and shares his impressions of liberal democracy.

Jornal do Comércio – You point out that democracy is in crisis. What characterizes this crisis and since when?

Yves Sintomer – Over the past two decades, the crisis has become clearer. Symptoms, we have several, and it depends on the country. One appears in polls and elections, a growing distance between citizenship and political leaders and the political cl, which is quite strong in the USA, France and Europe, but also in new democracies. That is the central question. But there is also the growing power of the far right with a xenophobic and authoritarian vision of democracy in the political system, what the Prime Minister of Hungary (Viktor Orbán) calls illiberal democracy. There has also been a failure of democratic transitions in many countries. We can think of the Arab world, some African countries, as well as China, which did not evolve towards democracy on the North American model but rather a very different, but successful, system for the country. So, when you paint this picture, you can see that the situation is not good. And when we think about the factors that produce this crisis, one might think that it is a structural issue and not just a difficult moment in which everything will return to normal later.

JC – What are the possible solutions to this crisis of democracy?

Sintomer – Well, there is an authoritarian way out, which is growing at the moment and has been seen in several countries, including Brazil. Another way out is what an English colleague, Colin Crouch (sociologist and political scientist), calls post-democratic. This is to say that the electoral game moves like theater: apparently, nothing changes, but the biggest decisions end up happening behind the scenes; however, we cannot go much further, because the population perceives the authoritarian perspective. I think that, for progressive forces, we talk about three possibilities. One is progressive populism, in which the capacity of charismatic figures or strong parties can give normal people, from the popular cles, a hope, a direction, a dream, but without going against the rationality of public policies, as we see in Venezuela, for example.

JC – What are the others?

Sintomer – Another possibility is the democratization of democracy through the model of participatory democracy, as was, partially at least, the case with the Participatory Budget (OP) of Porto Alegre. OP is developing a lot in Europe at the moment, but in a more “domesticated” way. What basically happens is letting the population decide and give their opinion on topics that are important to their daily lives, but without being able to intervene in the more structural force relations. Furthermore, at the moment in Europe there is a lot of discussion about the model of deliberative democracy, which is based on what North Americans call mini-publics or citizen emblies, selected by lot, made for citizens to propose and discuss, and sometimes decide. , on public affairs.

JC – How does the lottery model for these citizen emblies work? How is it defined who will participate and what types of decisions are made at these emblies?

Sintomer – The idea is to create a space where there will be citizens from each part of society in a representative sample, in a similar way to what happens in electoral surveys, with the difference that they do not just give one answer but rather discuss the issue together for a long time. To achieve an almost ideal model, when the topic is very technical, there can be training for citizens in a public audience of experts, with the perspective of various areas and (political) trends towards information pluralism. The public hearing will also feature stakeholders, ociations, members of society and political parties. The groups propose different solutions to the topic being discussed. Then there is an alternation between discussion with outsiders, who arrive with their proposals, general discussions with all members of the citizen embly and, also, discussions in small groups, to encourage equal participation by all people. That said, it is not just a draw (of who will participate), but a mix of draw and quotas, to allow for a good statistical representation of the population, in addition to attracting people who are not very engaged in politics. It is also possible to think about remuneration, something equivalent to payment for a day of work proportional to the time of participation. And, in addition, there are people who are trained to facilitate discussion and organize it so that it is egalitarian among the members of the citizen embly.

JC – Where in institutionalized politics are citizen emblies located? They do not arise to replace the Legislature, but as a complement, right?

Sintomer – Yes, it is a complement. There are very radical people who argue that this should be the new political representation, but they are few. We can mention the example of Ireland, in which the government and parliament have given the citizen embly the possibility of discussing and proposing constitutional or legislative reforms. Two of them were very important: on abortion (in 2018) and on same-sex marriage (in 2015).

JC – How was the participation of the citizen embly in these cases?

Sintomer – A constitutional amendment proposal was made and transmitted to the Legislature, which in turn ped it on to the people through a referendum and was approved.

JC – Where else is this model practiced?

Sintomer – We can mention Paris as another example, where there is a permanent citizens’ embly that can decide the themes of the participatory budget. The idea was not to have an OP in each thematic area, but to choose every year or two, two or three themes. Then, the embly defined by draw decides which topics will be covered by the participatory budget. In addition to these cases, there is also the possibility of interventions in the Legislature of a city or region in public policies.

JC – Here in Porto Alegre, the municipal Legislature didn’t get along very well with the OP when it emerged. There were fears that it could replace the role of parliamentarians, which never happened. It’s also not the idea of ​​citizen emblies, right?

Sintomer – It is not the proposed idea. But there is a strong fear in European Legislatures that it could replace the elected Legislature. But politics is not a zero-sum game. Politics in Europe is facing a moment of discredit. Therefore, introducing a new space would be a way of giving more credibility to the policy as a whole, and the Legislature could also take advantage of this renewal to gain more legitimacy.

JC – How can a participatory experience like the citizen embly do this?

Sintomer – When I say legitimize, it is in the sense that people can believe that politicians decide for the common good and citizenship, not for them (politicians) as people or as parties. When surveys are carried out in Europe, people’s response is that politicians care about their own careers and not about people’s interests. The idea is that, if the people could be represented by citizen emblies that look like the people and, at least on some important issues, the Legislature and the Executive follow the embly’s propositions, it could give credibility again.

JC – In the lecture you commented that the current model of liberal democracy does not serve everyone, and made an analogy with a condominium, where some are inside and others are outside. Is liberal democracy not serving the whole of society?

Sintomer – Liberal politics, in the 19th century in Europe and the United States, was only for rich, white men. It was then extended, in the 20th century, with universal suffrage for all, with the welfare state and, with m political parties, it has been able to include the vast majority of citizens in the political system. . But this is uming that the national states at the “center of the world” (Europe and the USA) could enjoy raw materials, oil from around the world, and could produce CO2, which has now made life on the planet more difficult. So (liberal democracy) was a “large condominium” for those who were citizens of these countries, but with formal or informal domination of the rest of the world.

JC – You spoke about the environmental issue and how liberal democracy, as it developed in the 20th century, did not consider the environmental issue as central. How much does it need to be considered in this search for a new model of democracy?

Sintomer – I think it is now very clear that the environmental issue will be one of the fundamental issues of the 21st century. We can see the importance in the problems that multiply, in the disasters that grow and that will probably multiply. And the pace of elections is short-term, four or five years. So the electoral game ends up putting pressure on politicians to think in the short term. I’m not saying that all politicians think only this way, but the pressure to do so is very strong. On the other hand, and I believe this is why, there is a development of experiences with citizen emblies with the idea that it is much easier to ask people to think in the long term in a citizen embly selected by lottery, because people will not be there to defend your own short-term interest (thinking about the next election). Then we can think further and perhaps represent future generations and beings that are not human in a different way. It would probably be one of the ways to face the ecological challenge.

JC – Even though there are warnings, even from the World Economic Forum, about the economic risk represented by the climate and biodiversity crises, it seems that a large part of the sector still does not incorporate the necessary changes in its processes. In some way, can this social mobilization, through citizen emblies, put pressure on the political and economic sectors for the change that needs to happen?

Sintomer – Yes. I’ll give the example of the citizens’ convention on the climate in France…

JC – When did it happen?

Sintomer – Two years ago. It was not perfect, but it made a global proposal and 150 other proposals that were more ambitious than all that had been made by governments and legislatures before, whether from the left, center or right. Unfortunately, French President Emmanuel Macron, who had promised to implement the proposals, did not do so. However, two years later he had to go ahead, because the ecological crisis is getting worse. So, he had to return to the proposals that he had ignored until that moment. I think that if we consider the mobilization of society, of ecologists calling for more radical changes, especially among young people, as well as non-political and social movements, perhaps the problems of the economy can be faced.

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