Renewable democracy: towards full participation through representation and deliberation

Policy Study


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While it should be kept in mind that the socially constructed concept of ’democracy’ might have different meanings for the citizens across the EU-countries, it is clear now that the classic forms of representative and participatory democracies in Europe are in different types of crisis. With a few exceptions, turnout rates both in national and EP elections show a constantly decreasing level of voter turnout that undermines the most well-known participative element of modern democracies. This sign of absence can be linked to the general dissatisfaction of European citizens with the democracies in the EU. In some EU-member states, like Hungary, France, Italy, Finland or the UK, the levels of public support for antidemocratic, far-right, populist and/or EU-sceptic parties are worryingly high and showing a growing tendency. But the picture is not simply black and white. On the contrary, we can see that EU-citizens still believe in local and participative forms of democracy: in a Eurobarometer survey conducted in 2013, a majority of EU-citizens stated that voting in local elections is an effective way of influencing politics and were engaged in at least one traditional form of expressing their political views.

According to our results, it seems that the European social democratic parties do not address significantly the problems of democracy much. Based on a document analysis investigating different party documents and public debates involving representatives of PES and others, we conclude that the general dissatisfaction of citizens is indeed somehow reflected in the current European social democratic discourse, above all, by means of a general (although not unanimous) appeal for more transparency of public institutions and new forms of democratic participation beyond the polls. Nonetheless, although the multiple crises, the relevance given to democratic issues is undoubtedly secondary in relation to other concerns, such economic and social issues, being this at best described as “moderate”.

In this paper, we argue that the local level of social participation in politics (in a broad sense) is a crucially important element for those projects that aim to renew democracies and how democracies work in the 21st century. As in the first chapter we demonstrate, EU-citizens in general still believe in local elections and are more attached to local ideas and issues. Hence, we suggest that a good start in constructing a more compelling democracy will primarily be linked to the local arena. That is why we propose, especially to social democratic parties and progressive forces, the organisation of open forums of deliberation, public events and the creative usage of public spaces at this level. Besides, based on the analysis conducted about the social democratic discourse, we recommend a more ambitious and resolute discourse on democratic innovations and participatory democracy. The use of the tools of e-democracy, some modifications in the inner organization of the political parties and a broad alliance among progressive social parties and movements to foster democratic innovations are other recommendations offered. 

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