Voting alone won’t save our democracies

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

The traditional system of voting leaves many people feeling unrepresented. [Alexandru Nika/Shutterstock]

We are so often told that ‘those who don’t vote are not allowed to complain about the result’. Allan Päll asks what would happen if instead of forcing us — the citizens — to adapt to a failing system, democracy evolved to suit our modern day society.

Allan Päll is secretary-general of the European Youth Forum.

It is a fundamental mistake to assume that those who don’t participate in elections don’t care about the outcome. For certain groups in society, particularly young people, the current format of voting every four or five years for a select group of candidates and parties just doesn’t reflect the reality of their views. Nor does the system inspire trust in political leadership. So in some ways we become stuck in a cycle; frustrated that our representatives are detached from us but at the same time disillusioned and disconnected with the political process to elect them.

Recent developments have shown what can happen when people feel that the political elite is not listening and out of touch. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that expressing political will must not only be limited to channels such as general elections or referendums. The question that then remains is, how to foster democracies that are creative, innovative and most importantly, encourage more direct participation from citizens?

There are relatively few examples of democracies and political institutions that have broken free of the conventional mould, and each of these to varying degrees of success. One such approach that has been tried and tested is “sortition”. Rather than relying solely on politicians to reach a decision, sortition seeks to consult a randomly-selected cross-section of the public. In theory, this avoids the added complication of political partisanship and fosters a decision-making process that is transparent and fair. The selected group bases their decision on knowledge and expertise from a variety of vetted sources. This can be compared to trusting peer juries in courts – forming a citizen panel. Although sortition offers many advantages in terms of inclusiveness and diversity of perspectives, questions about the practicality and huge organisational changes it would imply remain unanswered.

Another such innovation comes in the form of crowdsourcing. Iceland bucked the trend when it opened up the process of drafting a new constitution to all citizens. A mixed model was tested in my native Estonia in 2013 when facing declining plurality. After mounting pressure from campaigners the president initiated a crowd-sourcing of proposals to improve the political and electoral system. Together with experts, a 300-strong citizen panel discussed these ideas and put forward proposals to Parliament – which indeed voted some of them through.

Some countries allow people’s petitions to be discussed at parliament – Finland recently adopted gay marriage after a citizens’ initiative proposed it. Similarly, many cities are experimenting with participatory budgeting, effectively giving back control of public spending to citizens. A good way of using digital tools for democratic deliberation, crowd-sourcing policymaking allows the public to have more influence over important decisions. There are still concerns, however, that as with any internet-based tool, such mechanisms are at risk of being taken over by well-organised groups.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, we need to talk about civil dialogue. If genuine and meeting certain standards of responsiveness, inclusiveness and sustainability, civil dialogue can significantly improve trust and transparency between public institutions and civil society as representatives of citizens’ interests.

At European level, the potential impact of civil dialogue should not be undervalued. By working in partnership with civil society, policymakers can gain continuous input and feedback into the development of policies. In the youth sector, the European Youth Forum works with the European Commission on the Structured Dialogue on Youth, allowing youth organisations and young people to make their voices heard on the issues that affect them. The European Youth Guarantee went through this dialogue process – a policy giving every young person an opportunity to get a quality offer of employment or further training after becoming jobless. It is especially successful where it is being designed and implemented together with youth organisations, in order to reach young people more effectively. Similarly, the co-management system in the Council of Europe gives equal power to national governments and representatives of youth civil society organisations to decide on the priorities, budgets and programmes of the institutions’ youth sector.

Questions remain about follow up and implementation of decisions made in such structures. In an ideal world, however, and if we are serious about saving our failing democracies, such innovations should be spread to all levels of politics — and not just limited to the youth sector. Let’s not be the prisoners of the occasional once-in-four-years vote. Let’s not be fooled by those who only care about people close enough to the elections. We need to start building new, stronger and more democratic institutions that give people control over policymaking and that create a sense of ownership among citizens of the important choices affecting their lives.

On Tuesday (7 February) more than three thousand young people met in Maastricht for the European Youth Forum’s annual YO!Fest to discuss these issues on the future of European democracy.

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