ASU international conference explores civic participation


Andres Guerra Luz

A participatory democracy is different than a representative democracy in that citizens are directly involved in the political decisions and policies that affect them.

“It really shows how citizens, how all of us, have the capacity to be involved in the daily decision-making processes that affect our lives,” said Rebecca Tarlau, a Stanford postdoctoral fellow who most recently wrote a subnational comparative ethnography on the Brazilian Landless Worker’s Movement.

Tarlau along with other political activists Alessandro Mariano, Sophie Hatzfeldt, and Gevorg Melikyan spoke on the panel “Grassroots Efforts to Democratize Democracy: International Perspectives,” about their efforts to promote participatory democracy.

The panel was held on December 4 as part of the three-day international conference ““By the People: Participatory Democracy, Public Engagement and Citizenship Education. It was organized by the Participatory Governance Initiative housed within the School of Public Affairs, part of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions at Arizona State University.

In Brazil, Tarlau and Mariano are promoting participatory democracy initiatives through their involvement in the country’s Landless Workers Movement, commonly referred to as the MST.

Mariano, an activist in the MST, said it is Brazil’s largest social movement and one of the largest in the world. It is made up of rural workers, without land, mainly struggling for the right to access land, he said. According to Tarlau, the movement is “a global epicenter” for participatory democratic processes and can be looked to as a model for educational reform.

During his presentation, Mariano said the MST has 2,000 schools inside the settlements and camps, runs 50 centers of education formation throughout Brazil, and partners with universities because, in obtaining land, “we [the MST] are actually trying to change the entire structure on which Brazilian society is based”

Hatzfeldt, who is European Program Manager of Democracy International (a German-based non-governmental organization that has worked on 140 projects aimed at improving democracy in 70 countries) talked about one of the ways Democracy International is trying to “[obtain] participatory and direct democracies at the local and national level”: the European Citizen’s initiative.

The initiative, which Hatzfeldt said Democracy International has been working on for over a decade, allows citizens to propose a new piece of legislation after gaining, within one year, one million signature from at least seven of the 28 countries in the European Union.

“It’s really a very innovative participation tool: the only transnational direct digital participation tool that exists,” she said to the audience.Along with creating this tool, Hatzfeldt mentioned innovative measures Democracy International took was to collect signatures online. Today, 90 percent of signatures are collected online.

However, while the tool presents European citizens with an option for participating in their government, Hatzfeldt noted several problems that sometimes limit the number of participants: a lack of trust in the European Union, a lack of cohesion between countries within the union, and the uncertainty that proposed legislation will be passed.

“We have 28 different countries, different cultures of participation...[and] 20 different languages”  with no European media to report on issues at the European level. Both problems, she said, make it hard to gain enough support for initiatives that citizens are trying to propose.

The other problem, Hatzfeldt said, is that “[the Citizen’s Initiative] is not well enough integrated within the political process.  So the impact that successful initiatives that gather one million signatures have is not guaranteed.” She continued by saying that three initiatives so far had reached one million signatures, and not one of them had passed.

Melikyan, a political analyst in Armenia and owner of the radio show “Status Quo,” helped form Solidarity of Students, a movement made to fight for student rights and quality education. After forming the group and seeing how many more people were trying to make a change in their government, Melikyan also helped form the Alliance for Democracy.

Alliance for Democracy, Melikyan said, was made to create network of people from different places and different towns who all were working towards different things, but still focused on the common goal of obtaining a better democracy for Armenia.

It became a place where they had almost 15-20 non-governmental organization (NGOs) all doing different things but still focused on the same thing: democracy. With the group, he said around 500 people around Armenia observed elections and saw how these were falsified at several levels of Armenia government.

While a democratic system has been put in place, most of the country’s ideology still remains stuck in the mindset of a Soviet regime. “It was, and is still difficult, to promote ideals of democracy in a regime which doesn’t really rely on democratic principles,” Melikyan said. While the speakers faced different issues with overturning decades of authoritarian ideologies, in which citizens participation in their own government was discouraged, they all seemed to take on the determined attitude that Melikyan conveyed at the end of his speech: “We are there to fight [and] we will never give up.”

The conference, which was previously held in Canada and in Argentina, gathered 200 participants from around the world, and included 55 sessions: two keynote plenaries, 37 panels, 12 roundtables, and 4 workshops. Among participants were students, professors, researchers, practitioners, teachers, journalists, elected officials, leaders of social movements, university administrators, and coordinators of international networks, among many others. Topics of discussion ranged from the legacy of the Magna Carta to dynamics of online participation, from youth engagement to deliberative processes, and from school participatory budgeting to legal frameworks for citizen participation and democratic innovations around the world. The conference was opened by Lattie Coor, former President of Arizona State University and Chair of the Center for the Future of Arizona and by Karen Mossberger, Director of the School of Public Affairs at Arizona State University, and it was closed by Jonathan Koppell, Dean of the College of Public Service and Community Solutions.