On November 22 and 23, 2008 transform!, the group of the Communist Party in Bohemia and Moravia in the Prague City Hall the Czech Association SPED, which is a member of transform!, jointly organised a European seminar on “Participatory Democracy and Participatory Budgets in Local Governments” held in Prague. The seminar addressed the topic on a practical basis, with mayors, counsellors and politically conscientious people who are engaged in real processes currently taking place. How can it be done? How does one begin? What are the major political problems and resistance encountered? How do people respond? It is a methodological question – How? – but also a very political one, because methodology has got to do with the goals: the Why?
Participatory Democracy (PD) and more specifically Participatory Budgeting (PB) is becoming a not so uncommon practice in many European local governments.
Since the first experiences in Porto Alegre (Brazil) carried out by the Workers’ Party in the early 1990s, and well known throughout the world, a significant number of European local governments, generally with left parties in the majority, have in one way or another launched their own participatory experiences.
The general idea behind those experiences has to do with the quality of democracy at the local level and in that sense PD/PB is seen as a means to overcoming the limitations of representative democracy and strengthening the alliances between left elected governments and the people against the pressure of the state and of the more powerful social groups.
On the other hand, the lack of legitimacy, due to limited participation, of governments without such experiments is also acknowledged by mainstream bourgeois politicians and political thinkers. That is why some new so-called PD/PB experiences are being sponsored by social-liberal and even openly conservative groups. The Labour government in UK has announced the generalisation of PB throughout the country. Some CDU-led local governments in Germany are among the pioneers of PB in Europe, cynically inviting people to gather and decide collectively where the neoliberal inspired budgetary cuts should be applied.
Such diversity of aims should be looked at carefully. However, the underlying reason should be obvious: plain representative democracy is no longer a guarantee of legitimacy.
This is nothing new for the Marxist left. From the very beginnings of Marxist thinking the critique of so-called formal democracy has been part of its ideological foundation. The question is: what can we expect from PD/PB processes in terms of overcoming the limitations of formal democracy?
The experiences that are taking place can shed some light on the question. It is not only a theoretical question, but a very practical and political one: what is the role of a communist or a socialist local government in a liberal-democratic state? Is it just a bulwark to gain momentum for better times? Is it a cushion to alleviate the harshest consequences for the people of the extant general policies? Or is it a way, among others, to build strength and alliances, to learn lessons, to educate people – and the leaderships – for an alternative?
In Transform! we believe that the latter is a possibility, provided the conditions of the experience meet certain requirements. There are experiences occurring which can indicate what these conditions might be. It is possible to discern the differences between genuine democratic PD/PB processes and fake versions. The crucial criterion is sharing power with the people. And trusting the people.
Documents from the seminar debates will be published in the first half of 2009.