We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Plan 'D' for Democracy: The Path to a True Citizen's E.U.

[Comment] Debate Europe!

02.04.2008 - 15:41 CET
By Margot


EUOBSERVER / DEBATE - "Associating citizens to the European construction is more than ever a fundamental issue. If we do not want the citizens to desert once more the European elections in 2009, political leaders need to regain citizens' trust and confidence in the European project and show they care about citizens' involvement in the decision-making machine."

These are the words of 250 EU citizens in an open letter to the EU Heads of State and government, the national parliaments, the EU institutions and the European political parties after a conference in Brussels in December last year.In the same letter, they called on the European political parties to address 27 recommendations made by them, ranging from social issues to climate change and the EU's role in the world, and to discuss them in view of the elections to the European Parliament in 2009.

I attended this conference, the purpose of which was to draw conclusions from six EU-wide participatory democracy projects that the European Commission co-funded in 2006 and 2007, as a part of its 'Plan D', for democracy, dialogue and debate.Indeed, as Vice-President of the Commission I was one of the 'decision-makers' to whom the conclusions were addressed.

The Plan D projects experimented with different approaches to trans-national deliberative consultation and polling, as well as ways of organising face to face and on-line debating events and collecting feed-back from the participants.

Altogether, 40.000 randomly selected EU citizens participated in the six projects and hundreds of thousands were estimated to have participated virtually via the Internet.

Plan D confirmed for me what I already felt to be true: That when they are consulted on complex political issues citizens will not only respond but they will demand more.

It showed clearly and concretely the importance of empowering citizens by giving them access to information so that they are in a position to hold an informed debate on EU affairs. It showed that European democracy should and could be founded on an active European citizenship.

Follow-up actions to Plan D

The European Commission has now decided on the follow-up actions to Plan D. We call these next steps "Debate Europe", because we want trans-national consultation of citizens to become a permanent feature of EU democracy. With "Debate Europe" we want to change the perception that EU matters are too abstract and disconnected from the national public debate to be of interest to citizens. And we want to break the often artificial divide between national and European issues. The policies of the EU affect everyone's lives, whether through its Regulations on subjects such as mobile phone roaming charges or through the free movement of people or goods or any other of the EU's many achievements.

EU policies therefore need to be fully anchored in the political parties, in the national democratic traditions, and in the daily political dialogue. They need to be discussed and debated, whether in the town hall, in regional assemblies, national parliaments, on television shows or on the internet. Politicians have to make EU policies understandable and relevant to citizens. We have to listen and to deliver. We have to make the EU institutions accountable and reliable to those they serve. We need to debate and discuss together what initiatives and decisions the EU should take.Only then can we achieve good and sustainable political results. Public support for the EU will come only through a lively and open debate, and by getting citizens actively involved in designing the European project. And remember, the EU is not "Brussels" – it is 27 Member States with 500 million citizens, their governments and elected representatives at all levels. If politicians are serious about making change happen, then all politicians have to play their part!

The challenge

It is only by standing on the solid ground of knowledge that you can form rational opinions and take a stand.That is a necessary condition for a well functioning and stable democracy. So it automatically also becomes a necessary condition for the future of the EU and the European model: delivering prosperity while protecting the environment and preserving social justice and inclusiveness – embracing globalisation within a framework of solidarity and sustainable development that ensures the security of Europe's citizens, including future generations.

The challenge now is to act on what we hear – to ensure that citizens' views are fed into the policy-making process.The results of what the European Commission has done since it launched Plan D in October 2005 confirms that there is clear demand for measures to strengthen and expand political dialogue on European issues.

And it has been made clear that deliberative and participatory democracy can usefully supplement representative democracy. A true citizens' EU is perhaps not just around the corner, but the process has started and there is no turning back.

Margot Wallström is Vice President of the European Commission, responsible for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy

Monday, April 28, 2008

Symposium Reflection: Participatory Democracy in Venezuela

One editor of La Esquina Caliente attended the Venezuela Solidarity Symposium in Washington DC at Howard University last week. Inspired (by community councils and democratic mayors) and outraged (by US intervention), she wanted to post the following article to give our readers a general overview of the information shared at the conference. The event kept a very positive outlook regarding the success of participatory democracy in Venezuela. Each speaker emphasized the great gains that the revolution has made toward giving the people more power to control their economic and social realities but also the fragility of the movement. Much more consolidation and organization will have to happen with Venezuelans who are committed to securing their popular power, but democracy within the PSUV will also have to be considered when examining the processes. While consejos comunales represent an institutionalized relinquishment of state power to the communities, the PSUV has much responsibility in shaping popular participation within the government. The PSUV will play a large role in continuing the revolution when Chavez leaves office and must work to defend the Bolivarian Revolution from imperialist attacks while simultaneously building itself in the most participatory democratic form. For more on this specific topic, please see the Spanish-language article by Gonzalo Gomez who spoke at the recent conference: There is much hope for success, but many obstacles were also discussed at the conference. Read the article below for a great summary of the symposium and look for more posts regarding the exemplary status of participatory democracy in Venezuela. -Editor

Venezuela Solidarity Symposium

By Marc Becker


Leading academic scholars and grassroots activists gathered at historic Howard University in Washington, DC, from April 18-20 for the national symposium “What’s Up With Venezuela: Participatory Democracy or Democracy as Usual?” The meeting provided an opportunity for 200 solidarity activists from across the United States to study the revolutionary changes sweeping through Venezuela.

In 1998, Venezuelans elected Hugo Chavez as a left-populist president to lead the country. Since then, he has worked toward regional integration and against US domination of Latin America. This has placed Venezuela on a collision course with the US. “Chavez is threatening,” political scientist Steve Ellner argued, “because he shows that there are viable alternatives to neoliberalism.” In a region that seems to produce its share of bad news, Venezuela is an example of hopeful and positive change.

A principal theme that ran throughout the symposium was that the Bolivarian Revolution (so named after Venezuela’s independence leader Simon Bolivar) is not a movement built around one person. James Early, Director of Cultural Heritage Policy at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage at the Smithsonian Institution, said “Chavez is not the revolution, but a conduit for it.” Supreme Court justice Fernando Vegas explained institutional divisions of power in Venezuela to make his point that Chavez is not a dictator and does not control everything in the country.

Instead of emphasizing Chavez’s role, most of the presenters stressed the importance of constructing a participatory and protagonistic democracy to build new relations between the government and popular organizations. “Democracy is not just formal institutions,” labor leader Gonzalo Gomez with the National Union of Workers (UNT) said, “but also the mobilization of people.” Venezuela Solidarity Network organizer James Jordan argued that participatory democracy begins with organizing at the grassroots level.

While the presenters defended Chavez, they did not give him their uncritical and unqualified support. Gomez argued that much of the positive progress that has been made in Venezuela is not due to Chavez’s leadership, but from dedicated activists pushing him in a leftward direction.

Jorge Guerrero, Venezuelan Consul in New Orleans, explained the growing role of communal councils that are leading toward self government. In the future, Guerrero predicated, they would not need mayors because people will solve their own problems. Julio Chavez, the mayor of Torres, Venezuela, said that he was one of those working to realize that goal. “How can they accuse of us being authoritarian and centralist,” Chavez asked, “when we are giving power to the people?”

The communal councils are only one example of the many fundamental transformations in Venezuela. Antonio Gonzalez from the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project (SVREP) noted that Venezuela’s wedding of multi-party, participatory elections with a socialistic redistributive process is rather unique. Not only has this led to success for the Bolivarian Revolution, but hopefully it will also make it much more difficult for the United States to justify an invasion of the country.

Although there have been significant advances, there are still numerous bureaucrats from previous governments who are still in positions of power. Perhaps more dangerous are political opportunists who paint themselves as Chavistas (supporters of President Hugo Chavez), but are not ideologically committed to the Bolivarian Revolution. Increasingly, however, career diplomats and government bureaucrats are being replaced by movement activists who are committed to pushing the country toward socialism.

In addition, institutional interests can also place a break on revolutionary change. The Venezuelan Embassy’s Labor Attaché Marcos García emphasized that leftward pressure comes from people (workers) rather than institutions (labor unions) that too often become bogged down in bureaucratic concerns. Social movements are important so that the government does not sell out a revolutionary and socialist project. Gonzalo Gomez called these social movements the “motor of the revolution.”

Clara Herrera from Venezuela’s Central University observed that Chavez is just the tip of the iceberg of changes sweeping through the country as people become increasingly energized through grassroots popular movements. Omar Sierra and Jorge Guerrero from the Boston and New Orleans consulates discussed the roles of Indigenous peoples and Afro-descendants in the Bolivarian Revolution. Sierra said that changes in Venezuela are not the will of only one man, but the result of 500 years of Indigenous struggle.

Guerrero presented Chavez as a tool that embodies the hopes and aspirations of historically oppressed and excluded peoples to build a new protagonistic and participatory system. Imperialists are opposed to the Venezuelan government because it has allied with the downtrodden. This extends to international policies, as Venezuela has significantly expanded its diplomatic relations with Africa and the Caribbean. For example, students from Mali are studying textile manufacturing in Venezuela so that they can help their country gain value from cotton production rather than exporting the raw materials. These are not vertical relationships of domination, but horizontal ones built around ideas of solidarity.

Economists Adina Mercedes Bastidas and Mark Weisbrot presented data that illustrates dramatic recent economic growth in Venezuela. Chavez’s economic priorities have led to notable increases in health care, education, and employment. Weisbrot responded to an essay that Francisco Rodríguez published in Foreign Affairs that maintained that the poor have been hurt by Chavez’s policies. In a detailed analysis on the Center for Economic and Policy Research website (, Weisbrot shows how Rodríguez cherry-picked his data to reach misleading conclusions. In fact, poverty has dropped in half. Some of the current economic problems, such as a high inflation rate, are the result of long-term structural problems that cannot be turned around overnight.

Miguel Rodríguez, Vice-Minister for the Environment, discussed the challenges of attempting to improve standards of living while still preserving the environment. Venezuela is energy rich, and seeks to develop a sustainable economy. Although as a petroleum exporter gasoline is cheap, the government has emphasized public transit and produces most of its electricity from hydroelectric dams. Furthermore, the government emphasizes conservation as a way to meet peoples’ needs. “Socialism of the twenty-first century has to be ecological,” Rodríguez said, “and it also has to be materially possible.”

The US government and mainstream media, both in Venezuela and internationally, have engaged in a relentless disinformation campaign against the Bolivarian Revolution. Steve Ellner said that the hostility has little to do with Chavez’s style, but rather his economic and social policies. In Venezuela, the intransigent opposition to Chavez is based on conservative support for neoliberal policies that advocate shifting resources from the poor and marginalized and back towards the wealthy and privileged elite classes.

During the 1980s, Venezuelan governments engaged in blatant censorship of the media. Today, that does not happen, and there are more press freedoms than at any other point in the country’s history. The press remains overwhelmingly in private hands, owned by a wealthy elite deeply antagonistic to Chavez’s socialist project.

Mark Weisbrot gave Francisco Rodríguez’s essay in Foreign Affairs as one example of the constant barrage of misinformation. Without a popular media, Gonzalo Gomez said, a participatory and protagonistic democracy will not be possible. This does not happen automatically, but we need to get people accustomed to using these tools. The Venezuelan government has facilitated a move in this direction by creating spaces for community radio. “If the press is less anti-Chavez,” Olivia Burlingame Goumbri from the Venezuela Information Office contended, “it is because of growing popular support for Chavez.”

Journalist and sociologist Greg Wilpert explained how Venezuela has one of the most safe and secure voting systems in the world. Perceptions of fraud or a politicized electoral council are not based in fact. Wilpert positioned himself as a free speech advocate, and argued that the media is too important to be held in private hands that respond to corporate interests. Rather, public accountability is important to democratize the means of communication.

Attorney Eva Golinger explained how the attacks on Venezuela increased dramatically in 2005 when Condoleezza Rice was elevated to Secretary of State in the United States. The United States creates and funds a right-wing opposition in Venezuela through institutions such as the National Endowment for Democracy.

Venezuelan lawyer José Pertierrra pointed to the hypocrisy in US attempts to classify Venezuela as a state sponsor of terrorism. While there is no evidence that Venezuela sponsors or engages in terrorism, the US military is in the midst of its own torture scandals at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo. More blatant is the case of Luis Posada Carrilles who blew up a Cuban airliner with a toothpaste bomb in 1976 as it left Venezuela. Not only was Posada Carrilles a CIA operative, he also currently lives freely in the US. Refusals to extradite him to Venezuela means that the US supports terrorism.

The symposium ended with a Lobby Day, with participants taking what they learned to Congressional Representatives on Capitol Hill.

Marc Becker is a Latin American historian and a member of Community Action on Latin America (CALA), in Madison, Wisconsin. Photos from the symposium are available at

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Autonomous Communities

Autonomous communities have the potential to be experimentations in participatory democracy. As we have covered in this blog, the Zapatista movement and its fledgling movements practice forms of horizontal power structures that give everyone an opportunity to participate in decisions affecting the community. This interesting article gives past and present examples of autonomous communities without directly discussing the influence of participatory democracy. It is worth reading to learn about where participatory democracy has the potential to flourish, just as it is worth reading our posts about intentional communities, urban democracy, and base communities. - Editor

Autonomous Communities

by dave onion


The aspiration for autonomy is above all the struggle against political and moral alienation from life and work - against the functionalization of outside interests, against the internalization of the morals of our foes. This aspiration is concretized when houses are squatted to live humanely or not to have to pay high rents, when workers call in sick in order to party because they can’t take the alienation at work, when unemployed people plunder supermarkets because they don’t agree with absurd demands of unions for more jobs that only integrate people into oppression and exploitation. Everywhere that people begin to sabotage, to change the political, moral and technical structures of domination is a step toward a self-determined life.

- from a 1983 meeting of Autonomen in Hamburg.

Back in the day, LAVA, the space where defenestrator keeps its office chose to call itself the Lancaster AVenue Autonomous space. At the time the name LAVA and the autonomous label seemed like a good fit. To some of us it contained enough meaning to show our general political motivations, while being inclusive enough to allow for a pretty wide spectrum of voices and ways. But after having to explain the meaning of that word over and over again to people who’ve come in to visit the space, it became apparent that even many who were members of the groups using the space probably couldn’t explain why we were called that or where our name even came from. So it seemed like we needed to maybe revisit what that second A in LAVA was all about. Autonomy as a movement seems to first have developed out of study groups inside of the the Italian labour movement. Groups like Potere Operaio (Workers’ Power), Lotta Continua (the Struggle Continues) and later Autonomia Operaia (Workers’ Autonomy) began challenging the role labor unions and political parties had in revolutionary struggle, rejecting some of the institutional and hierarchical Communist ideas at the time in favor of a horizontal, radically democratic form of struggle. Before long this translated into combative worker run organizations in car factories and subsequent wildcat strikes outside of union control. Their ideas often directly clashed with the Leninist dominated paths many anti-capitalist radicals were taking at the time.

These groups and the larger social movement from which they sprang became loosely known as Autonomia (or Autonomy in English). Theoretically, these autonomous thinkers also dug much deeper than many others on the left. Autonomous groups that began in factories looked at the dehumanizing aspects of commodity society and work itself. Essentially, what made up autonomous politics was a rejection of capitalist logic (like working for wages, private property etc.) and a rejection of hierarchical institutions including those on the left. The bulk of politics developed out of lived experience and experiments in how to live outside of and fight powers of capitalism. Folks began attacking ideas of private property and waged work itself, which eventually inspired takeovers of abandoned buildings in Italy’s big cities - both for living spaces and to create spaces where autonomous politics and ways of being could flourish.And flourish they did. Squatted social centers popped up across Italy, and then the rest of Europe, transforming abandoned industrial spaces and housing into vibrant rebel social centers. Between 1969 and 1975 some 20000 buildings were squatted in Italy as part of this movement. Just after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, squatters who had already been active in the West took over hundreds of abandoned buildings on the East Side, also creating free social spaces by the hundreds. Evictions and attacks on the squats were met with riots and attacks on capital, targets including supermarkets, shopping centers, offices of developers and speculators, and always police. Across Western Europe, the politics in these spaces usually spelled out a distinct alternative to the Cold War binary politics that were prevalent. In most of these spaces decisions and work are carried out explicitly without bosses or leaders. In the mainstream media across Europe, Autonomy was often smeared as violent or sometimes terroristic. Squatters often took on police in street battles defending houses from eviction, or defending themselves from police attacks during demonstrations. Guerilla struggles in the global south were definitely an influence tactically at least, but the autonomous riots, defense of spaces, and attacks against capitalist institutions using weapons like molotov cocktails and rocks though hardly non-violent were always a far cry from the armed struggles of the day. And even the armed actions of the left never could compare to the violence of the state whether in the form of police repression or the economic devastation that it feeds off.Autonomy isn’t by any means a European phenomenon.

Shortly after the EZLN (Zapatista Army for Nation Liberation) an army of mostly poor indigenous Mexicans, took over San Cristobal, Chiapas’ City Hall in 1994, the declarations and work which followed the initial government massacres in the South of Mexico had a distinctly different quality. As some of the most influential Latin American guerilla movements were well on their way out, the Zapatistas were talking about horizontal structures, production collectives, autonomous education and seized large swaths of hoarded land from landowners. Though identifying as autonomous, the bulk of Zapatista ideas were not eurocentric but had roots in indigenous “ways and customs”: forms of direct democracy which had been integral to Mayan life for centuries predating any European contact. And immediacy is important here too. Along with demands for Indigenous Rights from the government, from the start the rebel communities re-organized their lives to be revolutionary and egalitarian and continue to do so. Co-operative farming and other economic work have been a big part of the work as has taking back the political space where these transformations could happen. The uprising in southern Mexico helped reinvigorate and enrich movements around the world. Notably, a couple years after the uprising, the Zapatistas hosted the “National Democratic Convention” (or CND), a gathering of thousands of organizers and organizations from across the left, to gather ideas on how to move forward. Out of the CND was born, among other projects, “People’s Global Action”, a global co-ordination of radical social movements, grassroots campaigns and direct actions. It was the PGA who put out the initial calls for the global days of action that reinvigorated the North American anti-capitalist movement, notably in November of 99 when massive direct actions disrupted World Trade Organization meetings in Seattle and gave strength and inspiration to anti-capitalist struggles around the world.If the more recent uprising and subsequent repression in Oaxaca seemed influenced by the Zapatistas one state over, it’s because it was. The Oaxacan People’s Popular Assembly (APPO) also pulled direct action, grassroots direct democracy and rejection of political parties to the center of their struggle. Like the Zapatistas, the Oaxacan struggles also had a strong internal indigenous element informing it politics from the beginning.

Further south, we find active autonomous groups in Venezuelan shanty towns around Caracas, thousands of families claiming land and the political space that comes along with it across Brazil, in Argentina’s occupied factories, unemployed workers groups and neighborhood assemblies. In India groups like the Karnataka State Farmers Association who have destroyed genetically modified crops and the Narmada Bachao Andolan who’ve resisted dams being built on their land are just a few more examples of such movements. Theoretically, autonomy has often been expressed as a healthy mix of anarchism and marxism, drawing the best from each, ditching authoritarian or dogmatic strains , but learning mostly from applying an anti-capitalist desire for freedom to life directly. And though the learning experiences that have come from squatting, the social centers, building non-capitalist alternative economies and from direct actions of various scopes have been a tremendous learning experience stretching over decades, autonomy has also had some thinkers who’ve shaken up radical theory. Toni Negri took on the rigid communist parties of Italy and, together with Michael Hardt, shook up discussions on class and globalization over the last few years. Sylvia Frederici of the Midnight Notes Collective has shared invaluable insights into women’s unacknowledged exploitation by capitalism. The EZLN’s Subcommander Marcos and his sidekick the beetle Durito brought indigenous democracy into the foreground of rebel movements around the world. The discussions in papers, on the internet and in our movements has never been less static.And in the spirit of things not static a small group has been discussing autonomous ideas at LAVA in West Philly. A discussion on autonomous communities at LAVA began what will hopefully become a series of rich and fruitful exchanges. Keep your eyes peeled for future get togethers!

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Switzerland: A Model Democracy

The following recent article dispels some of the myths about Switzerland, and highlights it's longstanding tradition of direct democracy. - Editor

A Model Democracy

By not joining the EU and by standing up to the US, Switzerland has been able to follow its own successful path. We could learn a lot

By Neil Clark

March 31, 2008 1:00 PM


It's a country where both of its leading supermarkets are cooperatives inspired by leftwing philosophy. The state-owned postal service runs the buses, which connect even the most remote village- in this country public transport is still run as a public service. It hasn't been involved in a war for almost 200 years and is easily the most democratic country in Europe - with the regular use of referendums. It has taken a strong line on climate change: in the most recent general election the Greens polled almost 10%. And its unofficial national motto is "One for all, all for one". Yet, the country in question is one that progressives often sneer at- and label reactionary.

I'm talking of Switzerland, which, though it lies at the heart of Europe, is one of continent's countries about which there is most ignorance.

The first myth about Switzerland is that it operates an ultra-capitalist, dogmatically free-market economic system.

Although much of the economy is in private hands, if there is a conflict of interest in Switzerland between community and capital, community always comes first. Agriculture is highly protected - receiving twice the amount of subsidy than the EU average. Swiss Federal Railways in still in public ownership. Most shops close on Saturday afternoons and all day on Sunday. In Switzerland, unlike Britain, there are still areas where commerce is not allowed to go.

A second myth is that Switzerland is a boringly bourgeois and ultra-sanitised place where no self-respecting radical would feel at home. What surprises many who visit for the first time is the country's gritty and decidedly retro feel. Switzerland is dated - but in the best possible way. You can still smoke in wonderfully atmospheric railway station restaurant/cafes (I can heartily recommend the one at
Thun) - and imagine it's still 1968. For someone coming from Britain, Swiss streets have a refreshingly un-globalised look. Away from the biggest cities, big international fast food and coffee shop chains, which have made British high streets such bland, uniform places, are conspicuous by their absence. Swiss cities still have a bohemian feel: there is a thriving cultural and artistic scene.

Another myth about Switzerland is that its people are narrow-minded xenophobes. The racist anti-immigration
election poster of the Swiss People's party (SVP), which showed three white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag, quite rightly led to condemnation from around the world. But less well publicised were the protests the poster sparked in Switzerland and the gains made in last year's election by the unequivocally anti-racist Green party.

Switzerland's model of direct democracy is one the left should study extremely closely. Swiss citizens may challenge a law that has been passed by parliament if they can gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days. In addition, citizens can put a constitutional amendment to a national vote, provided they get 100,000 voters to sign the proposed amendment within 18 months. Binding referendums also take place at cantonal and local level.

It's no coincidence that
George Lansbury, the most socialist of all British Labour party leaders, spoke favourably of the Swiss model-and called for a similar system to be introduced in Britain.

Switzerland's commitment to democracy runs deep and explains the reluctance to hand over decision-making power to unelected bureaucrats in Brussels. By maintaining its independence, Switzerland is able to follow its own path, and not be dictated to by those who act as if they rule the world. Despite warnings from the US embassy in Bern, Switzerland's energy trading company EGL earlier this month signed a 25-year-old natural gas contract with the state-owned National Iranian Gas Export Company. The Swiss president and foreign minister, Micheline Calmy-Rey, defended the deal, saying, "Switzerland is an independent country that has its own strategic interests to defend". If only other European nations could show such spirit when dealing with US bullying.

Forget the jibes about cuckoo clocks and the gnomes of Zurich: Switzerland has a lot more going for it from a progressive viewpoint than many on the left realise.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

South Africa: Ward Committees

The following article gives an overview of the South African efforts at increasing participatory democracy by the creation of ward committees as mandated by the constitution, including a discussion of the difficulties encountered in implementing the plan. - Editor

Crafting Active Citizen Participation Through Ward

International NGO Journal Vol. 1 (3), pp. 044-046, December 2006

Available online at http://

By Dumisani Nyalunga


The new government has provided for a legal framework that necessitates the establishment and institutionalization of ward committees as vehicles to entrench participatory governance at the grass root level. According to Roger Southall (2004)(1), ‘participatory democracy entails a high level of public participation in the political process through a wide variety of institutional channels’. Indeed, participatory democracy can only come into being when ordinary men and women, young and old are afforded an opportunity to actively and meaningfully contribute to their own development and well being.

The purpose of this paper is two fold: firstly, it seeks to highlight the importance of ward committees as engines to impel public participation. Secondly, to draw reader’s attention to some of the key impediments faced by the institution of ward committees in term of achieving the foregoing. It is thus imperative that we do not despise other alternative forms of participation. The argument is that ward committees can only become effective and efficient vehicles for engaging communities in municipal decision-making when complement by other pragmatic
mechanisms of participation.

The Constitution of South Africa

The Constitution creates space for public participation in local governance through specific mechanisms such as Ward Committees and Integrated Development Planning and demand that local government promotes public participation (2) (2004). Chapter 6 of the South African Constitution (Act 108 of 1996) denotes that Ward Committees and their members can participate in local government in the following ways:

  • Assessing and approving the budget
  • Planning and developing the Integrated Development Plan
  • Ward committees should work closely with councillors and other community organizations to identify priority needs and make sure these needs are included in the budget proposals and plans.
Section 152 of the South African Constitution requires of a local authority to encourage the involvement of communities and community organizations in matters of local government’(3) The Municipal Structures Act of 1998 is also unequivocal and requires Local Governments to establish ward committees. In terms of the Act the object of ward committees is to enhance participatory democracy at the local level.

The role of Ward Committees

The demise of the notorious apartheid government saw the dawn of a new system of local government that provided for ward committees to be established by all municipalities across the country. The new government recognized the need for a structure that is closest to the people at the grass root level and representative of the people and aspiration of the community. The role of ward committees is to make sure that the electorate directly participate and partake in decisions made by council. They should be part and parcel of the processes and structures that affects their lives as ordinary citizens. The ward committees should be set up in a way that it can reach most sectors and areas in the ward.

The ward committees’ main tasks are to communicate and consult with the community in respect of development and service plans. It has, however, no formal powers to force the council to do anything. Ward committees should keep their electorates informed of decisions, progress reports’ (4). There are various ways of keeping citizens informed including radio, newspapers and regular public meetings.

The duties and responsibilities of ward committees

This information has been extracted from the DDP training manual on ward committees. The resource manual has been compiled by the Democracy Development Program, Institute for Multi-Party Democracy, Centre for Public Participation and Community Law and Rural Development Centre.

 Ward committees serves as massagers between the community and the council. Similarly ward committee provide communities with an space to lodge or express their views and complaints

 Ward committees also have the responsibility to identify and utilize the skills and resources that exist within communities or group. It is important for them to have a good understanding of what is available in their communities (in terms of finance, expertise, skills, new materials, community facilities, volunteers/ labour and resources)

 Ward committees need to play a role of providing support for the people/groups involved in community structures and activities. This involves affirming people, recognizing and acknowledging the value of their contributions, giving encouragement, being available for people when they need to talk or ask questions.

 A ward committee should also be a strategic mobilizing agent for both the municipality and the community in the planning and implementation of programmes. They can also play an important role in mobilizing partnerships for the development of local projects.

 Ward committees have the role of interacting with external role players on behalf of or for the benefit of their local communities or constituency.

 Networking the ward committee should establish relationships with a variety of people or organizations and be in a position to usethem to effect and facilitate change in their local communities.

 The ward committee could also influence decision through lobbying and persuasion

 Disseminate relevant information pertaining to municipal processes, decisions taken and projects

How effective are Ward Committees?

Ward committees however, are largely perceived as ineffective in advancing citizen participation at the local government level. Their inefficiency is caused by among other things, lack of capacity and incentives to persuade them to work whole heartedly towards the betterment of their constituencies. Janine Hicks(5) argues that whilst ward committees are a key component of community based involvement, many municipalities still do not have formal or functional ward committees in place. She further reiterates that in municipalities where ward committees are operational, these are marked by uncertainty and in some instances, chaos. This largely stems from the fact that there appears to be no clear cut understanding of the role that ward committees are supposed to perform. Community members have certain expectations of what they expect of their ward committee representatives, yet councillors have different expectations. Furthermore, as Janine argues there is no clarity on the roles of ward councillors as opposed to proportional representation (PR) councillors, there are tensions between ward committees members and ward councillors, and limited resources available to enable ward committees to function better and improve efficiency. This is perhaps the most widespread challenge facing ward committees in their quest to involve communities in matters of local government. The lack of understanding of roles leads to a greater ill perceptions and misconceptions about the performance of ward committees and other local government stakeholders in general. This gap should thus be an entry point for some form of awareness and capacity building intervention.


Alternative forms of participation

It should be acknowledged therefore that ward committees on their own do not appear to be the only absolute answer or remedy to promote and facilitate community involvement in decision making at the local government level. Besides, the functions of ward committees have been restricted mainly to make recommendations to the ward councillor or through the councillor of the metro.

It is imperative that we encourage and do not preclude other forms of public participation, such as “Imbizos”, sector forums created by Civil Society Organisations and Community Development Workers (CDW) - structures created to assist and facilitate community development. IDP forums are critically important. Different forms of participation must be acknowledged and valued. The processes of community participation must be all inclusive and should accommodate a wide range of role players. Similarly, strategies to improve active citizen participation should take cognizance of the broader transformation programme of government, such as poverty alleviation, including issues of underdevelopment, economic growth and job creation.


1 Roger Southall is the Executive Director, Democracy and Governance, Human Science Research Council. In Critical- Public Participation in Review. Volume 1 no. 1 2004
2 N. Bezuidenhout and B. Mautjane- Civil society Participation in Local Governance. Article available on IDASA website
3 Constitution of the Republic of South Africa (1996)
4 Quote taken from Paralegal Advice. Article entitled ‘Democracy and Public Participation’. Nyalunga 045
5 Janine Hicks (2006)‘Assessing the effectiveness of community participation based involvement, in Critical Dialogue, Public Participation Review. Volume 2 No. 1 2006 Int. NGO. J. 046

Friday, April 18, 2008

Mexico: The Basics of Zapatista Participatory Democracy

The following article, although a bit dated provides an overview of the participatory system of government insituted in Zapatista villages in Chiapas. - Editor

The Zapatistas, Anarchism and 'Direct Democracy'

by Andrew N. Flood

Published in Anarcho-Syndicalist Review, #27 Winter 1999

The Zapatista rebellion of 1994 has become the 90's equivalent of the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions. It has excited the imagination of a layer of active young. The balaclava and pipe toting Marcos is becoming the same sort of visual icon that the bearded and beret wearing Ché was 30 years earlier. And perhaps it is this similarity that has scared the organised anarchist movement into comparative silence on the on-going rebellion in Chiapas?

In Chiapas today we see an on-going Low Intensity War. On one side we have the Mexican state, 60 to 70,000 occupying soldiers and the shadowy presence of US advisors. On the other we have a rebel army calling itself the EZLN and over hundreds of rebel communities.

This could be a snapshot of any number of similar struggles. Why should anarchists single out the Zapatistas for solidarity. The Zapatistas are not and make no claim to be anarchists. The educated leadership of the Zapatistas have their political backgrounds in Marxism. The local leadership's political education is more likely to be from liberation theology and the practical experience of campesino and indigenous organisations.

The military organisation of the Zapatistas is also not one that anarchists would prefer. The army is heierical. But the army is not the decision making centre of the movement like it would be in a Marxist vanguard organisation.

The Zapatista army hasn't used its weapons since the uprising in 1994. Some of its supporters elsewhere may fetishise the guns but on the ground in Chiapas they are seen as a way for people to defend themselves against the organised violence of the Mexican state. What the Zapatista movement has been about since 1994 is the construction of a system of direct democracy.
These structures are what should be of primary importance to anarchists in determing how we relate to the Zapatistas. They form an organisational and decision making network involving hundreds of thousands of people. There are 32 rebel municipalities, each one with 50 to over 100 communities. More then 500,000 people live as part of this decision making network. There are five language groups - these along with high mountains, jungle and bad roads make any form of libertarian organisation difficult. Yet this is exactly what the Zapatistas appear to have constructed.
There are extensive interviews with the main spokesperson of the EZLN, Subcommadante Marcos, which describe the decision-making structure and how it evolved (1). However anarchists should be sceptical about taking the word of the apparent military leader of any rebel group alone - even as in this case where it appears it may be accurate.

Village assemblies

The areas the Zapatistas openly organise in are rural and extremely poor. Small communities of a dozen to over 100 families are typical, forced to live off the land without the benefit of modern agricultural machinery. Some of the men will have worked outside the village in local towns or even as far as the USA but in the villages themselves the only political presence tends to come from the Catholic church's local variety of 'liberation theology' and the EZLN itself.

Prior to the rebellion many communities did not have sufficient fertile land and so the people had to work, often in atrocious conditions, for local landowners. With the rebellion the landowners fled and in many cases their abandoned land was taken over and sometimes used to establish new communities. In describing the structures of decision making at the community level I am drawing on my own experience in the community of Diez de Abril and on interviews with other people from the Irish peace camp (2) there in the years from 1996 to 1999. (3)

Diez de Abril is a new community founded on land seized in 1995. Those who moved onto the land had worked it before the rebellion. They met in assembly on the land before the take over, decided how to divide up the land and decided to call the new community 'Diez de Abril' after the day (10th April 1919) when Zapata was assassinated.

The routine weekly assembly happens after or even as part of mass on Sunday. It is open to all to attend and all over 12 have speaking and voting rights although votes are very rare. This meeting can go on for hours and typically resolves practical questions concerning work in the community or expenditure of community funds. One long running debate was whether to buy a tractor or a truck. There may be other assemblies if needed during the week.

The assembly elects delegates called 'responsibles' to co-ordinate work in particular areas. These delegates serve a limited term (one to two years) and are subject to re-call within this time if it's felt they are not 'leading by obeying' (i.e. the Zapatista slogan for following the mandate given to them).
There are also collectives that carry out particular tasks within the community. They are set up by and answerable to the assembly but are otherwise autonomous. Collectives in Diez include ones for coffee, cattle honey, horticulture, bread, sewing and chicken. Some of the production of each collective goes to its members; the surplus goes into a central community fund controlled by the assembly.

Our direct experience of Diez de Abril contradicts the claim that visits to the rebel zone are somehow controlled so that "On a well-signed route, people have to agree to see only what they have to see and to believe in the leader's words"(4). Issues of security of course determine that there are meetings we don't attend but our presence over three year's means little happens that we are unaware of.

When we move from local organisation to statewide organisation I can no longer rely on personal observation or the accounts of people known and trusted by me. I've talked to enough observers and radical journalists though to know that although Diez may be one of the more politically advanced communities the structures are broadly typical of other communities. However to throw light on regional organisation I'm relying on reports from journalists, NGO's and interviews with individual Zapatistas.


The 'Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee' (CCRI) is the body that actually commands the army. This body (or indeed bodies as there are also regional CCRI's) is composed of delegates from the communities. It is not in itself a military structure.

Regionally it is capable of making decisions that affect individual communities. For instance when one community in the region of Morelia wanted to occupy land shortly after the rebellion "the local Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee, (CCRI) ordered locals to wait, expecting a region-wide land settlement after the 1994 dialogue"(5).

This in itself is not necessarily a problem if the CCRI is a genuine delegate body. In many revolutionary situations it makes sense to hold back militant sections in case premature action results in the suppression of the movement. In this case I'd probably have disagreed with the decision but the question is how it was made and who made it. The people of the region or some unaccountable body acting in their name?

A month after the rising the Mexican liberal paper 'La Jornada' which extensively covers the Zapatistas interviewed some members of the CCRI. One called Isacc explained the accountability of the CCRI :

"If the people say that a companero who is a member of the CCRI is not doing anything, that we are not respecting the people or are not doing what the people say, then the people say that they want to remove us ...

In that way, if some member of the CCRI does not do their work, if they do not respect the people, well compa, it is not your place to be there. Then, well, excuse us but we will have to put another in your place"(6)
The Consulta

Even still the CCRI does not have the power to make major decisions, such as peace or war. These must instead be made through a 'consulta' - crudely a referendum but one where intense discussions in each community is as central to the process as the vote itself. These take months and have been a great source of annoyance to the Mexican government, which always wants an answer to its proposals on the spot or within days.

One EZLN communiqué explained the consulta process as follows:

"The consultations took place in every community and ejido where there are members of the EZLN.

The study, analysis, and discussion of the peace accords took place in democratic assemblies.

The voting was direct, free, and democratic.

After the voting, official reports of the results of the assemblies were prepared. These reports specify: the date and place of the assembly, the number of people who attended (men, women and children older than 12 years old), opinions and principal points discussed, and the number of people who voted."(7)

This broadly ties into what observers who have seen consultas take place tell me. It was such a consulta that decided that the 1994 rising should go ahead, a year before Marcos and the army command considered they were ready. Consultas since have decided to enter into talks with the government, to accept the San Andres agreement and later to break off talks until the government implemented what had already been agreed.

The councils

These regional structures are designed to make the big decisions, the questions of war or peace etc. However obviously state wide meetings are far too unwieldy to settle smaller questions. The rebellion has also meant Zapatista communities refusing all contact with the Mexican state - right down to refusing to register births and deaths.

The practical problem thrown up by the need for inter community co-ordination saw the formation of regional councils. These are known as autonomous municipalities. 100 communities for instance make up the autonomous municipality named after the Mexican anarchist Ricardo Flores Magon. Tierra y Libertad, on the border with Guatemala contains a total of 120 communities.(8)

"Within the newly created municipal structures, the communities name their authorities, community teachers, local health promoters, indigenous parliaments, and elaborate their own laws based on social, economic, political and gender equality among the inhabitants of diverse ethnic communities."(9)

A Mexican NGO in detailing the government's attempts to smash these communities explains how they function:

"The communities of an indigenous zone or area are the ones who decide, at an assembly of all their members, whether or not they will belong to the autonomous municipality ... It is the communities who elect their representatives for the Autonomous Municipal Council, which is the authority for the municipality. Each representative is chosen for one area of administration within the autonomous municipality, and they may be removed if they do not fully comply with the communities' mandates ... Those who hold a position on the Municipal Council do not receive a salary for it, although their expenses should be paid by the same communities who request their presence, through co-operation among the members. In some cases, members of the Council are supported in their farm work, so they can dedicate themselves to their [Council] work, and not have to go the fields."(10)

These structures are obviously ones compatible with anarchism or indeed revolutionary syndicalism. They key checks of mandate and recall are there. The fact that these structures are not consciously anarchist but arise from a blend of indigenous practice, Marxism and Liberation Theology should not prevent us standing in solidarity with them.

More importantly, whatever their origins they offer a current model of some of what we talk about in practise. Chiapas is isolated and extremely poor, the fact that libertarian structures can flourish in such harsh conditions in the midst of a Low Intensity war can only demonstrate how valid they are.
Unfortunately there is not enough room here to go on to discuss the politics of the EZLN in any detail. But in many ways these are a secondary matter. For the community assemblies and the councils to survive they need our continued support. But centrally the question remains - how do we convince workers in our part(s) of the world that such structures are a viable alternative to top down parties.


1 See for English translations of many of these
2 For letters from observers, pictures and other information about Diez see
3 This section summarises extensive notes I took. For other articles making use of these see
4 Behind the Balaclavas of South-East Mexico, Sylvie Deneuve, Charles Reeve, Paris, August 1995 ,
5 Making Zapatismo irreversible, Michael McCaughan, 20-8-96,
6 First interview with EZLN CCRI-CG, La Jornada, 2/4/94 & 2/5/94, Blanche Petrich and Elio Henri'quez,
7 How the consultations with the communities was done, CCRI, La Jornada, June 3,1994,
8 Tierra y Libertad, One Year Later, Luis Fernando Menendez Medina (Human Rights defender and prisoner in Cerro Hueco),
9 The EZLN and Indigenous Autonomous Municipalities
by Mariana Mora - Apr 1998,
10 Enlace Civil, A.C., Autonomous Municipalities:The resistance of the indigenous communities in response to the war in Chiapas, Nov. 1988,

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

NEPAL: Calls for Participatory Democracy

This very insightful article reveals the consequences that constituent assemblies within Nepal will have on that country and those around it. The success of democratic participation in Nepal would provide inspiration to other South Asian countries where ethnic representation and dissenting views have been oppressed. This article shows the way that diverse people are connected in the struggle for a voice in the governing processes around the world and that in this struggle we are all connected by inspiration and hope for the future. -Editor

Nepal’s Democracy Facing Acid Test

In a comparative perspective, the democratic process in Nepal could be considered as taking an ideal course. Following years of bloody rebellion and internal dissidence a widely inclusive political process is finally taking hold in the country and the initial steps geared at framing a new constitution are being taken through the conduct of constitutional assembly polls.

This is as it should be, democratic opinion in South Asia is likely to proclaim, along with other sections which favour peaceful power transitions. Getting all dissidents, armed or otherwise, into a negotiatory or political process and integrating them into peaceful power transitions is the ideal path to conflict-resolution. This approach, democratic opinion the world over has come to accept and is widely looked upon as the civilized way of political problem-solving. All praise to Nepal for attempting what would seem to be the impossible for quite a few states in this region. Following India’s exemplary constituent assembly exercise decades ago which resulted in the installation of what may be described as South Asia’s most successful democracy, Nepal’s current effort at implementing a constituent assembly approach to bringing into being a new democratic order may be seen as another memorable moment in South Asia’s faltering democratic experience.

What about Sri Lanka’s 1972 Republican Constitution which had its birth in what is seen as a constituent assembly? This question is bound to be raised by some local sections but the problem with Sri Lanka’s constituent assembly process was that it did not meet the standard of inclusiveness on account of it lacking full Tamil participation. Consequently, the process opened itself to the charge of not sufficiently including significant sections of local opinion. If the Lankan process proved fully participatory, some of the convulsions in local politics would perhaps have never occurred. This, however, is a subject by itself and is beyond the scope of this commentary.

Right now, it is Nepal which is in the limelight and very rightly so for the bold steps taken by it to usher in a truly participatory democracy. The path ahead could not be expected to be entirely trouble-free for this poverty-hit, socially-segmented state of South Asia but its republican birth pangs are bound to be highly instructive for the rest of the region, inclusive of, of course, Sri Lanka.

If Nepal’s Maoist rebels with demands of power-sharing were to be considered the sole poser for the somewhat politically conservative Nepali Congress-dominated government, Nepal’s lot could not be considered to be too arduous. For, the Maoist rebels have been both a prominent and convulsive player in politics whose concerns have finally won mention in the state’s plans for national reconstruction .The same could not be said of the country’s multitude of ‘ethnic’ groups, the majority of whom have been wilting in poverty and backwardness over the decades with hardly any voice or political representation. The depressed Madhesis who are now articulating some of their demands is only one such ‘ethnic’ group whose voice has gone unheard. Suffice it to know that the Nepali polity is segmented by tribal, caste and religious groups who have been languishing on the social margins from times immemorial. The fact that they are not identifying themselves with the Left or the Maoists is proof that ‘ethnicity’ is transcending class as a basis for the articulation of grievances. If this is so, the Left has to ask itself whether its mobilization efforts have failed. Is it sending out the correct appeals?

A general notion of the segmented nature of the Nepalese polity could be obtained by considering only its ‘ethnic’ and caste composition. In 2001 it was estimated, for example, that the dominant caste or the Caste Hill Hindu Elite Males (CHHEM) constituted 30.89% of Nepal’s population. The other main social groups and their corresponding percentages were as follows: Indigenous Nationalities: 36.31%, Dalits: 14.99%, Madhesis 16.59%, Muslims 4.27%. Thus far it has been the CHHEM which has proved the predominant socio-economic group – the section to wield most political power. The challenge before the constitution-makers would be to ensure that substantial power is enjoyed by all the social groups.

A principal demand of the Maoists has been the abolition of the Nepalese monarchy. While this demand is in keeping with republican ideals, a more vital task would be the sufficient empowerment of the country’s deprived sections. This is a principal responsibility of the Maoists, since their main power base has been the poor. The Maoists would need to champion their cause or enable their voices to be heard in the constitution-making forum.

A sticking point for the government is the Maoist demand that its fighters be absorbed into the state security forces. This poses a risk for the hitherto ruling conservative sections’ grip on power because the possibility of a future power grab by the Maoists would not be ruled out by them in the event of this absorption taking place. Accordingly, another challenge for the main political actors would be to not only share power but to bring into being the necessary constitutional checks and balances which would ensure the continuation of the agreed constitutional order.

There is still a long way to go before it could be declared that Nepal is on a safe course towards political normalization. However, it could not be denied that ground-breaking changes are afoot. Nepal’s endeavours in power-sharing and democratization would prove highly instructive from the point of view of the rest of South Asia.

Malaysia: Ready for a Bolivarian Revolution of it's Own?

The following article speculates as to whether the rise of the opposition in Malaysia should lead to a more progressive economic policy reform using participatory Latin American models rather than the current capitalist one. - Editor

Malaysia's Progress


Tuesday, 25 March 2008

Following the stunning resurgence of the opposition alignment at the recent Malaysian general election and with a global recession looming, John Hilley says there is a need for a radical set of policy debates within the broad opposition to look into how economic policy can be made to serve people rather than capitalists. And, more critically, how to challenge the dominant agencies of capitalism which set the terms of economic and social policy.

Following the stunning resurgence of the opposition alignment at the recent Malaysian general election comes the now more sobering business of how it prepares for the next decisive challenge: unseating the BN and taking the country in a, hopefully, more progressive direction.

The words "sobering business" call to mind the post-revelry 'Monday morning' problems any proto-progressive government has in keeping the barons of industry and finance reassured while trying to launch a model of socio-economic 'development' that puts people, rather than market-makers, first.

The standard 'answer' to this dilemma is usually some variation on the liberal market; a social democratic view of markets as the driving force for inward investment, increased growth, international competitiveness and 'derived social benefits'. It may even come with rejectionist caveats on extreme neoliberalism.

But, does this really constitute a decisive alternative? Even with a relative re-emphasis on the role of SMIs and domestic, rather than international, capital, does this takes us, in any qualitative sense, beyond the 'business as usual' format?

Anwar Ibrahim deserves credit - much credit - for his decisive part in pulling this coalition together. A not inconsiderable feat when we take account of past opposition enmities and, of course, the BN network's ready ability to encourage and exploit them.

There is, of course, Anwar's culpable UMNO/BN past. Yet, though part of a government which deployed the ISA and other instruments of state oppression, we must accept the possibility of one's political development, even enlightenment, particularly if that comes with some measure of humble acknowledgement and atonement. A key test here has been whether Anwar has sought re-entry to the UMNO fold. That hasn't happened. Nor does it now seem likely, even if he is courting elements of the BN to 'change sides'.

Chandra Muzaffar's pre-election attack on Anwar said more about his own misplaced politics and failure to unite behind the people than about Anwar's apparent unsuitability for office. A 'veteran' such as Chandra would certainly have understood the ways in which his denunciation of Anwar days before the polls would have been read - and, again, gleefully exploited by the BN and its media cohorts.

Yet, this all rather obfuscates the more structural issues at stake here. Beyond the personality politics, the more challenging question is whether Malaysia can pursue a model of development, even on a transitional basis, not slavishly based on market-driven policies.

In this regard,
Anwar has:

"pledged to defend and promote [a] free-market economy, foreign investment and continue the development process. But he emphasised that progress and wealth will now benefit the poor of all races, not the rich and ruling elite. "We are confident that under our leadership and working closely with our partners (in the opposition) we will begin to implement policies to ensure a stronger and more vibrant economy in Malaysia," he said.

We will ensure that investor confidence remains strong during the transition period and also to identify areas of concern that our new governments (state governments) will address in enhancing and improving their operations and performance in Malaysia," he said." Prudent words. But, does this 'balance', in practice, weigh towards market interests or people interests? Again, we hear the stock - or, perhaps, stock market - answer: it benefits both. It's a seemingly solid argument for financial and economic stability - a gathering concern given the prospect of a US banking crisis and global financial meltdown - coupled with the promise of sound investment, new jobs and economic rewards for all.

Yet, haven't we been here before? If Malaysia, as elsewhere, feels the knock-on effects of the global credit crunch and looming recession, which agencies will be calling the 'remedial' shots? Most likely, the Wall Street/IMF elite. As usual. Which begs the question: how differently would a non-BN administration handle such a crisis? Indeed, what kind of alternative model to the 'Washington consensus' might any new government pursue in an effort to offset that dependency?

Anwar's own US-sided associations and past leanings towards the 'consensus' are well documented. Again, this, in itself, does not invalidate Anwar as a key figure in the politics of reform. But it does signal the need for a radical set of policy debates within the broad opposition as to how this 'balance' can be made to serve people rather than capitalists. And, more critically, how to challenge those dominant agencies of capitalism which set the terms of economic and social policy. This is an issue which reaches well beyond Anwar and the politics of leadership. It's a central question for the whole movement over whether, and how, it seeks a more imaginative agenda.

It's a question, for example, in Penang where people have demonstrated their rejection of free-market development projects like the Penang Global City Centre (PGCC).

It's a question in Perak, one of the new non-BN ruled states, as in how PAS and its parliamentary partners can work together - hopefully eschewing racial politics - in forging domestic policies which are people friendly rather than market friendly.

In short, it's a question of cultivating a real, serious alternative to prevailing market hegemony.

With five states now under opposition control, there's never been a more opportune time to develop such strategies at the localised level. Meaningful change doesn't happen overnight. It has to be worked through, in practical, demonstrative ways and seen to be effective by those who stand to benefit: the people. Communal politics, socially-led policies and participatory democracy initiated at the devolved level can all serve to build a new progressive politics at the national level. A bottom-up model motivated by social need rather than the top-down 'imperatives' demanded by political and market elites.

Lessons from the barrios?

Malaysia may not be about to embark on a Venezuelan-style model of Bolivarian, community-driven reform. Yet, why should Malaysians be held hostage to the same old dictat of 'market delivery'? Why shouldn't they desire and pursue qualitative freedoms that don't depend on market efficiencies and ruthless competitiveness?

Human rights don't only come at the ballot box. Health, social security, cultural fulfilment - these are also human rights. Rights that our friendly marketeers would have us believe can only be achieved through privatisation, deregulation and other 'market freedoms', the encroaching privatisation of the Malaysian health system being an alarming case in point.

In contrast, consider how, despite half a century of US sanctions, Cuba has built a health service envied around the world. Unlike the frightened millions of uninsured Americans - as brilliantly depicted in Michael Moore's Sicko - Cubans don't want for any kind of health care. Cubans don't go hungry. Cuban children don't go destitute in the street, unlike kids in other parts of Latin America's market-driven region.

During a recent UK-wide
Cuban tour talk, I had the pleasure of asking the Cuban Transport Ministry advisor (and formerly Che Guevara's deputy) Orlando Borrego for his thoughts on Cuba's and Venezuela's joint efforts in building economic and social alternatives for the region. In response, Borrego stated that he wished he had three hours to talk on this subject alone, so impassioned and excited was he about these initiatives. But, with limited time, he amplified how each country was co-operating to build a real social economy across Latin America. An economy based on the creation of doctors, educational, environmental and other human infrastructure as opposed to market-led 'development'.

For many others at the meeting, and those who look beyond the loaded media version of what's happening in that region, it gives a tremendous sense of hope that people can organise and deliver just social provisions without recourse to market dependency.

Malaysia may not be in a politically comparable situation to Venezuela or Cuba. Yet, how Malaysians challenge and resist the dominant ideas and demands of capital is every bit as crucial.

It's worth bearing in mind that Hugo Chavez is nothing without the people who put him where he is. They continue to support him because he's enacting devolved policies driven by their - and his - social and political concerns. Those people don't just want a few more crumbs of the market-dispensed cake. They want meaningful change in how the social cake is made and divided, which requires co-operative control of the 'bakery' itself.

Malaysia's opposition will, no doubt, be exercised in this next critical pre-election phase by other types of division: sectarian, racial and party political.

Yet, hopefully, Anwar and the other leaders within this, seemingly, bright new opposition will stay alert to the concerns of the people they, apparently, speak for. Otherwise, it's 'business as usual' for most Malaysians.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Argentina: El Movimiento por la Carta Popular en Buenos Aires

El Movimiento por la Carta Popular de Buenos Aires, Argentina está haciendo un trabajo muy importante en varios parroquias de la cuidad con una iniciativa muy fuerte hacia la democracia participativa incluyendo el presupuesto participativo tambien. Por favor visiten su pagina web acá:

Y tambien la pagina de su publicación La Posta Regional acá: - Editor

Argentina: El Movimiento por la Carta Popular en Buenos Aires


El Movimiento por la Carta Popular es una red de organizaciones sociales que expresan la voluntad política de participación y protagonismos de los sectores populares. Bajo el lema de Democracia Participativa se encara un proceso de construcción que transforme el actual sistema representativo y delegativo del Estado por un nuevo modo que que responda a las necesidades de los trabajadores y la sociedad en general hacia un presente de justicia social y redistribución justa e inclusiva de la riqueza, entre otros.

La Carta Popular es un documento político de características originales y novedosas, en cuya elaboración fue tomando forma la red de pobladores y organizaciones sociales desde la que intentamos transformar la realidad de nuestros barrios.Se elaboró con una metodología basada en alrededor de 700 Consultas Familiares, compartidas en nuestros hogares y realizadas por jóvenes promotores, más de 1000 Consultas Personales, un plenario de 500 personas en el marco del 1er Congreso de Vecinos y Organizaciones Sociales del Noroeste del Gran Buenos Aires (Noviembre 2006) y las conclusiones elaboradas en 9 comisiones temáticas de trabajo. Este material contiene la visión de miles de argentinos sobre la sociedad que se quiere y es el contenido para diversas acciones sobre el espacio público como la Caravana Cultural de los barrios, que se desarrolla anualmente en los distritos de Moreno, San Miguel, José C. Paz y Malvinas Argentinas.

Texto completo del Documento LA CARTA POPULAR, resuelto en el 1er Congreso de Vecinos y Organizaciones Sociales del Noroeste del Gran Buenos Aires.
Versión HTML > PDF

El mandato del documento de la Carta Popular es un nuevo modo de vivir, la Democracia Participativa, que han estado siempre al interior de las prácticas comunitarias pujando por trasladarse al conjunto de la sociedad. Superar la cultura de la delegación por otra, la del Protagonismo.En coherencia con todo lo anterior, desde el Movimiento por la Carta Popular intenta consolidar, ampliar y fortalecer las capacidades populares de Gobierno, creando las herramientas culturales y organizativas necesarias.

Las razones de la Carta Popular

Para Democratizar los temas relativos a la política y a la participación y propiciar el avance hacia una Democracia Participativa. Queremos probar y probarnos que no vivimos en una sociedad autoritaria por voluntad de la gente sino por límites y perversiones del sistema, y que la gente, aún con dudas, quiere cambiarlo. En ese proceso, queremos relevar las necesidades de las comunidades y las prioridades políticas que ponen los vecinos y organizaciones.
Para Articular estrategias de comunicación y formación, de manera de poder instalar esta prioridad desde la mirada de las organizaciones sociales.

Para Construir los instrumentos jurídicos e institucionales necesarios en el avance hacia una Democracia Participativa.

Para Generar las bases para un proyecto de Desarrollo Local en la región con nuevas políticas públicas, estatales y comunitarias creadas desde la Democracia Participativa y el rol activo de vecinos y organizaciones populares.

Para iniciar un diálogo abierto y continuo con todos los niveles de las representaciones institucionales de la región y sus movimientos sociales, colocando este tema como prioridad.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Phillipines: Akbayan Party and Participatory Democracy

The following gives a detailed description of the Akbayan party's platform in the Philippines which advocates participatory democracy. - Editor

Participatory Democracy, Participatory Socialism: The Akbayan Narrative

Tuesday, 01 May 2007

(As approved during the 2nd Regular Congress)

Evolution of the Party

Akbayan, being a coalition project of blocs, groups and individuals belonging to different Left and progressive traditions, started and has grown with a strong coalition character. As such, our party carries both the strengths and weaknesses of a coalition undertaking. On the one hand, it provides wider space and latitude for a pluralist exercise and consensus building. On the other hand, it remains relatively loose and slow in responding to challenges, opportunities and threats.

In the course of two electoral battles and a number of mass movement engagements wherein Akbayan had to fight on two fronts—first, with the trapo titans and second, with the extremist and vanguardist parties of the Left, the desire to become a more cohesive party has grown more and more among the members. The 2001 Party Congress, the first regular one, mandated the party to move from a coalition party to a more cohesive one. The party’s National Council interpreted this to mean the development of a unifying narrative—going beyond platform or program unities—and the development of a corps of cadre.

This narrative exercise is meant to unify the party towards a common discourse of the past, the present and the future, a more coherent framework for its electoral platform and mass movement calls and engagements and a shared ethos. This is necessary for Akbayan to develop into a strategic political party, able to merge the various blocs, groups and individual members into a cohesive whole while retaining its pluralist character.

Lenses and Tools for Narrative Building

Our narrative building is a radical departure from all previous ideological construction of the Left. It is both a dialogical and dialectical process between the leadership and the membership, a continuing interaction between party discourse and the discourses of the various communities of our people as well those of the social and political movements throughout the globe.

In viewing the past and charting the present course of our programmatic and party building praxis for radical social transformation, we use the following lenses: class, the community, gender, the environment, nationality and ethnicity and the individuality of the human person.

We consider class as pivotal in light of the deep-seated historical class basis of the economic, social and political exclusion in our country and the widespread and rapid marginalization of the working masses by the contemporary processes of capitalist globalization. Gendered domination permeates in all structures of society and interacts dialectically and dialogically with class. The environmental lens enables us to see class and gender issues in light of ecological limits and the frightening ecological imbalance in today’s world, and how to recreate balanced relations between human societies and Mother Earth. Nationality and ethnicity lenses show us how non-class bonds formed and imagined through decades, even centuries, revealed forms of domination as well as prospects of liberation for the laboring classes as well as women in general. Close to this, the community bonds and traditions unique to Philippine society bring to light the limits and potentials of local politics in transforming national politics and society. And of course, the focus on class, gender, nationality and community must never make us forget the irreducible individuality of the human person.

In this light, we harness the tools provided by structural, institutional, and conjunctural analysis as well as the cultural, feminist, ecological and rights-based critiques to guide our praxis towards a full democratization of power relations and equal access by all to means of producing wealth and knowledge.

Programmatic Vision and Line: Participatory democracy, Participatory socialism

Employing our lenses and tools and harnessing the rich historical and contemporary studies of Philippine and global society as well as the learnings from radical and progressive praxis of social transformation, Akbayan has to develop a clear-cut and distinct vision, program and line for its praxis.

The proposal is: participatory democracy, participatory socialism

This is both a critique and a proposal for construction.

It is a critique of the old statist models, whether of the representative democracy under the capitalist order or the then existing socialism which collapsed. Under both models, the people remain basically deprived of authentic processes of participatory governance. Founded on elitist economic structures, the Philippine brand of representative democracy has none or very little to offer in terms of popular participation in between electoral exercises and a captive of elitist trapo politics and culture during elections. On the other hand, the range of old socialist alternatives focused largely on the state arena, giving little thought to or even disregarding the importance of institutionalizing processes and mechanisms of popular participation and control in th political, economic and cultural spheres. The formerly dominant socialist model even gave rise to a near absolutist state where only one party was allowed to mediate between government and society, even to claim for itself the monopoly of truth, thus resulting in a one party dictatorship. This model also featured a command economy where privilege and corruption became entrenched, strong authoritarian modes of relations within the state, the party and civil society, and an almost exclusively collectivist preference to the detriment of individual rights.

The proposal is an assertion that democracy and socialism can only become a full reality not only by democratizing the state but also by ensuring an autonomous civil society exercising power and constantly engaging the state. It is an assertion for a democratic, horizontal and autonomous character of the relations within civil society. It is also an assertion for individual empowerment within collective undertakings and entities.

We must pursue and complete the struggle for democracy. This includes the consummation of people’s sovereignty and its defense against all forms of imperialism, the completion of land reform, the full inclusion of the marginalized classes and women in the political democracy, and the realization of the right to self-determination of the Moro people, as well as of the indigenous peoples, including the people of the Cordillera and the lumads.

At the same time, it also asserts that the socialist struggle has to be waged both as a critique and an opposition movement to capitalism and imperialism. It has to be waged as a concrete struggle to defend the working classes and people from the daily ravages of capitalist globalization and to win concrete measures to push back the predatory market forces and gain more and more spaces for working people control. Our guiding developmental framework is a mixed economy of market, state and social sectors where an activist state and the social sector engage the markets to develop the productive forces, protects the labor and agrarian sectors, creatively expands the social sectors and fights for fair trade in the global markets.

A party of the working people

The working people are the labor force of the country, the overwhelming majority of the population, most of whom are marginalized, disempowered and poor. They are composed of the various strata of the working class— regular and contractual, formal and informal in industry, service, info-tech and agriculture, and the Filipino labor overseas. They also include the various strata of the peasantry— tenants, leaseholders, seasonal or irregular farmers in small farms and small owner cultivators, the fisherfolk, those of small independent trades and livelihoods and part of the labor force that remains perennially unemployed.

As a whole, the working people are not a distinct class category but embrace a number of classes. As such, the use of the term does not eliminate nor reduce the particularities of the classes in strict terms, their problems and the solutions to these problems. But the description as working people is useful in the sense that it expresses the much expanded scope of the impact of capitalist globalization in the country and therefore, of the marginalization of men and women of labor. A common program to defend their rights, critique capitalism and find measures to empower them in the economic and social and political fields can be devised.

We give special attention to the global diaspora of Philippine labor. Faced by chronic unemployment and meager opportunities for advancement at home and the large-scale opening of the global labor market starting in the seventies, skilled Filipino workers and independent professionals by the hundreds of thousands went abroad to work in contractual jobs or settle down to migrate or become citizens of another state. But the overwhelming majority of these compatriots are still bound to the native soil by ties to their families and national and ethnic identities. In fact, their remittances to their families in the homeland constitute a significant bulk of the national income. Truly, the Filipino nation-state goes beyond Philippine boundaries to include the overseas communities of Filipinos working and living across the globe. Akbayan’s national project includes empowering most of them—still citizens of the Philippines—with a vote so they can have a say in running the affairs of the country, instituting measures—diplomatic and domestic—to protect their labor and human rights in the countries where they work and live, and engaging their active participation in the economic, cultural and social uplift of their homeland.

Akbayan is a party of the working people in the following sense:

First, it draws its membership and base basically from their ranks. Second, it takes their standpoint in the tactical and long-term fights for full democracy, social justice, gender equality and the promotion of socialism. Third, the whole party, from the leadership to the rank and file activists are immersed in their ranks. And fourth, the party ensures the constant development of organic leaders and their promotion to leadership positions from the local to the national.

It is only by developing itself as a party of the working people can Akbayan effectively fight the influence of cynical populism being spread by populist trapos as well as that of the extreme and dogmatic variants of the Left.

The working people character of the party does not mean that it closes the door to compatriots belonging to the upper strata of society whose sense of humanity and patriotism rise above their station in life. We should encourage them to join, especially the younger ones.

Akbayan aspires to become the governing party of the nation. As a party of the working people, it will govern for all, mindful of the legitimate claims of other social interests and guided by the basic principles of democratic and socialist governance.


Akbayan is a feminist party. It recognizes that gender inequity permeates in all structures of society. The intersection of male dominance or patriarchy with capitalism, semi-feudalism, ethnic and racial hierarchies, historically creates the complexion of women’s oppression. Thus, Akbayan works to address the unequal power relations between men and women in both the public/productive and private/reproductive spheres of life as it works towards democratic, egalitarian and humanist socialism. Akbayan seeks to empower women and contributes to the struggle of the women’s movement in eliminating all forms of violence against women.

Akbayan seeks to eliminate homophobia as a patriarchal tool to keep both women and men in tight boxes of stereotypical behavior and roles. A human rights violation, homophobia manifests as any act, remark, treatment or attitude that discriminates or abuse another person on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

The Moro Question and the indigenous peoples

Akbayan recognizes the right to self-determination of the Bangsa Moro people and the indigenous peoples, including the people of the Cordillera and the lumads. Their full political inclusion through a genuine exercise of autonomy and adequate representation in all Philippine state bodies, a just and democratically engaged and negotiated restitution of their claims to their ancestral lands, and full respect for their cultural and religious freedoms are central to reinventing and re-imagining the all Philippine nation and state.

Applying the principle that a party cannot fight for democracy without practicing democracy within, Akbayan establishes the rule that its positions on the Bangsa Moro question and the indigenous peoples question should be the outcome of a discourse and dialogue with the membership of these communities within the party. Akbayan also recognizes the need for autonomous structures for members coming from the Bangsa Moro and the indigenous peoples within the party.

Both a parliamentary and mass movement party

Akbayan draws its basic strength from the organized movements of the working people to work for radical changes and to challenge the traditional political parties with far superior political might, financial clout and organized violence. Alliances with other progressive forces and tactical unities with other parties from time to time can be forged but only to supplement its strength at its base. Akbayan must therefore engage in mass work, mass organizing and mass movements as an electoral party.

But we have to work out constantly and creatively the synergies of our electoral, parliamentary and mass movement work. These are different terrains with different requirements and conduct. We need to develop specific mechanisms for each and define distinct conduct and tactics for the electoral period and for the non-electoral one.

A national party with a global outlook and agenda

Akbayan closely and strongly links itself with the fast-growing global movement to resist capitalist neo-liberal globalization and imperialist wars of aggression, particularly US-Anglo imperialist unilateralism. It considers its national project as an integral part of the global struggle to make possible another world where marginalization by class, gender, race and ethnicity has no legitimate place, a world where humanity is in harmony with the environment.

Akbayan thinks globally but also acts globally as it fosters and nurtures close and strong relations with global social movement networks and organizations as well as any progressive, democratic, socialist, ecological or feminist organization and movement anywhere across the globe to advance the global struggles on all fronts: peace, trade, environment, human rights, debt, gender, defending the South against depredations of the North, and democratizing the United Nations.

Refounding politics, promoting new values

The struggle for participatory democracy and participatory socialism assigns a crucial role to overcoming the deeply entrenched trapo politics of the ruling elite as well as the cynical populism that has grown out of the widespread alienation of the poor masses from the ruling system. Building democracy and establishing social and gender equality require not only overhauling old structures or setting up new ones and establishing new rules but instilling new values and nurturing good old ones as well. Refounding politics in our country will require the promotion and institutionalization of new values like transparency and accountability and nurturing values long accepted but weakly observed and even distorted by trapo politics like respect for citizen’s rights, observance of citizen duties and obligations, citizen action, and community cooperation for the common good.

Akbayan believes that the end result of the new order we seek to establish depends not only on the ends we espouse but on the means we choose in the course of the struggle. While we cannot but recognize that ours is a highly imperfect world and that compromise emerges as a necessity from time to time, ethical parameters must be firmly put in place, always observed and made to guide compromises when these become necessary. We reject the elite trapo’s total lack of scruples and the traditional Left’s strong tendency towards relativity of values, justifying means in terms of ends, all for the sake of the breadth and depth of the class struggles.

Traditional Left parties are held together by ideological monolithic culture and democratic centralist rule. What binds Akbayan apart from its visions and principles is the living practice of its guideposts — humanist, socialist, democratic, pluralist and gender sensitive.


Akbayan employs the strategy of combining a determined struggle for ideological and cultural hegemony, establishing building blocks through radical reforms and sustained organizing and constituency building in local communities, sub-classes and sectors and institutions. Akbayan always aims for a critical mass which at a conjunctural moment, when objective and subjective factors are favorably converged, should be guided towards a qualitative leap in the struggle. Such leaps may mean a big electoral victory or even capturing the majority in parliament, a mass upsurge leading to a change in government, or bold radical advances in agrarian reform and other social struggles.

A determined struggle for ideological and cultural hegemony involves a persistent campaign to critique the social and political order and espouse the alternative one, ensuring that such is the framework of tactical battles, developing the internal capacity for discourse and debate, and winning the battle of discourse in the cultural centers of society like the academe, the media, the churches, parliamentary debates and indigenous centers of local discourse.

In the course of the struggle for full democracy, social equality and women’s emancipation, Akbayan aims to establish building blocks of radical reforms. Akbayan employs mass pressure and ideological campaigns while taking seriously the field of engagement with government and/or the private sector to achieve concrete gains for the people and weakening elite rule. This is what distinguishes Akbayan from the traditional Left concept of extreme opposition, always in an offensive oppositional stance, fixated on a unilinear track to total victory, unmindful of partial gains and victories and their beneficial results for consolidating the people’s strength, weakening elite rule and advancing the people’s welfare.