On Participatory Democracy
Ninorta Aziz Abdo
Democracy is a concept that extends in ancient periods to the Greek civilization, as it is one aspect of governance, which in the political sense indicates the self-rule of the people. In the practical sense we find two ways of implementing democracy. First, direct democracy, whereby people are in power and start gathering powers. Second, representative democracy, which indicates the selection of citizens of their delegates in representative and local councils.
The human genius has created during its constant development process, the participatory democracy concept. Given that the representative concept is no longer effective to achieve social justice at all levels, in addition to representative systems failure to secure the true and decent position of the citizen in political, administrative and public affairs locally or at the level of states parliaments. As the role of the voter ends once he has cast his vote and also, as a result of the crisis that representative democracy has suffered and is still suffering from. Hence, participatory democracy is depicted as being able to confront negative phenomena and influences. Moreover, an earnest attempt to reformulate the work with an active participation of the influential forces on local affairs.
The first practical appearance and application of the participatory democracy concept was in the 60s of the last century. This emergence was in the economic and trade field. It crystalized by giving workers, executives and cadres in companies and productive sectors in general, a fundamental role in running the production process, researching components, sharing, promoting and proposing solutions, decision-making mechanisms and monitoring their implementation. It first was applied in USA and some Latin American countries, such as Argentina and Brazil. The finest application of this concept was seen in the Brazilian city of Monte Allegro. After this remarkable success, the participatory democracy concept was applied on rest of the fields, especially the political one and at the local level in particular. As it was manifested in engaging citizens in discussing public issues, dialogue and decision-making processes. As well as, the keenness to follow up and monitor the decisions implementation by institutions with the competent authority. The most prominent Arab countries that have applied this approach are clearly Tunisia, especially women's organizations and Algeria although it seems less clear than Tunisia.
We can deduce from all the above a definition of participatory democracy, that it is a system which enables citizens to participate in making political decisions that consider them priorities through direct interaction with the existing authorities and discussing and finding solutions to existing problems.
Therefore, it adopts a concept that gives citizens a role to participate in political decision-making and management of public affairs. Among its characteristics is the interaction between citizens and governments. Hence, it becomes integral to the representative democracy and not its substitute. The philosopher John Locke referred to this fact by considering that representative democracy is activity-limited and that no one can legitimize a political authority other than citizens themselves. For it is not sufficient for citizens to choose their representatives, rather these citizens must have the ability to monitor the activity of these representatives. Likewise, the American psychologist John Dewey believes that democracy does not indicate absolute justice. As democratic perfection is the approach or administration that will enable justice to be resurrected without interruption through the path of correcting the imbalance and deficiencies resulting from representative democracy. This can be achieved through broad participation of all citizens and civil society, as they are the most relevant to their issues, the most knowledgeable on them, and the most deserving of finding their solution.
Calls for participatory democracy increased in Europe (a European Union conference was held on 8-9, March, 2004 in Belgium), which emphasized the severe crisis of representative democracy application and considered participatory democracy as the solution to be a complementary stage to representative democracy.
By approaching all the above mentioned and the attempt to apply it on the current situation in NES, we can conceive:
This region is featured by many characteristics at all levels. On the demographic level, it represents a public mix, religiously and nationally diverse in overlap. It is infrequent that we find its counterpart in any other region in Syria. This diversity is, in the general and theoretical concept, a source of richness and enrichment for the region. As each national spectrum represents a civilization that is extended in antiquity and history. As well as, its intermingling and interaction necessarily leads to finding a civilization of a special kind in which embraces all the spectra by their differentiations and interactions.
The same applies to religious levels, as this diversity and despite its sad history that resulted from the current countries policies to dominate the region. However, this diversity preserved its privacy and its positive interaction that outweighs all the negative facts against it.
However, these two factors, despite their importance in producing societies of a multi-cultural and multi-civilizational features, are almost on another level, a traumatic and deadly sword. As some regional and international powers worked to exploit them in a passive manner that achieves their ambitions and interests. Thus, they stirred up strife to ignite conflict between all sects of the region depending on remanence of historical facts that are red lines for some affected and aggrieved parties.
As on the economic level, the region is considered one of the wealthiest regions in Syria, if not even in the neighboring regional parts. This is in terms of enjoying all elements of a successful economy and its underground resource integration of oil and gas. In addition to various agricultural and enormous water resources, which some deliberately dispersed or in pursuit of personal interests of some individuals. Or as an attempt to impoverish the area and leave it at the mercy and guardianship of controlling authorities.
Managing this diversity requires a great deal of responsibilities to achieve the minimum level required for achieving fairness in distribution at various levels. The Self-Administration in the region worked to manage them after it was able to protect it from the terrorist extension and its danger. This administration attempted to implement participatory democracy by involving all ethnic and national components in the management of its affiliated bodies. However, from the perspective of defining true participatory democracy, we believe that what the Self-Administration applies in this regard is nothing more than a version of representative democracy based on quotas in management and representation in the various bodies. This quota system, despite its significance and its foundation on equality and justice principles in representation, it applies the engagement principle rather than the participatory one. As these two concepts tremendously overlap, however they differ in terms of the concept and the essence of the participatory principle.
Furthermore, the participatory concept in the region is the multiplicity of the controlling authorities despite the apparent difference in this area. The Syrian government still controls areas in the two largest cities in the region. It applies the participatory principle through what is known as local administration. These bodies are nothing more than the central government's control which is practiced through local administrations operating to impose the central government's policies and visions of management. For representatives of these administrations are intrinsically featured by the dominating political and representative aspects. As for the Self-Administration, which controls most of the region’s geography, it has taken many measures, yet remained short of achieving participatory democracy. One of these measures might be indicated in neighborhood committees, or what is known as communes. These are supposed to play an active role in monitoring the administration performance and pressuring to amend and correct decisions. Nevertheless, they remained trapped in the political agenda that imposed their formation as these committees' role became limited to the service field without being ascended to the participating level in decision-making and monitoring its implementation. On the opposite, they devoted themselves with absolute loyalty to the benefit of implementing administrative decisions, as the relevant bodies issue public decisions. Hence, these committees have no role in discussing them or expressing their opinion on them. On the other hand, the administration has proceeded to adopt formations that are counted, in the theoretical perspective, on civil organizations (feminist organizations - literary and cultural organizations.) However, all these organizations remain trapped in the political concept of which it generated from. Since there are taboos or red lines, drawn for everyone, that cannot be crossed or discussed. This issue puts the participatory democracy concept in front of many obstacles that must be worked on to surpass. As quotas or ethnic and national involvement does not substitute the participatory concept, which means active participation of citizens in decision-making and monitoring it. Taking into account the many obstacles that stand in the way of the practical reality in implementing the concept. The obstacles are the security situation in general, the absence of a permanent state of stability, the multiplicity of authorities in controlling the region and setting a red line for discussion that cannot be crossed. This brings us back to the policy of previous regimes and make the public freedoms lose part of its effective scope and legality. As there is no international, regional or local legitimacy granted to this administration so far. Consequently, many forces and personalities withdraw from engaging in this kind of work, noting that some alliances with the administration are nothing more than tactical, rather than strategic ones. Therefore, in our perspective, we believe that in order to advance the participatory democracy concept in the region, the following measures must be taken;
1- Release public freedoms within international frameworks and foster agreements for freedom of opinion.
2 -The necessity for effective community participation in formulating decisions and giving it an effective role in monitoring them.
3- Develop the neighborhood committee work mechanism so that it expresses the public and citizens opinions more than the will of the administration.
4- Launch civil society organizations role and give them full freedom to monitor the administration’s performance in drawing up the general policy for the region and following up on decisions implementation.
5 -Expand research and observation centers participation and adopt their public opinion surveys and recommendations regarding administrative and political framework.
6- Create online platforms through which decisions and the shortcomings in the performance can be discussed. This type is called digital participatory democracy.
7- Adopt the participatory budgeting principle that leads to the active voluntary participation of all society segments.