I am writing this blog post at the end of election day in Belgium, May 26th 2019. I headed out to the polling station early this morning to cast not one, but four votes: for Europe, Belgium, Brussels, and the Brussels representation in the Dutch-speaking Community (if you don’t know what that is, don’t bother, it’s complicated). Holding my convocation letter ready, I entered the voting station feeling a tad nervous.
Nervous, you ask? Yes. Nervous, because in the democracy of 2019, voting day is still the only day I truly participate in it. The only day in five years’ time. These two minutes in the voting booth are precious democratic time. During 120 seconds, I finally hold (a tiny bit of) democratic power: the power to give away my power. That’s what representative democracy looks like. I better get my vote right, I thought.
On my way back home, I realized that over the last five years, there were many more instances I wanted to be heard than just today. When I was writing about carbon emissions on my blog, for example. Or when I participated in the climate marches in the last few months. Or when I discussed the energy system, migration, and taxes with friends over a beer in the bar around the corner.
Poor democracy, then. Sure, I could have screamed a bit louder at the protests, have tried to reach a larger audience with this blog, be a bit more convincing in debates with friends. But would it have made a difference today? I doubt it. My voice would have been lost in the cacophony of voices, in the mess of opinions, ideas, and complaints that come from all directions but don’t seem to go to where they should go; to decision makers.
The many protests that filled the streets of Brussels the last months have shown that many more (young) people are interested in politics. But it became equally clear that many have lost faith that their ideas, dreams, and concerns will not be heard by those in power. While the election results start trickling in, the very failure of representative democracy in 2019 gets confirmed in front of my eyes. In the northern region of Flanders, the extreme right party reaches an all-time high, while in the South, Wallonia has further shifted to the left. People say in the evening news that our country has never been so divided. I don’t think so. North, South, and Center (Brussels), people voted for what was different than the mess that the conventional parties made of the last five years. A mess? Yes. Unfulfilled promises, dirty games, acid Tweets (and no climate action, for that matter).
It is a tough time for voters, it seems. Listening to the morning radio some weeks ago, I learned that more than half of my fellow citizens didn’t have a clue yet who to vote for at that point. After four and a half years of half-baked proposals, heavy discussions, political scandals, minister reshuffles and what not, people still hadn’t made up their mind who to delegate their power to for the next term. Confused, bored, and frustrated, these people are the plaything of last-minute marketing efforts of political parties. That doesn’t sound like a healthy democratic process to me.
Some politicians might have gone through even tougher times than the people they ask a mandate from, to be honest. Where a few decades ago, people grew up in and stayed loyal to a certain ideological and political family, voters now pick their representatives in a similar manner as they pick clothes. They shop from party to party, depending on who yells loudest, comes across most empathic, or features in the countries’ most popular TV quiz (true story). As a result, politicians always have to stay vigilant. Everything can be recorded; everything can be amplified in a Twitter storm. More than thinking about the mandate voters gave them in the last election, punishment or reward in the next seems to dominate everyday politics.
Even though thousands of (mainly young) people took to the streets every single week for the last five months to demand decisive climate action (including a financial and social plan), politics simply couldn’t get its head around the enormity of this issue. It touches on so many aspects of our lives: from health to employment, transport, our diets, and even where we can go on holidays (or rather: how we can get to our vacation destination without spewing out a tonne more carbon). More importantly: it became clear to the larger public that taking decisive action won’t be possible without some sacrifices in the short term. Clearly, Belgian politicians at all levels failed to find a way of taking the issue out of the nervous mess of everyday politics and come to science-based decisions informed by citizens’ participation.
There we have it. That’s what we are missing. I will repeat: decisions informed by citizens’ participation. This two-minutes-every-five-years-kind-of-participation does not work anymore. Increasingly, citizens don’t only see problems, they also see solutions. And so the role of the politician becomes… easier, in fact: they have to implement the solutions that come out of an on-going dialogue with society. And then I don’t mean the ongoing discussion with some hotheads on Twitter or with lobbyists in the coulisses of parliament.
Easier said than done, I agree. To have a look on how we could go about this, we Belgians don’t have to look far. Our very own tiny German-speaking community, located in the east of Belgium, last January a permanent citizen participation process was set up. In a world’s first, the parliament of the community decided to enter in a permanent and formalized discussion with its inhabitants. The parliament is now flanked with a citizen council with 25 members determined by chance, picking seating members randomly while ensuring a proper representation among age, gender, and social class (they call this process sortition). These members will seat for a limited amount of time, while over time new people will replace seating members. Hence, a wide variety of opinions is fed into the council, while nobody has any vested interests or is plagued by the idea to be re-elected later on.
Such a citizen council is the perfect place for dialogue and open discussion. Informed discussions though – thanks to the participation of experts and academics on the topics at hand. The agenda of the council is set by the council itself, although the topics must lie in the realm of decision power of the government that will be informed by it. At regular times, the citizen council will share and discuss their findings with the seating government and parliament. Once this model of citizen participation has matured and has been fine tuned, one can imagine a future where these recommendations become binding.
Could this system be flawed? Oh certainly. Its success stands or falls with the adequacy of its sortition, the neutrality of the information it is fed, and what the government and parliament will do with the input of the citizens afterward. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that the decision of a small group of well-informed citizens is more representative than a large group of uninformed citizens. Recent referenda proof my point (yes, I am referring to the ugly B-word).
Now that we have given the people a voice, we shouldn’t forget the businesses. Today, companies who are responsible for thousands of jobs already use their voice. I say: take that voice from behind doors to formalised task forces to give input, just like the citizen council, on certain topics. In an open, transparent, and constructive way. Am I dreaming again? Our neighbors in the Netherlands tried it out a few months ago. When the government decided on ambitious carbon reduction targets, they conveyed ‘climate tables’ in different sectors: electricity production, construction, industry… Each climate table was led by a person respected in the sector, without a political position. They were trusted with the task to find a common path forward to fulfill the climate target in their respective sector. Reporting back to the government, targets and policies could be set in an appropriate manner.
Will this model work? I don’t know. Is it worth a try? Definitely. We might end up with governance that is well-informed by citizens and businesses. Not just with a vote every five years or during a lunch with a lobby group but via permanent dialogue. There will still be compromises and sacrifices to be made, but heck, people will understand why. It will turn frustrated voters is empowered ones. This is a democracy far better equipped to deal with the big challenges of our times. That’s a democracy I want to be part of, that’s a democracy where I won’t be nervous on election day.
PS: Over the last few months, I have been diving into the biggest societal questions that are running through my head. From a new economic paradigm, to the way we organise our societies and the role of citizens. I truly believe the key to solving global injustice, aggravated by climate change, lies there. This currently means less writing and more reading. Nonetheless, I personally think these spare blog posts are among the most important ones I have put out since I started writing more than four years ago. I still haven’t found satisfactory answers but bear with me: we will found them together, because we must.