Rethinking Democracy: Is the Citizens’ Assembly the Real Voice of the Citizens?
OLF volunteer Skirmantė Sakalauskaitė
Today’s democracy, although it has its origins in ancient Greece, has already changed dramatically from its predecessor. The form of governance in modern democracies can be termed the term polyarchy proposed by political scientist Robert Dahl. The transformation of classical democracy into modern one is witnessed by the transition from direct to representative democracy. This can be seen as a natural reaction to the growing number of citizens of the state, the changing religious and racial diversity of them, the spread of different views and values within the state.
Although this transition was inevitable if not necessary it brought with it the new challenges facing democracies today. In some states there is observed a high level of distrust in authorities and in others, decline in turnout. The extremely low turnout of young people in Lithuania is worrying. According to the data of the Seimas of the Republic of Lithuania, in the elections to the Seimas in 2020, the number of voters under 24 years of age In the age group, the activity was only 38.6%, while in the older age group (from the age of 75) the activity was 58%. However, low youth turnout does not necessarily mean youth apoliticalism – it may be that young people are turning away from traditional forms of political participation and the search for alternative ways to contribute to public governance. Exactly this hypothesis is approved by scientist such as such as James Sloam, Aaron Martin, Matt Henn, Ben Oldfield and James Hart, which shows that unconventional forms of political participation are much more common in young people. We could apply a similar logic in general, not only to young people but also to other age groups to address the low level of political activism of citizens. It may be worth considering the benefits of non-traditional forms of political participation for today’s democracy.
One of the rapidly emerging new forms of political participation is the model of the citizens’ assembly. The Citizens ‘Assembly is one of the components of deliberative democracy, and its essence is the citizens’ debate on common political issues (more information on the models of democracy in question can be found in the OECD analysis: https://www.oecd.org/gov/ innovative-citizen-participation.htm). This is how the citizens’ assembly works – it can be brought together to deal with a specific problem, or it can become a permanent form of citizen involvement in the political process (then assemblies are convened regularly). In most cases, the assembly acts as an advisory body in which citizens seek a common position on a given issue and submit it to the authorities for consideration before taking a common position. The format of the assembly itself may vary depending on the subject of the debate, but the main stages common to all assemblies can be identified: learning, deliberation and decision-making. Again, at this point it is important to emphasize that the named processes in different assemblies can be implemented in different ways, the design of the assembly being dictated by the nature of the issue under discussion. For example, in the learning phase, information can be provided in both video and print format, and in some cases non-traditional measures are taken, such as during an assembly in Romsey, UK, to discuss the future of the town center and discuss the town. visible problems. The joint decision reached at the last stage of the assembly is enshrined in a secret ballot, which shows exactly how much support has been reached within the assembly.
The Citizens’ Assembly was recently introduced as a form of political participation, the first being convened in 2004 in Canada. The assembly was made up of 160 citizens who met every other weekend throughout the year to discuss the need to change the voting system in British Columbia. The Assembly issued a recommendation proposing a new electoral system. Eventually, following a proposal from the assembly, a referendum was convened in which citizens could also vote for a new version of the voting system presented by the assembly. Assemblies have also been tested in other countries, such as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and France. Two assemblies convened in Ireland led to two referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion. In one referendum, 62 percent voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage. citizens, and in the next referendum 66 percent. voted for a more liberal abortion law. In a state where the majority of the population identifies themselves as Catholics, such results were unexpected and demonstrated the importance of an element of direct citizen participation in democracy. Citizens’ assemblies and subsequent referendums have highlighted that sometimes a well-organized minority opinion, heard in public, can overshadow the quieter opinion of the majority of citizens.
In order for the Assembly to truly reflect the prevailing attitudes in society, it must be based on a number of basic principles. The Assembly is like a microcosm of society, so it is very important that the members of the Assembly are selected exactly according to a random selection methodology, all citizens must have equal access to the Assembly. This process is not as simple as it may seem: invitations are first sent to randomly selected citizens, followed by a representative sample of scientists based on certain formulas and calculations to select a representative sample that corresponds to the real composition of society. The Assembly must reflect the demographics of society, the diversity of views and values, and the representation of minorities. The Assembly is coordinated by politically neutral and independent coordinators. The Assembly ensures quality discussions in small groups and plenary sessions of all participants in the Assembly. Assemblies are guided by the principle of openness – before the Assembly begins, citizens are invited to submit suggestions and ideas that could be discussed at Assembly meetings. Also, the principle of openness allows the Assembly to seek advice from experts in a specific area related to the problem at hand, but it is important to stress that citizens discuss without the intervention of experts, the latter’s reports are usually in the learning phase.
The Citizens’ Assembly can solve a number of problems facing today’s democracy. First, public confidence in government decisions, to which ordinary citizens have contributed, in that way the assemblies’ decreases the level of distrust in government. The commitment of public authorities to follow the recommendations of the Assembly can help to dispel the prevailing belief in society that the voice of one person means nothing. Through the Assembly, citizens are directly involved in the decision-making process that is important to the state and have a platform where they can not only express their views freely, but also know that they will be heard.
The Assembly can be seen as a kind of expression of mutual trust between the government and the citizens. The authorities show confidence in accepting citizens ‘recommendations, and citizens’ participation in the assembly shows that they care about the welfare of the state. Finally, the Assembly enables more effective representation of minorities. Although minorities are also partially represented in parliaments, their representatives often do not have enough support to enter these institutions. For example, minority political forces often do not exceed the statutory percentage of votes the citizens who voted for them have no representative in parliament. In this case, a citizens’ assembly can be a good alternative, as a properly implemented random selection principle ensures equal opportunities for all citizens to participate in the assembly’s deliberations.
Citizens’ assemblies, on the other hand, are also being criticized. The most common problem highlighted by critics of assemblies is the lack of real power to influence state decision-making. Given that assemblies do not normally make decisions themselves, but only make suggestions to politicians, it is noticeable that politicians do not always take these suggestions into account, so a responsible approach by the authorities to the assembly as a form of citizen involvement is crucial here. Assemblies are also criticized for using the principle of random selection, so that all methodological selection rules must be followed in order for the assembly to truly reflect the composition of society. Because the part is not very civic, we run the risk that only active citizens, who in any case participate in politics and in traditional ways (vote in elections, get involved in political parties), will agree to participate in the assembly. However, the format of the citizens’ assembly has the potential to engage inactive citizens as well. Suppose people who think their vote means nothing in an election would feel more meaningful in the assembly, because due to the limited number of participants, one vote can be decisive in making a decision within the assembly. Also, as mentioned earlier, some groups of citizens (minorities), even if politically active, often have insufficient votes to get parties or candidates into parliament. In this aspect, the assembly is superior in that its composition mimics the real composition of society, making minorities more likely to have a representative in the assembly than in parliament. The awareness of the citizens themselves is very important for the good functioning of the citizens’ assembly, it is important that the citizens understand the basic principles of the assembly, accept the invitation to participate in the assembly and take an active part in the discussions. We need to realize that in the Assembly we are working for the common good of society, we want to find a solution that benefits as much of society as possible, and not just to benefit ourselves. The remarks made allow a critical assessment of the citizens’ assembly as a form of political participation and pave the way for the improvement of the assembly model.
The survival of democracy as the predominant form of governance has been determined by its ability to adapt to the needs of an ever-changing and dynamic society. Although the democratic regime is facing a number of challenges today, the breakthrough of new forms of political participation makes it possible to look to the future of democracy with hope. It is worth considering whether a citizens’ assembly could become a permanent element of our democracy.
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