By Giandomenico Picco (for Safe Democracy)
Giandomenico Picco thinks that the concept of indirect democracy established during the French and the US revolutions is –in many ways– in crisis. The question today is that if the change in the means of communications amongst individuals and the methods of accessing knowledge and information is in fact leading towards a new form of democracy. Mr. Picco believes that electing our representatives is not enough, and the voice through NGOs, media, internet and other forms of social interactions have to count. We will not likely move from the model of indirect to direct democracy in one generation but the knocks on the door will become louder and louder.
Giandomenico Picco is former Under Secretary General of the United Nations and former Personal Representative of the Secretary General for the United Nations Year of Dialogue among Civilizations. He is also the CEO of GDP Associates, Inc. in New York City, and President of the non-governmental Peace Strategies Project in Geneva, Switzerland.
THE USE OF THE WORD DEMOCRACY by political leaders, academics and media seems at time to imply that the democratic system of governance is pretty much one and unchangeable. In fact by and large democracy in common usage is used in its meaning of “indirect democracy”.
Indirect democracy stems from the reality of the times when it was conceived. If we take the French and the US revolutions as the midwife of todays democratic systems we should also remember the conditions under which “indirect democracy” became of age.
POSSIBLE AND REALISTIC
Two elements made the choice of indirect democracy as a system the only possible and realistic one in those days: the need to have the voice of a large group of citizens be known at the level of decision makers and the reality that knowledge and access to information was limited to very few. Thus the elected representatives became a tool to meet the need to communicate the voice of the people to the top and to access, on their behalf knowledge and information which would eventually be passed from the elected officials to their constituency. There was no other practical way for the voice of the people to be heard except through the elected representatives.
Over the last two centuries “indirect democracy” has served societies well though the changes as far as access to knowledge and information and methods to make the voice of the people heard have surely changed since the late 1700. The spread of educational systems and the establishment of other social institutions like trade unions and instruments like the media, for instance, began to alter the elements which had made “indirect democracy” the only way to democracy.
Today the question which is being in fact posed by a radical change in the means of communications among individuals and the methods of accessing knowledge and information no longer limited to very few in any given society, is in fact whether a new form of democracy is now knocking at the door of indirect democracy. In other words: are we sure that our elected representatives “know” more than we, the people know about a number of given matters? Or are we sure that electing our representatives our voice is being heard better than through NGOs, media, internet and other forms of social interactions at the national and international levels once totally inexistent or inaccessible to the single individual?
LESS INTEREST IN INSTITUTIONS
It seems to me that national and international institutions have over the last two centuries performed quite well for they have achieved their main purpose that was and is to “keep the whims of the king” from interfering with “the will of the majority of the people”. Now the challenge which faces most of our institutions, which are part and parcels of the system of indirect democracy, is whether they can evolve to meet a world where there are many ways to express the voice of the people besides elections and where knowledge is so wide spread that a group of few cannot claim monopoly on the truth. The participation of the peoples in elections is diminishing in many societies. Are they less interested in and have less trust in Parliamentary institutions? In other words: if those knocks at the door of “indirect democracy” were coming from something called “direct democracy” would we answer the call?
UNPREPARED FOR DIRECT DEMOCRACY
Our societies are likely unprepared for that kind of democracy as we have never experienced it. But for our long can we keep the door closed?
I would venture to say that of the democratic institutions the first to evolve would be the Parliament: no longer the monopolist of the voice of the people, nor of knowledge for the people, they may have to reinvent themselves. The strength of democracy is not necessarily in the form of its institutions but in their substance: “collective decisions makings processes and respect and liberty for the minority”.
We will not likely move from Indirect to direct democracy in one generation but the knocks at the door will become louder and louder.