Pictures depicting thousands of people gathered in a small town square captured my attention while walking into Hotel Romantic in Appenzell. I was there for the annual meeting of the Institute for Media and Communications Management (MCM) where I spent this summer researching the impact of citizen participation in political decision-making. The meeting lasted all day but my mind was set on the pictures. “This is how people in Appenzell still vote” my Swiss colleague Stephanie said on our way out to dinner.
Apparently, Appenzell is one of the few places in the developed world where people vote on issues of public concern by simply raising their hands. It’s an open process in which everyone present can (literally) stand up for her or his beliefs. This shouldn’t be that surprising, though, if one takes into consideration that Switzerland has been a leading example of direct democracy since 1848. What is striking, however, the absence of any concrete scientific procedure to count the ballots (like for example the electoral college). On the contrary, the public officials who run the elections evaluate the results on a majority basis and rough estimates. Since the system has uninterruptedly worked for hundreds of years, the question is then whether this example represents something we’re missing in our rigid processes of vote counting in “modern democracy,” or if this form of direct democracy exhibits the same flaws counting and recounting ballots.
Starting May 2012, elections were conducted across the globe and a few cases will be touched upon in this article. In late May, the Greek interim government, which was appointed after the referendum and the step down of former Prime Minister Papandreou; was to give its place to an elected body of representatives to lead the country out of the crisis. The first election round changed the political bi-party status quo to a multi-party system. Nevertheless, the election of the Neo-Nazi party in the parliament raised controversy in the country and a second round of elections followed to eventually form a government in late June.
In Egypt, eighteen months after the beginning of the Arab Spring and the historic fall of the Mubarak regime, citizens were still struggling to come to the polls and elect a new government. In the first true election in years, the moderate candidates in the presidential election split the vote, leaving an unpalatable choice for many reformers between the Muslim Brotherhood and a representative of the former regime.
Libya a little less than a year after the end of Gaddafi’s oppression, the June postponement of the elections due to the remaining unrest, Libyans surpassed obstacles and internal conflicts to vote. The road to effective democratic governance will not be easy, but Libyans realized a rightfully elected government is a milestone that could not be achieved without their participation.
Elsewhere in the Americas, elections are garnering attention in both north and south. Disputed Mexican election results led to the questionable victory of former Mexico state governor Peña Nieto; the results were imposed without considering the voice of the people that were opposing new presidency and called for ballot recount. In the US, the day of presidential contest is only weeks away. After intense months of campaigning for President Obama and Governor Romney, the debate rounds concluded leaving the American people to decide which candidate would best represent their interests. Modern and traditional media restlessly race to predict best the results of the 6th of November based on polls and on line metrics monitoring citizen attitudes and political behavior.
Inevitably, people are fighting across the world literally or metaphorically to grant their rights and secure a better tomorrow. Regardless of the right pursued, whether it is freedom, independence, better governance or better health care, people are now more than ever capable of standing up and voicing their opinion. In the developed world social media managers of platforms like twitter seek to interpret the pulse of users by monitoring daily tweets on the election rivals. The discussion on whether such activity can be used as a legitimate indicator of where do people stand continues. Regardless of the active percentage of citizens online, people can impact the formation of the proposed policies with their participation.
Web 2.0 is facilitating the need of people to express their position on various subject matters, via blogs, twitter, facebook, youtube and the like. What is more important is that the means of the Internet evolved to allow social interactions. Individuals actively use on line media to organize group meetings, social gatherings or even social moves and protests to influence political decision-making. Even though the impact of this kind of organized initiatives is not yet clear, the momentum of online citizen participation (e-participation) can be used to enhance the effectiveness of political systems across the world.
Until recently, political participation was measured upon the basis of how many people showed up on the Election Day. However, currently, citizens are active and voice their opinion on line, make political statements when they boycott products, and demand their rights through negotiations or protests. Political participation is not only about politics and governmental matters. (And, even if it was, there is much more to it than the right to vote.)
Political participation is a holistic societal move that does not solely function vertically (in choosing a leader) or horizontally (or in influencing others to do the same.) Nowadays, political participation also functions virally thanks to the era of technology, Internet, and the rapidly growing social media popularity. Using the Internet and electronic means such sms or smartphone applications, everyone is equipped to access government and governance service platforms to rightfully participate in decision-making, provided that such services are in place. In principle, a viral virtual world fosters a lessened sense of hierarchy and heterogeneity, since everyone can participate equally.
Of course turning theory into practice is challenging, especially when the hurdles differ greatly between countries. The digital divide is probably the most serious drawback. In the absence of Internet access or lack of Internet literacy, any available political e-participation tool is useless. As the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon pointed out in the opening of the 2012 World Summit on Information Society (WSIS), “[W]e cannot forget that two thirds of the world’s people still do not have access to the Internet.” Considering this statement, it is evident that transitioning to participatory democratic governance using the Internet as a platform will not progress at the same pace, if ever attempted in the next 50 years. Notwithstanding the technological evolution in the developed world, the majority of the world’s population is lacking access to basics such as security and health, let alone access to the Internet. In the digital era the flow of communication is a multi-way path but at the same time not that different from the one-way communication in the late 20th century.
Another rising question is whether the digital divide is only an issue between developed and developing countries, or between digital immigrants and natives. The divide is encountered even across people with the same demographics. Technological updates increase Internet capacity but also make it challenging to keep up with. Moreover, having Internet access does not guarantee knowledge to use it. Even if skills apply, people might be lacking time or interest to participate in online communications and content creation leaving the floor open for active users to take advantage of the status quo to their benefit, influencing decisions due to unequal citizen representation.
To address the described gaps, governments should be working on understanding the e-participation momentum rather than trying to control citizen power expressed as protests. To set the foundation of participatory democracy, if circumstances allow, governments should emphasize on providing Internet access and educating people to use e-services and effectively participate to e-government initiatives. International Organizations, aka the United Nations are working to bridge these gaps especially between developed and developing countries, but it will be a timely process.
Suddenly voting in a local square raising your hand in a small Swiss town, appears much more direct, easier to manage and cost effective. But could this really be true? Throughout time citizens strived to develop processes and laws to make political representation as fair as possible, especially for large groups that could not possibly fit in the picturesque Appenzell square. However, the Internet developments can facilitate the gathering of an entire country in a virtual plaza to make a decision that can be accurately measured and immediately reflected. This e-participation potential is where governments should focus to built upon more democratic direct governance. Considering the speed of technological updates, the establishment of Democracy 2.0 will be a complex long term plan to say the least.
Clay Shirky in his book “Cognitive Surplus” wrote on motivation and public action, “If you give people a way to act on their desire for autonomy and competence or generosity and sharing, they might take you up on it.” He continues, “[I]f you only pretend to offer an outlet for those motivations, while actually slotting people into a scripted experience, they may well revolt.” Therefore, where government structures fail to provide for their people and secure their rights, as described in the case examples, people will finally revolt and start again. On the contrary, where rights are respected and participation (or eventually e-participation) is encouraged, like Switzerland, citizens will take responsibility of their actions and pursue their rights, which ultimately is equal opportunity.