WHY PUBLIC PARTICIPATION FOR DEMOCRACY MATTERS
For International Day of Democracy 2015 we are highlighting the importance of public participation for democracy.
Public participation is the bedrock on which democracy rests. It enriches democracy – including by helping to ensure better decision-making and strengthening politicians’ accountability to the people. It helps build strong democratic parliaments – which in turn play a vital role in ensuring peace, development and respect for human rights worldwide.
Taking part in democracy is something that everyone can and should do, at different levels and in different ways.
Public participation is:
- A vital and guiding principle of democratic governance
- Based on the belief that everyone who is affected by a decision has a right to be involved in the decision-making process
- Crucial to increasing democracy’s effectiveness, strengthening citizens’ trust in authorities, and achieving better governance
People have both rights and responsibilities to take part in democracy. This includes formal participation such as voting in elections or standing for election, and informal involvement such as informing yourself about public affairs, having political conversations – including through social media – and demonstrating tolerance for views that differ from your own.
Public authorities – including parliaments – have a responsibility to provide education, information and encouragement for public participation. For many parliaments, these rights and responsibilities are usually well defined in the constitution and in law.
For public participation to be most effective, there needs to be space for civil society to actively operate – a key issue which is being highlighted by the United Nations for Democracy Day 2015.
Space for civil society is a hallmark of successful and stable democracies in which governments and civil society helps keep governments accountable.
Making a difference
Taking action to encourage and strengthen public participation in democracy can:
- Enrich and renew democracy
- Help promote sustainable political decisions, action and policy – by recognizing and communicating the needs and interests of all involved
- Strengthen understanding and action for human rights, and have a positive impact on efforts to eradicate poverty and hunger and to achieve international development goals
- Empower and protect citizens, and realize the fundamental democratic right of participation
- Promote people’s wellbeing and development of their skills
- Ensure and increase active members of political parties – which are vital organizations in a strong democracy
- Promote peace and foster transitions to democracy
Public participation is based on the freedoms of expression, assembly and association, together with the right to take part in public affairs. These are all well-established provisions in international human rights law.
- Challenges facing public engagement with democracy vary widely from country to country. Yet globally it has become increasingly clear that casting a vote every few years is no longer enough for an electorate – people want more democratic engagement with the political institutions they elect
- Recent years have witnessed low levels of public trust in parliaments in many countries, sometimes accompanied by loss of public interest in politics – illustrating why parliaments must engage with and listen to citizens, stay closely attuned to their needs and make every effort to meet them
- People’s ability to take part in democracy depends on government openness, respect for human rights, and space for civil society. But in a range of countries covering every continent, space for civil society is shrinking or closing as some governments have adopted restrictions limiting non-governmental organizations’ ability to work or receive funding
- Whether inside or outside of parliament, it is important that participation in democracy includes diverse voices and is free of discrimination. Yet in many countries, there are still barriers to involving the most vulnerable or excluded in society from democratic governance – a denial of people’s rights which can lead to underdevelopment, instability and poor governance
- There is no one-size-fits-all solution to ensuring meaningful public participation for democracy. But to identify tailored solutions, political leaders must involve citizens in democratic decision-making and build partnerships with them
- Accessibility is a key characteristic of a democratic parliament. This means involving the public in the work of parliament – and promising that people’s contributions will influence decisions and political outcomes
- Everyone in society has an equal right to be listened to, and to be able to take part in decisions that affect them. Parliaments should attend to the diverse voices within their societies. Those in positions of influence have a responsibility to ensure that those on the margins of society are able to contribute, and are comfortable in doing so
- Women should be able to take part fully in politics and in civil society. They should be able to learn about their democratic rights and responsibilities, improve their political skills, and become fully involved in political life
- Some countries have procedures to encourage the involvement of marginalized groups – for example, political parties may have mechanisms to ensure the under-represented can stand for election; steps can be taken to ensure diversity within parliamentary committees; and selection of parliamentary staff can be used to ensure inclusivity and diversity
- Public participation seeks out and facilitates the involvement of those potentially affected by or interested in a decision – including on how they participate, and in providing them with the information to take part in a meaningful way
- A democratic parliament will seek to foster and ensure a vibrant, strong and freely operating civil society and to work closely with it in finding solutions to problems facing the country, and in improving the quality and relevance of legislation
- Democracy Day is an ideal time to consider how public participation in democracy can be increased in your country. Visit our Get Involved page for ideas for practical actions, and our Events & Activities page for details of events being held around the world
See our Get Involved page for ideas on how to put these solutions into action.
Rights and responsibilities
|You have the right to:
||It is your duty to:
|Say what you think (freedom of opinion and expression; legitimate restrictions on hate speech and incitement to violence)
||Inform yourself (so you can make reasoned choices)
|Join with other people (freedom of assembly; development of civil society; increasing influence)
||Vote (in elections at different levels; formal participation)
|Express your preferences (vote in elections; speak in public meetings and enquiries, at local or national level)
||Have political conversations (develop your own ideas; exchange ideas with others)
|Call for change (petition; propose; lobby; debate; protest peacefully)
||Respect other people’s views (political tolerance)
|Become a representative (go further in your political engagement; stand for election; set up a group; campaign for a political candidate or party)
||Stay engaged (don’t think that no-one is listening – and remember that change will only come because people make it happen)
All citizens – whoever they are – have these rights and responsibilities equally.
The age at which eligibility for national parliament starts in a third of countries.
Rights to public participation
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states that every citizen has the right and opportunity to:
• Take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives
• Vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors
• Have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.