Can the protests push Brazil to rediscover democratic innovation?

Alex ShanklandAlex_Shankland200

In an earlier blog article I argued for the need to look at both the state and the citizen sides of the democratic equation in order to make sense of the recent unrest across Brazil. Here, I argue that the Workers’ Party (PT)’s period in national office may turn out to have been a period of dangerous stagnation on the ’state side‘ of the democratic innovation equation.

At first sight, it seems absurd to speak of ‘stagnation’. Since President Lula came to power in 2003, the number of national policy conferences – large-scale deliberative-democratic processes that engage literally millions of citizens in discussing priorities in different policy sectors – has grown significantly. Public investment in training and resources for the tens of thousands of participatory management councils that oversee health, education and other services across Brazil’s 5,500 municipalities has also been boosted. At a conference I attended in Brazil in April on ‘Participation, Democracy and Public Policy’, the Director for Popular Participation in the President’s Office, the highly-respected former civil society activist Pedro Pontual, outlined the government’s commitment to enshrine in law a ‘national system of popular participation’.

Where is the next generation of innovations?
The conference reflectedthe vibrant state of Brazilian research and practice in the field, through a mass of well-attended panels and a rich series of plenary debates. Yet, despite its positive atmosphere, I felt a certain uneasewhich stemmed from the fact that most of the research discussed at the conference had focused on well-established forms of participation. Where was the next generation of the innovations that we have come to expect from Brazil, as the world’s leading laboratory for participatory democracy? The policy conferences, deliberative councils and participatory budgeting processes analysed were mostly based on models that have been around for the best part of two decades. Despite the massive social, economic and political changes that Brazil has undergone during this period, they still follow much the same format as when they were introduced.

The PT governments of the 2000s have helped these innovations from earlier decades to gain greater solidity and scale, but they have neither enabled them to fulfil their potential as sites for genuine deliberation nor matched them with further innovations in participatory governance in areas that are now being contested by the protestors – a gap that is particularly crucial in the infrastructure sector, as Leonardo Avritzer has pointed out.

Even the impressive promises of the ‘national system of popular participation’ seemed to emphasise more of the same rather than radical new departures. Above all, the proposed system seemed to assume that Brazilian citizens would continue participating in future as they had done in the past: either discussing face-to-face in neighbourhood participatory budget meetings, or accepting that their engagement with the state would be mediated by the collective actors of the post-1988 settlement: progressive political parties and labour unions, or community associations and social movements that have adopted the formal structures that are required for the state to recognise them as part of ‘organised civil society’.

Only a few speakers at the conference recognised that this assumption may no longer hold. One of them, a representative from the PT municipal government of Canoas said that the Canoas municipal administration was no longer relying on dialogue with collective actors and on the institutionalised ritual of the participatory budgeting cycle. Instead, it was now trying to link these into a much larger ‘ecosystem’ of participation channels (including an online ‘Virtual Agora’), as part of an attempt to elicit constructive engagement from citizens who are ‘both more atomised and more connected than ever before’.

Old-school participatory politics
President Dilma Rousseff’s  response to the protests did not suggest that she has taken the opportunity to learn from the experience of her party’s administration in Canoas. When the President finally made a televised address to the nation after more than a week of protests, she recognised that ‘in order to deliver more, institutions and governments have to change’. But her concrete proposals seemed either timid
or over-hasty: first offering to meet the heads of Congress and the judiciary
to urge them to work better together, then proposing to summon a Constituent
Assembly – only to downgrade this to the promise of a plebiscite on reform of
the party system.

The President spoke eloquently about the ‘need to inject oxygen into our political system’ and ensure that institutions become ‘more easily-permeated by the influence of society’, emphasising that ‘the voice of the street should be heard’ and priority should go to listening ‘to citizens and not to economic power’. But her first effort in this direction was all old participatory politics, based on the assumption that social movements necessarily have structures and leaders who can be engaged as partners in governance without losing popular legitimacy. Showing little awareness either of the reality of citizens, or of the protestors’ rejection of institutionalised mediation, she offered to meet in person ‘the leaders of peaceful protests, the representatives of youth organisations, labour unions, workers’ movements and peoples’ associations’.

A group from the Movimento Passe Livre (MPL, free transport movement), which called the initial protests at bus and metro price increases in São Paulo, did take up the President’s offer, but they left the meeting in Brasília on 24 June saying that they had found the Presidency ‘completely unprepared’ to discuss the economic feasibility of their demand for free urban transport, and stating that their willingness to hold a dialogue with the government did not mean an end to the struggle in the streets. The MPL stopped well short of an outright rejection of dialogue, but its representatives’ comments contain plenty of echoes of the scorn that the new voice of the Brazilian street has so far shown for all kinds of institutionalised political engagement.

Going forward
The national PT government will need to move beyond this old politics thinking if it is to recover the party’s reputation for skill and creativity in bridging ‘both sides of the equation’. It has already lost much of this reputation by allowing democratic innovation to stagnate while seeming to ride roughshod over local concerns in the drive to push through big infrastructure projects.

This is about much more than the fate of a single political party, however: the Brazilian state as a whole badly needs to recover its capacity for democratic innovation, or the post-1988 flowering of effective strategies for institutionalising non-violent citizen-state engagement risks becoming a footnote in the country’s history rather than the turning-point and template for the future that many (including me) hoped and believed it to be.

Alex Shankland is a Research Fellow in the Participation, Power and Social Change research team at IDS.

This is the second post in a short serious of blog posts on the state of democracy in Brazil. Read other blogs by Alex Shankland:

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