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Workshop on Participation: Enabling or Hindering Democracy?

29 November 2013

Political participation is usually considered to be a basement of democracy, as the sovereign people legitimise their leaders through it. But can it also pose an impediment to it in a society that is more and more digitalising itself?

This was to be discussed in the workshop which was held at the meeting on Chances and Risks of Social Participation and moderated by Ulrike Klinger, Senior Research and Teaching Associate of the IPMZ, Zurich, with Juan Carlos de Martin, Director of the Nexa Center for Internet & Society, Torino, Martin Emmer, Director of the Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Berlin and Alexander Trechsel, Head of Department Political and Social Sciences, EUI, Florence, presenting their work on the topic.

As Juan Carlos de Martin pointed out, it is not the technology that matters, but the politics. If there is no credible political offer, people will not participate. He disclosed this by referring to the recent example of Beppe Grillo and the Five Star Movement Party (M5S) in Italy. Though taking its start online, the M5S built up momentum when combined with a charismatic personality, bringing forth the political agenda and matters of concern in a traditional electoral campaign, resulting in a surprisingly strong outcome for the party, becoming one of the strongest in the Italian parliament in its very first campaign. In the aftermath, society and established political parties started to experiment with new forms of participation and inclusion, also involving online participation. Unfortunately this also led to efforts to change the Italian constitution in order not to promote participation, but to hamper it – keeping the political system as it were.

This fits in with the findings presented by Martin Emmer, who pointed out that most institutions of today, such as insurances, states, but also mass media and the society of millions, still employ the same structures and behaviour as they did in the 19th century. An example for this would be the public administration in Germany that was taken by surprise by grass root movements such as “Stuttgart 21” or “nolympia”, when people started to participate and opposed public projects. Also the media is just adapting to the digitisation of society, as a dominance of online media in politics is yet to come, but an obvious trend is clearly visible. Therefore as habits in political communication change, the political system will have to change accordingly in order to meet new participatory needs.

Some of these needs can be met by voting advice applications (VAA) as presented by Alexander Trechsel. As the democratic field gets more and more fragmented, voters feel lost, at some times to a point of refraining from participating at all. But they are also curious, turning to tools as VAA in order to make political decisions. Such tools take a part in changing the democratic field and it will be a point of research in the future which role they play. In this manner it will also be exciting to see if VAA can provide not only a vertical matchmaking between voters and political parties, but also between voters themselves.

In the open session following the presentations all these implications were carried forth in a prolific and complacent atmosphere, as it became clear that there is a desire for participation in society that is not yet fully met by institutions and actors in the democratic field. It will be a future challenge but also an opportunity to make way for alternatives to a top down mobilisation of society.
This shows that the provocative question the session started with, began with false presumptions – participation cannot hinder democracy, democracy will rather be hindered if participatorial needs of the society are not met in an appropriate way in the future.

This post represents the view of the author and does not necessarily represent the view of the institute itself. For more information about the topics of these articles and associated research projects, please contact

Lennart Ziebarth

Ehem. Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter: Internet- und Medienregulierung

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