“Listen to us and let us have a direct say,” say citizens worldwide

“Listen to us and let us have a direct say,” say citizens worldwide

In Peshawar, Pakistan, members of marginalised groups – including religious minorities, transgender Pakistanis, women and people with disabilities – speak to researchers about their experience of democracy in Pakistan.


A group of women fighting back against sexual harassment in Trinidad and Tobago. Marginalised members of the discriminated Dalit caste in Nepal who believe politicians only talk to them when they want their vote. People concerned about the impacts of corruption in Mexico.

What do all these people have in common? They all live in societies that describe themselves as democracies, where every few years people get to vote for a leader and party. Yet still they feel no one listens to them. People see political power as something impossibly distant from them.

These groups are among the hundreds of people from across the globe who recently took part in grassroots conversations that sought to get to the heart of what citizens think about democracy today. The ‘Democracy Dialogues’ formed part of a year-long research project, run by global civil society alliance, CIVICUS, in which we listened to people in over 60 countries to hear what they’re unhappy about with the state of their democracies, and what change they want to see.

While recent headlines have been dominated by the march of right-wing populism across the United States and much of Europe, our conversations have clearly revealed that the problems go much deeper than that.

In every corner of the world, people are frustrated that they don’t have a voice. They’re angry about the barriers that hold them back and they don’t see change coming from conventional political processes and establishment politicians.

This is one of the reasons why people in many places are embracing extreme ideas and political positions: they are desperate to try anything that seems new, to break with routines of failure.

The circumstances vary widely – from countries with long-established democracies like Denmark and Germany to those where strong-arm leaders are attacking democracy, such as Tanzania and Turkey, to countries poised at a potential fork in the road after recent change, including Malaysia and Myanmar. But across the spectrum, one thing is clear: citizens want more of a say, not less. And despite the polarising swing in favour of right-wing ideologies in some parts of the world, we found very little support for notions that democracy should be replaced with more autocratic or militarised forms of rule.

Many of the most vital struggles of today are to establish working systems of representative democracy – with free and fair elections, genuine political competition, representation of a plurality of viewpoints, accountability of political leaders, and checks and balances, including autonomous parliaments and judicial systems, and space for political opposition. Clearly it is important to support these, not least to show that the regressive tide can be turned, and tyrants can be toppled.

More direct democracy, please

But the widespread dissatisfaction seen in countries with long-established and functioning systems of representative democracy – reflected in apathy, political volatility and polarisation – show us that representative democracy will never be enough to meet this demand. The need is to have practices of democracy that are more participatory and direct, that give people more of a voice.

Direct democracy implies referendums – which, of course, are risky endeavours for progressive causes. It isn’t just the UK’s Brexit referendum that delivered a setback for progressive voices. We’ve seen plebiscites railroaded through in unfree conditions that reflect not popular demand, but a desire by political leaders to extend their stay in office by rewriting constitutions – most notably in Bolivia and Uganda – using a constrained vote as a legitimising stamp. We’ve seen referendums encourage polarisation around the narrow binaries of a ‘yes/no’ question. Clearly, referendums are problematic when they give people the opportunity to remove rights, rather than extend them.

But we’ve also seen referendums that are driven by popular demand and enable moments of decisive shifts in social and political attitudes. Examples include Australia’s clear vote in favour of same-sex marriage, and the overwhelming support that overturned Ireland’s abortion ban. Even when civil society campaigning does not lead to the hoped-for victory for progressives, as in Argentina’s recent abortion referendum, we see that they can offer opportunities to advance an argument, recruit support and act as way stations on the road to change.

So, we need more of these moments. We need to see direct democracy, including referendums, as presenting crucial tipping points for participation – as opportunities to mobilise and recruit support for progressive causes, build new coalitions and show civil society’s work at its best.

We, in civil society, should not be timid – we have to believe that if our arguments are strong enough and if we are given a fair chance, we can win debates and claim victories. If we do not have that confidence, what are we in this game for?

Of course, to have a fair chance of winning arguments, we need open space for civil society, an essential precondition for democratic debate.

But alongside direct democracy, we need more participatory democracy. Ireland’s abortion reform proposal came out of a citizens’ assembly, in which a representative cross-section of citizens was convened to help make progress on a deadlocked issue. This is a model that should be used more, not least to overcome polarisation and foster participation. We also need to explore more the potential for quick, participatory decision-making to be enabled by widely available mobile phone technology. Of course, this implies a need for safe and secure technology over which we have strong democratic oversight – but we should be pushing for this anyway.

Another important lesson, gleaned from the ‘Democracy Dialogues’, is that democracy cannot be confined to the national level only. Many of the key decisions that affect the lives of people we talked to are made at the city level, or in villages or neighbourhoods. These are the spaces where progressive voices need to engage and encourage participation, and community consensus can be forged and ways of working that leave partisanship at the door can be modelled.

It is incumbent on all of us who believe in social justice to work in and enlarge these spaces and join debates to win support for our causes. We need to have experiments in participatory democracy, and civil society must lead in this. If we don’t, then we continue to hand the initiative over to the populist peddlers of deceptively easy answers – and we can’t afford to do this.