Reforming the political system: giving power back to the people

José Antônio Moroni1

In the countries of the global South, as in those of the North, political parties dedicate all their energies to contesting elections that will enable them to control the spaces of power. Very often these spaces are used to perpetuate government by oligarchies in which nepotism, corruption and personality cults are rampant. In the face of this, peoples’ movements and organizations are the only force capable of promoting real political change that goes beyond electoral platforms and that can genuinely empower the people, teaching them not just how to attain power but how to “be” the power.

The need for political reform is a recurring theme in political life in virtually all countries. This by itself is enough to show that people are to a degree rejecting the ways in which politics is currently conceived and practiced. The mechanisms (parties, electoral processes, representation, etc.) that have traditionally been seen as the legitimate way of “doing politics” are in crisis and have lost credibility among large swathes of the population. In other words, the people do not feel that they are part of these processes. Politics has become the exclusive province of elite groups and consists merely of manoeuvres within traditional institutions. To make matters worse, the State is reacting to the global crisis with a corporatist survival instinct and is becoming increasingly closed, a process that is leading to an even greater loss of legitimacy.

Given this situation, how can new ways of doing politics be conceptualized? How can new democratic institutions be created? These questions are for peoples’ organizations and grassroots movements to try and answer, because most of the political parties are concerned exclusively with fighting elections.

In Brazil, for example, political reform has been on the parliamentary agenda for a number of years, but it has always been based on election or party interests, or has come to the fore in response to some great corruption scandal. Given the casuistry that characterizes electoral debate, changes tend to focus on short-term re-election issues rather than a long-term strategy, which is why most of the population think that political reform is only about reforming the electoral system.

The question of political reform is also featured in academic debates and in the media. In the realm of academia it is little more than a subject for study or research, while in the media it is either treated as the potential solution to all the country’s ills or presented in a pejorative way. In both spheres, however, it is considered as an instrument to improve governance by the State (to maintain elites in power) or to make administration more efficient (to cater more efficiently to the interests of these elites).

In the NGO sphere – and particularly among grassroots movements that defend the interests of the majority of the people – political reform is seen in a wider context. It is necessarily geared to promoting changes to the political system, to political culture, to society and to the State. In short, political reform should be understood as reforming the decision-making process itself, which in turn means reforming power and the ways it is exercised.
Democratic principles and systems

Democratic principles must guide genuine political reform and be the basis for new institutional systems. These principles include equality, diversity, justice, freedom, participation, transparency and monitoring by the people. The peoples’ movements that are pressing for reform to the political system have a platform in which these principles are defined as follows:

Equality: The rights and responsibilities of women and men should be balanced. These grassroots movements are also against great differences in income and land ownership, the appropriation of wealth produced in the world of work, and unequal access to a range of resources including health services, education, decision-making spaces, political representation and international trade.

Diversity: These must be respect for diversity, including differences of gender, age, race or colour, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or other factors. There is also diversity in the different geographical spaces that have some sort of social organization (e.g., urban and rural areas, traditional communities, shanty towns, riverside communities, indigenous communities) and as regards the different economic activities of a space (e.g., natural resource extraction, handicraft, family farming, fishing).

Justice: Human, economic, social, cultural and environmental rights must be defended, rights that are being violated must be restored, rights that are not yet officially recognized must be claimed, and new rights should be created where needed. These movements are against practices that benefit private interests to the detriment of public well being, and this includes cronyism, patrimonialism, nepotism, corruption, bigotry and discrimination. These movements support the democratic system, the republic as a form of government, the rule of law and the struggle against inequality and injustice in all its forms.

Freedom: This basic principle embraces freedom of expression and the right to popular organization and mobilization in political activities. These movements seek to guide citizens to express themselves and act politically to defend democratic values such as equality and human rights, and to oppose and act politically to rectify situations in which there is social, political, legal or economic inequality. The principle of freedom presupposes the right to freely organize political parties.

Participation: This involves participation by the peoples’ democratic movements and organizations in public decision-making spaces. This should come about preferably through the institutionalization of direct democratic mechanisms that are participative, and should bring peoples’ movements into the conceptualization, design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of public policies. This is also a learning process insofar as it develops people’s abilities to intervene and function effectively in public decision-making spaces.

Transparency: There needs to be transparency and open access to public information, which should be available in a way that is intelligible to the population as a whole. This includes the ongoing wide dissemination of unbiased information about public decisions, not only in the field of elected or designated representatives but also in the realm of State bureaucracy. The State has an obligation to uphold ethical standards, to increase communication between citizens and the government, and to fulfil the human right to information.

Monitoring by the people: Peoples’ movements and social organizations with a democratic base should act as a watchdog over the State apparatus and monitor what the government is doing. Good quality monitoring presupposes transparency in the public sphere and access to State information. The aim of monitoring by the people is to ensure that public policies are defended and implemented in line with the criteria of equality, universal participation, diversity, justice and liberty.

Tackling deep-seated problems

Genuine political reform must tackle problems that have their roots in the very origins of many countries, such as male dominance, patrimonialism, oligarchy, nepotism, cronyism, personality cults and corruption. In the platform of people’s movements these are defined as follows:

Male dominance: Any system of political, economic, industrial, financial, religious or social organization in which the vast majority of the senior positions in the hierarchy are held by men.

Patrimonialism: Political conduct on the part of dominant elites in the exercise of public government functions whereby public resources (of the State and/or its institutions) are appropriated as if they belonged to these elites.

Oligarchy: A form of government in which power is concentrated in the hands of a small number of individuals who are in many cases united by family ties or political connections, and who belong to privileged social classes. Typically, oligarchies tend to be dominated by men and to function in a patrimonialist way.

Nepotism: The practice of individuals in positions of executive power in the State apparatus granting favours by awarding jobs to their relatives.

Cronyism: The exchange of favours and mutual preferential treatment by individuals in executive positions in State structures and public services.

Personality cults: Creating cult status for individuals in the political sphere, which leads to the devaluation of political debate and the de-politicizing of conflicts.

Corruption: When individuals appropriate or re-allocate public resources for private ends and are able to act with impunity and maintain themselves in power. Another aspect of corruption is that it is a way of usurping the power that rightly belongs to the people.

To whom does power belong to and who should exercise it

Returning to the Braizilian case, the country’s Constitution defines the fundamental objectives of the Republic as “To construct a society that is free, fair and supportive”, “To ensure the development of the country”, “To eradicate poverty and marginalization and to reduce social and regional inequalities” and “To promote the common good regardless of origin, race, ethnicity, gender, colour, age or any other kind of discrimination”. It is also proclaimed that “All power emanates from the people and is exercised by representatives who are elected or directly appointed”.

If all power really does emanate from the people, as the Constitution stipulates, then the move to political reform is the move to find a way to return this power to the people. They should have the right to exercise power directly and not just through appointees or representatives. Today power is exercised basically by political parties and through electoral processes. Is this enough? Or should new ways be sought through which power can be exercised?

It is only too evident that the current institutions are unable to fully attain the objectives of the Republic as laid down in the Constitution, and there is a feeling that a gulf has opened up between the electorate and their representatives. This is heard in the comments of ordinary members of the public: “Why bother to vote? I vote for change and then nothing changes” or “There’s no point voting. After the elections they just do whatever they want”. People’s confidence in democratic processes is at risk. It follows that, if democracy is going to survive, it will have to re-invent itself. It will have to create new mechanisms for participation that put decision-making in the hands of the entire population.

Political questions and heterogeneous organizations

Political reform should be aimed at radicalizing democracy so as to tackle inequality and exclusion, promote diversity and foster participation by ordinary citizens. What is needed is a reform that can widen people’s possibilities and opportunities to participate in politics, that can include and process projects for social change, that can bring into politics those sectors of society that have been excluded such as women, people of African descent, homosexuals, indigenous groups, the young, people with different abilities, the elderly and all members of society who are being denied their rights.

However these groups do not want to be “included” in the established order; they want to change the established order. And for this to happen, political reform must be seen as a key element in the criticism of the structural relations that make up the system, not only political relations but also personal ones. These population groups know that patrimonialism and the male dominance that goes with it, cronyism and its inseparable accomplice nepotism, populism and personality cults have all combined to eliminate ethical and democratic principles from politics. They know that these oligarchies are ridden with corruption and based on many kinds of exclusion including racism, ethnocentricity, sexism, homophobia and other types of discrimination. These are all structural elements that are built into today’s political system.

How can democracy be radicalized and still be coordinated with the system as it stands, with its political parties and elections, for example? One strategy has been to create nuclei or sectors within the parties themselves, but this approach has proven to be fragile. Even the strategy of founding a new political party has proved to have limitations. So, what new strategy can there be? There is as yet no clear answer to that question, but there are things in the air that might have the potential to trigger change, such as the whole process of constructing the World Social Forum, the emergence of networks of grassroots organizations on a horizontal basis, public meetings to debate popular projects for Brazil, and so on.

However it is important when talking about these “new political questions” to have an idea of how these people’s movements and organizations are organized and of the political relations among them. The organizations in this field are not homogeneous; quite the contrary, they are extremely heterogeneous, their interconnections are complex and their political ideas vary widely.

One of these ideas is that the instrument of change is the State, and everything will be resolved when the contradictions inherent in the relation between capital and labour are resolved. Consequently to bring about change an instrument (a political party) is needed to compete for control of the State. According to this idea, for example, inequalities rooted in gender, ethnicity, race, sexual orientation, etc., will be resolved automatically with the establishment of a socialist or communist regime. Thus there would be a kind of hierarchy of movements consisting of a general movement that is concerned with the sphere of capital and labour (mainly the union movement), and also specific movements that are concerned with relations between people (women, people of African descent, children, homosexuals, etc.). In this context it is logical to assume that the general movement is the most important.

On the other hand some people have ideas that have very little to do with the capital-labour relation or the class struggle, but centre on the notion that it is possible to resolve inequalities rooted in gender, ethnicity, race, etc., just by winning over individual consciences. In this philosophy the struggle on the institutional level, and hence the role of the State as one of the main forces perpetuating these inequalities, is not important.

This analysis of two kinds of approaches makes explicit some of the political differences and therefore possible strategies. Of course, it is only a simplified overview of a panorama that is in reality much deeper and more complex, as there are many more philosophies on the scene than the two mentioned here.

Core elements for political reform: new institutional structures

In order to initiate the process of radicalizing democracy in Brazil, action is needed in five broad areas, as follows:

1. Strengthen direct democracy;
2. Strengthen participative democracy;
3. Improve representative democracy (the electoral system and political parties);
4. Democratize information and communications;
5. Democratize the judicial system.

The Constitution includes several instruments for the direct manifestation of the people’s sovereignty: plebiscites, referendums and people’s direct initiatives. In practice, however, the regulations governing plebiscites and referendums make it impossible for the people themselves to set them in motion. The power to call a plebiscite or referendum is now the prerogative of Parliament, and the people themselves can only participate when they are called upon to vote. Only twice in 20 years has Parliament resorted to these instruments. As to people’s direct initiatives, the regulations governing this process have become so complicated by bureaucracy and red tape that they are simply not viable as an instrument of direct participation. In fact Parliament has used its power to impose regulations to neutralize all three instruments. They therefore need a new regulatory framework, and new forms and mechanisms for direct participation have to be created, such as a people’s veto, for example. One basic principle of this new regulatory structure must be that people are able to utilize these instruments.

The whole architecture of participation has to be re-thought. The existence of spaces for participation does not automatically mean the redistribution of power. There are currently some 70 national public policy councils (institutional spaces in which peoples’ movements and the government come together), and in the last seven years there have been more than 50 national conferences, but these spaces have had little impact on how public policies are conceived. A holistic participation system should be constructed that covers not just social policies but economic policies as well.

Representative democracy needs to be improved and strengthened, with priority given to making political parties genuinely democratic and facilitating electoral processes. The essential priorities must be party loyalty, financing campaigns exclusively from public funds, closed-list voting and proportional representation with respect to gender and ethnicity. It must be possible for the citizens of the country as a body to revoke government mandates. Above all, there must be equity in political disputes that are carried on in the institutions of representative democracy.

Information and communications must be democratic. Information must be treated as a public good, and all citizens should have the right to produce and disseminate it under the same conditions. This means a public, people-oriented – rather than State – system of communications will have to be set up, a system with the power to counterbalance the power of the private information distribution media.

In addition, the judicial system must be democratic. A republic cannot have a judicial system that is as centred on itself as the one in Brazil today. There ought to be a system or mechanism that makes this state organ accountable to the population as a whole and obliges it to keep the public informed. There must be an overhaul of the ways in which judges are appointed and senior positions in the courts (including the Supreme Court) are filled.

Power relations in society have to be made democratic as well, and this includes the relations between women and men, children and adults, and the young and the elderly, not only in people’s personal lives but also in the public sphere. From this perspective, democracy is much more than a formal political system, it is also the way in which people are interconnected and organized. Therefore, bearing these factors in mind, political reform means giving power back to the people. It should never have been taken from them in the first place.

And, when it comes to considering new strategies and new ways of doing and conceiving politics, the key question today in open, democratic public debate is not how the people can come to power but how they can “be” the power.

1 Member of the Management College Body of the Instituto de Estudos Socioeconômicos (INESC) and of the National Executive Council of the Associação Brasileira de Organizações Não Governamentais (ABONG).