Democracy is not important

Why participation is so important in a democracy

The way citizens think and act are central to a functioning democracy. In times in which the legitimacy of representative parliamentary democracy is sometimes questioned, the democratic awareness and the feeling of being able to represent and participate in one's own concerns within democracy must be strengthened among the citizens. A study carried out by the Democracy Center Vienna deals with two forms of civil society participation in Vienna.

Lived democracy

Political education functions as a mediator between the citizens and the socio-political reality, i.e. the topics and events from society and politics in our everyday life. The thoughts and actions of the citizens in our society, regardless of age or citizenship, are of central interest here. Linked to this is the question of how these judgment and action competencies can be promoted. In addition to political education, a participation repertoire that includes as many citizens as possible is necessary in practice in order to contribute to a functioning, i.e. lived, democracy.

The study "Forms of Participation in Vienna - A Look at the Viennese Petition System and Local Agenda 21" was carried out by the Democracy Center Vienna with the support of the City of Vienna in order to examine two institutionalized forms of civil society participation in Vienna. The research focus of the presented study is on the Viennese petition system as well as on the Local Agenda 21 Vienna. Direct democratic or deliberative opportunities for participation are presented that are comparatively inclusive and thus potentially take into account as many citizens as possible in Vienna.

Democratic participation and its hurdles

Conventional forms of participation such as elections have lost their importance over the past twenty years, while active citizen participation has become more relevant. With regard to opportunities for participation, in the context of social change, there are some legitimation deficits within the changed democratic landscape. Despite these changes, elections continue to play a central role in helping to shape the political framework of a representative democracy. However, this central instrument excludes third-country nationals in particular. In Vienna, the number of Viennese over the age of 16 without Austrian citizenship has increased significantly in recent years. In 2017, 444,611 Viennese over the age of 16 and thus 28.1 percent of this age group were not eligible to vote, and the trend is rising.

But political participation and co-determination are an important basis for developing one's own role in democracy, for developing political judgment and action, regardless of origin and citizenship. In the context of this socialization process, it is particularly relevant to grasp the connections between political issues and one's own living environment, i.e. individual everyday life. Exclusive forms of participation to which non-Austrian citizens have no access stand in the way of a feeling of belonging. Politics may not be adequately comprehensible, especially for young people, as it is partially inaccessible and thus appears abstract or not very relevant for one's own behavior and everyday reality. Political awareness is only promoted through one's own active actions within the framework of inclusive offers and participation opportunities, and political topics and concerns become more accessible.

Potential for civil society participation in Vienna

The Viennese petition system is one of the two examined possibilities. It is based on an old political participation concept. Since 2013, Viennese have been able to address concerns and demands to the municipal council committee petitions and citizens' initiatives in the current form. As a direct democratic procedure, petitions are an important addition to the representative delegation and decision-making process and are even among the most widely used forms of democratic participation. It should be borne in mind that with the help of this form, citizens only have creative potential in connection with institutions and actors in representative politics.

Despite this aspect, this procedure appears comparatively open compared to other direct democratic forms of participation, as it offers all persons who are registered in Vienna above the age of 16, regardless of their citizenship, the opportunity to address their concerns, demands and suggestions to the municipal council committee on petitions and citizens' initiatives. If 500 declarations of support are reached, the petition has to be dealt with in the committee. However, this committee only has a consultative function and no decision-making power. From 2013 to April 2018, 164 formally admissible petitions were submitted. Of these, 98 (68 percent) received at least 500 declarations of support and were forwarded to the Petitions Committee. Topics that are often addressed relate to construction projects and urban district design, traffic, preservation and / or livable design of public space, preservation and / or improvement of public facilities and services.

So far, 54 of the 164 petitions related to the entire Viennese community level and 110 to the district level, as can be seen from the following graphic.

Accordingly, the success rate of the petitions seems to be fundamentally correlated with the locality and tangibility of their concerns. On the basis of this, it can be assumed that localized, concrete, tangible concerns often have better mobilization structures and that the motivation of those directly affected in the organization and application of the petitions is comparatively high.

This confirms how relevant the relationship to one's own everyday life and personal environment is for political interest and individual willingness to act. It should be emphasized that this form is open to Viennese people without Austrian citizenship, but does not include people under the age of 16.

The Local Agenda 21 Vienna represents the second possibility of participation examined. This deliberal participation model, which is geared towards public participation, is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year in Vienna. The focus of this procedure is on citizen participation through opinion-forming and planning processes. It is less about specific decisions and more about information and consultation. In the past twenty years, more than 500 local Agenda 21 processes have been carried out in municipalities, districts, cities and regions on a nationwide level in Austria. The aim is to develop sustainable district projects together with citizens and politicians. In Vienna in particular, a third of the agenda groups work on the subject of public space. Other central subject areas are the design and planning of one's own neighborhoods (Grätzl groups), social exchange and diversity, awareness-raising, children (educational offers, parents' meetings and design of play spaces), collective management, sharing and local markets. Other agenda groups can also be characterized as platforms and network types.

The objectives are sometimes improved inclusion of non-Austrian citizens and general social cohesion in Vienna. For this purpose, the expert knowledge of the citizens is used in a targeted manner. In practice, however, it has been shown that particularly highly educated people of the urban middle class are clearly overrepresented in organization and participation in voluntary initiatives. Existing social imbalances in participation run the risk of not being caught, but rather being reproduced. That is why LA 21 Vienna implements "activation measures" as low-threshold as possible, primarily through the individual district offices, in order to counteract the tendencies described.

An important theoretical strength of this opportunity to participate is its openness to all Viennese. Regardless of nationality and, compared to the petition system, they are also invited under the age of 16 to become active in the agenda groups and projects and to take part in events.

Democratic change requires diversity of participation

The presented study refers to the potential of employment with different participation options. In practice, participatory forms of participation show specific deficits, the reasons for this are sometimes structural and sociocultural inequality and grievances that must be addressed at the systemic level. However, these challenges underline how relevant as diverse as possible participation offers are within modern democracies. They represent an opportunity to deal with deficits and legitimation crises in democracy and make an important contribution to living democracies, social inclusion and the promotion of responsible citizens. Despite some deficits, both of the opportunities for participation examined can be understood as instruments of practical political education in Vienna due to their direct democratic or deliberal character in the sense of a participatory understanding of democracy. Political education therefore also includes political experience in social practice. (Lara Möller, Dirk Lange, September 10, 2018)

Lara Möller is a political scientist and university assistant in the field of didactics of political education at the University of Vienna and a research assistant at the Democracy Center Vienna. Her research interests lie in the areas of civic awareness, subject-oriented political education, democracy education, right-wing extremism, racism and historical-political education. She is a board member of the Austrian Society for Political Science (ÖGPW).

Dirk Lange is university professor for didactics of political education at the University of Vienna and scientific director of the Democracy Center Vienna. His central research topic is citizen awareness. Current work focuses on political education research, historical-political didactics, political teaching-learning research, everyday life and migration-political education.


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The content-related responsibility for the contribution lies solely with the author.