14. Juni 2007


Empowerment: The Role and
Responsibility of MP’s – 13 hypotheses

Keynote speech on the CoE-Forum for the Future of Democracy (III)
Stockholm/Sigtuna, 13-15 June 2007

by Andreas Gross (Switzerland), MP and Political Scientist

The following is a brief outline of the PACE- Report on the State of Democracy in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe, for which I was the rapporteur, in 13 hypotheses:


I would like to start my first hypothesis with a question: Why do you think so many people have a negative connotation of the term of power, but have a positive connotation of the notion of empowerment?

Because power is experienced as the power of others, of a few others, whereas they understand empowerment as a personal, individual opportunity.

By empowerment many understand what the democrats during the French Revolution started to understand by the notion of freedom: Freedom is not the right to choose between options, freedom is much more then the possibility to choose between Pepsi Cola and Coca Cola. Freedom is the right, the capacity and the opportunity to act together with others on common existential grounds; freedom should be the guarantee, that life is neither a destiny nor a fatality.

Therefore in a Democracy we should not accept a negative notion of power; everybody should have enough power in order to be free, but nobody should have too much. That is the idea and the project of empowerment.

Democracy is a permanent, on going, never-ending process. Parliamentarians have a special responsibility, a unique opportunity and a particular obligation to keep this process going.

But in which direction should this process be kept going?

In order to be able to answer this question one needs to know what democracy means and how empowerment is possible.

Of course Democracy is a concrete utopian idea, a real project. But do not fall into the trap, many Swiss fall into when they confuse utopia with illusions. Concrete utopias are good ideas, which have to be achieved as best and to the greatest extent possible, while being aware, that it may never be done in a perfect way. Utopia shows the way, the direction and offers the motivation to go on and not to give up.

The utopian idea of democracy is an equal distribution of power among everyone, so that freedom does not become a privilege of privileged few leading at the same time to the general feeling of powerlessness among the majority of human beings.

Democracy and empowerment mean that all those who are concerned by a decision may be part of the decision-making process:

This also means not only nationals, because Democracy is a Human Right and is not the privilege of nationals.

If the decision concerns people on the other side of the national border they should be integrated in the decision making process as well too.

If Democracy is a Human Right, children also have to have it; it is not a privilege of the elderly who will be concerned by a decision for a lesser length of time than the youngest.

It is interesting that Democracy and legitimate political power seem to be at home in the nation-state.

This is interesting, because the former French Prime Minister Leon Blum stated, already 66 years ago, that the nation-state has ceased to be the best way in which to organise mankind.

The former federal president of Germany said, already 25 years ago, that the nation-state is too big for the small concerns and too small for the real big issues.

This means: Democracy needs decentralisation as well as trans-nationalisation and one is not possible without the other. One needs to give much more power to the Municipalities and the Regions, where people can handle the local and regional issues best.

But one needs also to constitute democracy on the trans-national level; one must also empower the citizens above the nation-state, where the most important economic powers and market forces express themselves.

Democracy is only able to civilise the market-forces and to make them respect the weak and those values, which can not be expressed in prices (Think about the key value we all want to achieve as best as possible, justice) when it is able to express its power on the same level as the market-forces.

And do not imagine one can do one thing without the other: If one confines a strong democracy to the local and regional level, people think the real questions are answered without them being able to have a say and they pull out of local democracy. It would be impossible to think about building a trans-national democracy if people already feel alienated on the local and regional level. One needs their good practices and experiences if one really wants to have the courage and the self-confidence to go on building democracy also on the trans-national level.

Empowerment and democratisation also mean not limiting participatory democratic rights to election rights. Elections are not the only democratic way to participate.

Empowerment means that one has the right to cancel temporarily the delegation of power delegated in the last election: It should give one the right to ask for a citizen’s vote on a specific legislative matter or a proposal for constitutional or legislative changes.

This is not aimed at putting into question the legitimacy of representatives or representation itself, but aims to make representation more representative. When citizens’ are able to express their ideas and expectations and evaluations more frequently between elections, parliamentarians learn and know more about the diverse reality and about their citizens.

It is very useful to see that in those democracies where citizens have more participatory rights than mere elective rights, the members of Parliament also acquire more power. Parties and party-bosses loose the monopoly of power and they have to share it more in a better way with others. Parliamentarians can have a better individual standing and are collectively stronger towards the Government, because they can show that the citizens back them in their concerns.

In democracies in which Citizens and parliamentarians participate more and in diverse forms in common decision-making processes:

a.    Everybody has to command less and has to convince more. Politics become softer because they are more communicative, power has to legitimise itself more often, in more diverse ways and amore convincing manner.

b.    Decentralisation of power and empowerment of the citizens enables an improved and more civilised integration of diverse societies, people feel less excluded and discriminated against, overlooked and tend to identify more with the society as a whole because they feel they are recognised as a integral part of it.

c.    Politics and political power acquire a higher legitimacy, and in this way may increase their own power because they have constantly to address those who are the only source of legitimate power, the people.

If one makes people participate directly in the shaping of important decisions everybody will learn more. Nobody will have the ambivalent privilege of having so much power that he or she does not have to learn anymore (Karl W. Deutsch: «Power gives you the privilege not to have to learn»). The power will be more equally shared by all so that nobody can avoid having to learn.

Turning our societies into more learning societies is one of the most important conditions for enabling them to face the challenges the ecological crises is confronting us with. One will never to be able to impose a way of life which respects ecology; people will have to learn it by reflecting, discussion and decisions about it.

By increasing citizen participation we may overcome the biggest deficits of today’s democracies, the weakness or crises of political power: In today’s polity, democracy and politics do not allow the societies to achieve the potential they have. This is what frustrates many citizens most: They are not allowed to achieve what they would be able to; in politics they are limited in their right to express themselves. That is why they are so eager to get more power, to have a better share of power, to be empowered.

More and more skilful citizens will be able to achieve – also by looking at the experiences of the European Convention for Human Rights, Court and the Parliamentary Assembly of the CoE – more and more elements of a new global democracy.

This will contribute essentially to a more fair distribution of life opportunities worldwide. This would reduce the most alarming structural violence of our time, the fact that two thirds of the people worldwide still live in poverty. This is violence and violence is always and everywhere an expression of great deficits of democracy.

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