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“Reinventing democracy in the digital era”
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“Reinventing democracy in the digital era”

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Christine ShahbenderianA more systemic approach is needed to entrench citizen engagement in democratic governance, writes Christine Shahbenderian, 23, a Correspondent from Nicosia in Cyprus, who argues that it is high time for us to do democracy differently. 

“[The] key characteristic of democracy is the continuing responsiveness of the government to the preferences of its citizens, considered as political equals” — Robert Dahl

Democracy as a political form of governance is increasingly dysfunctional, and lacks the characteristics needed to solve complex modern problems.

When Aristotle devised the concept of democracy in Ancient Greece almost 2,500 years ago, he laid out its ideal quite clearly: the few ruling with the consent of the majority. The direct or contact democracy of Ancient Greece, which entailed contact between individuals engaged in political dialogue and those entitled to vote (even if always a minority of the actual inhabitants of a city, as women, youths, immigrants and domestic slaves were excluded from the process) is the absolute contrast to our ‘representative democracy’.

While our world has radically transformed since the invention of Grecian democracy, our democratic institutions have not. They fail miserably to cope with modern challenges and opportunities. Today, the evidence is overwhelming that the age of party democracy is coming to an end. The trends are familiar: declining voter turnout, dwindling party membership, and rising volatility and fragmentation. Additionally, global changes in the 21st century mean that the biggest challenges confronting our current generation – climate change, the banking crisis, the Euro crisis, immigration and overpopulation – cannot be solved at the national level alone.

Unlike Ancient Greece, nearly all citizens today are entitled to vote, but as Claudia Chwalisz argued in an excellent recent essay on democratic discontent, the correlation between voting and policy-making has eroded to the extent that the public now questions whether voting matters. Many young adults are also noticing that parliaments have less influence in the decision-making processes that impact many aspects of their lives.

This requires a re-invention of democracy.

Democratic institutions reflect truths that go far deeper than what meets the eye. The only levers of pressure are the citizens’ ambitions, insights and capacities. Therefore, for a change to take place within the institutionalized pattern of democracy, these are the essential elements. The scope for ambition, insight and capacity is extremely limited when we equate democracy with parties and elections. As recognized accoutrements of democracy, elections are perfectly fine, even commendable; however, equating democracy with elections robs it of its potential and hides the real brilliance behind demokratia. As a Chinese proverb tells us: “the beginning of wisdom is to call things by their right name”, and how we think of democracy depends very much on how we brand it.

Some changes are beginning to occur in the way democracy is being practised. Civil society groups, cities, organizations, and government agencies have begun to experiment with a host of innovations that promote decentralization, inclusion and diversity. Changes at the periphery can cascade to changes at the core, especially as the speed of change accelerates with the expansion and diffusion of technology.

Certainly, a more systemic approach is needed to entrench equal citizen engagement in democratic governance. Investing emotional and intellectual energy in electoral politics will not be sufficient. Projects like ‘Re-inventing Democracy in the Digital Era’, however, hold a better promise. Conceived in Cyprus and initiated by Yiannis Laouris, chair of the non-governmental organization Future Worlds Center, the project aims to re-invent democracy. It also uses Co-Laboratories of democracy (which enables large, diverse groups to dialogue and generate positive results towards a common goal) and explores how future and emerging technologies can contribute towards designing a better system of democratic governance. The idea of power of the people –one of the basic premises of democracy – is also at the core of the project, which I believe constitutes a major gravitational force for the future practitioners of democracy.

The need to re-invent democracy is not only reflected in initiatives like Re-inventing Democracy in the Digital Era, but also among facilitators of change. The generous contract signed with the United Nations Democracy Fund in 2014 to implement this specific initiative world-wide serves as a strong case in point.

Innovative platforms like the aforementioned project harness the power of ideas and actions of ‘ordinary citizens’. We stand to lose nothing if we use these platforms to understand what communities want and need, and hence turn the key characteristic of democracy into reality.

Photo credit: Image URI: http://mrg.bz/wHmHNG

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 About me: I am doing an internship at the Cyprus Red Cross and learning everything about humanitarian diplomacy. I recently completed the MSc in International Relations at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Ever since I remember, I have been passionate about history, geography, diplomacy and international development. I try to blend these interests and apply my knowledge in promoting effective democratic governance and civic engagement, as well in assisting with projects concerning conflict-resolution and peace-building in my homeland, Cyprus.

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Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth Youth Programme. Articles are published in a spirit of dialogue, respect and understanding. If you disagree, why not submit a response.
To learn more about becoming a Commonwealth Correspondent please visit: http://www.yourcommonwealth.org/submit-articles/commonwealthcorrespondents/

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