High-level Conference: The Role of Decentralisation on the Consolidation of Democracy in Albania and European Integration

Tirana, 30 October 2012

Session IV:   “Strengthening citizens’ democratic participation”

Gaye DOGANOĞLU, Vice-President of the Chamber of Local Authorities

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In the past year we have seen large demonstrations in Greece, Spain and London, as well as the on-going revolutions in the Arab world give us daily reminders that the role of citizens and civil society is in full evolution, that people need effective ways to express themselves and to participate in the democratic process.

Equally, elected politicians, at all levels, need to give citizens the possibility to influence the political process in between elections.

It is important to allow citizens to express their own preferences and opinions, and to involve them directly in local and regional governance. This will improve transparency and increase public confidence in the democratic process.

The participation of citizens in public life is a central component of the idea of democracy. Effective democracy is not possible without the involvement of citizens. This is no less important at local and regional level than in national politics.

The European Charter of Local Self-Government states that ‘the right of citizens to participate in the conduct of public affairs is one of the democratic principles that are shared by all member States of the Council of Europe.’ This statement was further developed in the Charter’s Additional Protocol on the right to participate in the affairs of a local authority.

Just last week the Committee of Ministers adopted a reply to our recommendation on citizen participation saying they regard the citizens’ participation in local public affairs as a fundamental component of effective democracy.

But how can we do this? How do we strengthen citizen’s democratic participation?

It seems to be self-evident that in order to boost citizen participation, we need active citizens participating in democratic processes to begin with. We need citizens who are well informed of their rights and civic duties, of the situation in society in general and their community in particular, and who are capable of exercising these rights, fulfilling these duties, and taking an active stand in defending democratic values.

The level of the civil and political awareness of citizens that is necessary to ensure the health and development of a pluralist democracy is a crucial element of democratic citizenship.

However, this does not happen overnight. Building such citizenship is a process in itself, which involves civic and human rights education, access to democratic mechanisms, and both institutional and legal framework allowing for direct interaction with public authorities and for the exercise of the freedom of expression.

We in the Congress are convinced that we must begin with creating a broad framework for education for democratic citizenship in our societies, spanning all levels of governance but embedded in particular at the grassroots.

It is at the level of our local and regional communities – villages, towns, cities, provinces and regions – where people learn their first democratic experience, and where their interaction begins with society, with public authorities and with democratic institutions and mechanisms. It is not by accident that starting at the grassroots and building up is a career path of many a politician.

Ladies and gentleman,

The Congress has at its disposal, a fantastic tool to promote and foster democratic participation at a local and regional level, which has a beneficial impact both on local authorities and citizens.

I hope you have already heard of it, as on the 5th October, my colleague, John WARMISHAM came to Tirana to launch the European Local Democracy Week 2012 in Albania, as part of the programme of activities of the Albanian chairmanship of the Council of Europe.

The Week is a campaign to encourage the involvement of citizens of all ages in their local communities: from primary school children to the elderly. In hundreds of municipalities and towns where local authorities hold the ELDW, various groups of citizens get involved in events, wherein each group and each individual play a role. Everyone has the right to raise questions with those who are entrusted with the care of citizens, and the right to get answers. This is the spirit of the European Local Democracy Week.

In this way, the ELDW represents an important tool for developing participatory processes in communities across Europe. Each year the number of local authorities and associations which take part in the Week is growing and this is a welcome sign.

The ELDW is not a campaign for politics or for creating consensus; it is an event for democracy. It is an opportunity to meet people, to shake hands… but, most of all, the European Week of Local Democracy is an opportunity to hear from people, to know about their concerns and their daily needs. And this is very crucial in this period of financial instability.

The European Local Democracy Week gives local authorities an opportunity to boost their profiles and to remind them of their responsibilities, not just to represent the citizens, but to build a better society.

I invite you all to visit the Congress website to read our recommendations on education for democratic citizenship and citizen participation and have a look at the page that is dedicated to the European Local Democracy Week to see what other regions, cities and villages are doing and what you can do to get your citizens - the people who elected you - more involved.

I would like to conclude by stressing that local authorities have a duty to promote and facilitate active citizen participation because the quality of local democracy is an essential building block for the quality of regional, national and international democracy.

Our villages, towns, cities and regions have the potential to become catalysts for nurturing, developing and spreading the values that lie at the heart of democracy.

Local authorities can take an important step towards realising this potential, and can ensure that they live in communities which enable their citizens not only to develop personally but also to contribute fully to public life.