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International Dialogue: Article by Prof. George Papadimitriou

“Representative Democracy, Modern Technology and Citizen Participation”


by Prof. George Papadimitriou, University of Athens,
 Legal Advisor to the Prime Minister of Greece

The rapid development of technology and the dissemination of its applications in most areas of our every day life has created a totally new reality during the last decades. In the dawn of the new century this development accelerates with geometrical progress. Means of production, social structures and cultural activities have acquired a different content and a distinctive dynamism. Of course, the changes that take place cannot leave politics unaffected.

In contemporary democracy institutions and functions often maintain their archaic form. For this reason they create the impression that they remain almost unaltered facilitating the identification of the citizens with the political system. However, if we look closer upon the changes taking place in the core of the system we realize that traditional institutions are usually preserved as mere form. Within the institutions however differentiations are being born that redefine their deeper essence.

Some examples illuminate this significant process. The new technologies served as a catalyst, radically affecting the content and functioning of many individual rights, while their constitutional protection remains the same. Moreover, new rights of specialized and refined content constantly develop out of the traditional rights. In another area, parliamentary institutions are still ruled by traditional provisions. Their function however, in the new high tech environment, affects their essence and repositions them within the political system, usually reducing their importance.

Under these circumstances representative democracy’s institutions as we so far know them loose ground while their self-subsistence belongs to the past. In this process a new public space beyond traditional institutions is being formed. The citizens realized in time the significance of this space and cultivated new practices and initiatives; they created in germ new social institutions and tried to take over and fulfill its potential with resourcefulness and vigor. In this endeavor they used technology as a lever as it provided them with great potential and means to get organized and spell out their social and political ideas.

 Democracy provides the foundation for political organization in all European countries and the European Union. This holds true primarily for representative democracy but also for participatory democracy though less conspicuously. The latter is gaining momentum through civil society with or without an institutionally organized manner. Civil society tries to cover the gap being created by traditional institutions thus contributing in handling the democratic deficit, which has been taking place during the last decades.

The most characteristic expression of civil society are the Non Governmental Organizations, while the creation of various NGO networks provides the most interesting example of their construction at supra national as well as global level. NGO’s and their networks spread like mushrooms, tending to become the basic parameters in certain areas (e.g. protection of the environment, protection of human rights, combat against racism and xenophobia and consumer protection), or in the entire political system.

The aforementioned development was due to the rapid dissemination of technology which served as a catalyst and amply provided endless possibilities and means. Without this development our political system would not be able to offer new prospects to our citizens. It would stagnate in traditional structures, evolving with a relatively slow pace.

The NGO’s and their networks are characterized by their mobility and dynamism, looking forward to the creation, development and establishment of participatory institutions and practices. Through their functioning, they emerge as the new protagonists in the social and political development. Their contribution is crucial in highlighting and tackling many new and old problems in non-conventional terms, with new ideas and fighting spirit. From this perspective the NGO’s and the networks play a very distinctive role in our democracy as opposed to that of the political parties, contributing thus to the strengthening of the citizens’ position in the political system and to the upgrading of the participatory aspect of democracy. These are new organizations of flexible structure, concentrating their effort in selected areas, providing citizens with new possibilities for participation in social and political life.

This prospect surely results from the explosive development of technology. The latter shapes the conditions which make possible from afar immediate and fast information and communication, dialogue, deliberation, which is one of the most important practices of contemporary democracy, and coordination of action. In this new environment, the citizens, through the use of computers and multi-media, acquire new opportunities to participate in common affairs and influence the decisions especially over issues of their concern. Moreover, these opportunities are being realized without the limits from the boundaries of their countries, at supra national or even global level.

However, the influence of the new technologies is important for the citizens’ active participation in the context of the political system. Their usage offers many new opportunities for participation in the functioning on the one hand of national and European parties and on the other hand of institutions. The application of new technologies attributes a new dimension to democracy, the so called electronic democracy. Information, communication, deliberation, votes and referendums constitute characteristic examples which are adopted either in the form of demo programs or through their incorporation into the political system. These applications offer in turn new opportunities to citizens aiming not only at reducing their alienation from politics but much more at their active and reinvigorated participation.

The dissemination of technology boosts up in many ways the citizens’ position in contemporary democracy. Its usage supports the participatory version and redefines the representative version of democracy. Representative and participatory democracy acquire in due course new meaning bearing competitive elements as well as antagonistic ones. This creative interaction can contribute in handling many of the felt democratic deficits and lead to democracy’s regeneration, as well as to the empowerment of institutions having always the citizens as their central concern.

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