‘Participatory Democracy’

Well known political science scholar and academic, Professor Kenneth Good recently visited the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes, to present a paper on ‘participatory democracy’.

The paper entitled: Athenian Participator Democracy: 508-322 BCE: Empowering the people and controlling elites. Professor Good insisted that his paper was not ‘academic’ but ‘scholarly’.

Addressing the audience, he said democracy was not a gift from a ‘benevolent elite’ then, but rather ‘grew from the ‘collective decision’ of ‘ordinary men’ who had began to conceive of themselves as ‘potential citizens,’ ‘responsible for one another’s welfare,’ rather than as ‘exploited subjects of landlords or great man.’

Participatory or participation democracy, which is a form of governance where everyone is involved in directly making political decisions, is believed to have worked in Australia some centuries ago. Athenian participatory democracy, said Prof Good was built on the belief that all citizens, regardless of material wealth or academic achievement, were equally capable when it came to politics.

This meant that every citizen had a role to play in how things were going to pan out around them, and not any particular person based on what they had was going to represent them. This form of politics, or government was believed to have also been motivated by the idea that decision making by a large number of people (participants) was better and sounder a solution than those made by a selected few.

According to Prof Good’s paper, the assembly, or ecclesia as it was known, was the decision making body on the big issues such as war and peace; the making of treaties, declarations of war, assigning generals to specific campaigns and determining what forces should command, amongst other such decisions.

Some people asked if the elites were irrelevant completely from this form of governance. According to Prof Good the elites and those with education were not left outside as the ‘democracy sought to utilise their skills and experience in specific areas, while controlling their powers and restricting their ‘oligorchical’ tendencies.’

In this form of governance political institutions were designed to bring together different groups of citizens in multi-layered arenas and institutions. This political system also meant that one citizen could only be allowed to serve on the Council for only two annual terms, and there was no two consecutive terms. In order to give as many citizens as possible an opportunity for political office, they utilised a rotational system.

He added that this prevented the Council from acquiring a ‘strong and possibly elitist institutional identity. It remained the ‘servant to the Assembly’ which could vote a bill drafted by the Council, change it in debate, send it back with instructions for re-drafting or replace it with an entirely new bill.’

Professor Good is a Professor in Global studies at RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia.

By Rudzani Floyd Musekwa


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