Can Participatory Democracy Replace Representative Democracy Politics Essay

Over the past years, it has been observed that liberal democracy and it is choices of representations that is founded on appropriation of power through provoked consent has not been able to deliver freedoms and development and therefore, is considered a non functional choice.

This essay is arguing that participatory democracy is not only a viable alternative to representative democracy. But it is the only viable option for the troubled societies of the modern era; it descends from democracy in its true form “direct democracy” and hence leads to progress and development. Which constitute it attraction as a renewed theory seeks response to representative democracy crisis.

This essay used the model of Kerala in India to provide a case example of that participatory democracy with all its positive achievement is yet, to be empowered through proper participation and enriched experiences.

Using critical analysis the essay will provide discussions on the notions of democracy in general, representative democracy and its critiques and overview of participatory democracy origins and features shortly try to draw the distinction between participatory democracy and deliberative democracy consecutively then overview of discussions around the Model of Kerala participatory democracy, finally discussions between PD/RD in the context of the developing world.

Democracy: the contested notion

According to William Connolly, democracy is a fundamentally contested notion on which it is impossible to reach an agreement (Barber, 1984). Although the differences in opinions might be frustrating it still does not destroy the worth of the contested concept. Before we indulge in the discussion whether participatory democracy is a viable alternative to representative democracy or not, we must understand what those terms stand for and how contested visions interpreted them, but first understanding the term democracy in its essence.

Although a recent article by Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (2005) highlights revealed evidences that democracy has been theorised in many civilisations including Asian, African as well as in European and American. But, as part of our “Eurocentric” knowledge (said 2003); the word democracy commonly makes its origins from ancient Greece.

With the supremacy of the Roman Empire, the theory of democracy declined. However, it found its way back into the European thought with the fall of the Roman Empire, primarily because of the translation of Aristotle’s “politics” into Latin in the early 1260s. (Beetham 2005) Since then debates on democracy have become a vital part of the Western culture and have continued to grow and merge into mainstream thought process. It is interesting to note that when Aristotle spoke about democracy in his work, he meant direct democracy; a form in which people rule and are ruled in turn. The underlying issue is that self-government is deemed as a critical element of democracy or in fact the essence of democracy.

In present times where most discourses on democracy are occupied by discussions on election; elections are held for relatively longer times, indulge in exhaustive policy-drafting roles, the conditions of democracy are not met and hence the government no longer remains a democracy but turns into an oligarchy, despite the participation of all citizens in the election process. However, with due course of time, with redefinition, the notion of democracy has gained a new history to a certain extent, one which has almost nothing to do with its roots in ancient Greece (Bruce 2004). The previous concept of democracy had evolved because of historical incidents where lower classes, mostly the peasants, acquired a more active and unique civic status. Hence this form democracy origin begins with European feudalism rather than Athenian democracy.

In our modern era, many people regard democracy as sacrosanct, and they are not eager to adopt or even try different governing. Amartya Sen (1999) in his article Democracy as a Universal Value, building on the argument that there are diverse origins for democracy criticising the tendency toward oversimplification that “The practice of democracy that has won out in the modern West is largely a result of a consensus that has emerged since the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution”(p.15) and it need to be exported to the rest of the world. He rejects the claims that “Asian values” and traditions are not supportive for democracy, providing examples from Asia and Africa history, making the point that “democracy is a universal value” (p.16).

One important issue coincided democracy practice and theory is “the majority rule”. Dahl (1989) provides rational justification for accepting the majority rule using four different ways including: maximising the number of people “who can exercise self-determination in collective decisions” (p.138); majority rule is more likely can reach correct decisions, finally it maximise the utility based on maximising the satisfaction on decisions and there is no other cost-effective rule. Although justification form authors who favour or disfavour majority rule are always present it has been accepted in most practices of democracies. For instance see David Estlund (1997), who argues against the majority rule and “fair proceduralism” and favour of “fair deliberative proceduralism”. However, in this regard the term democracy has been understood as “government by consent” (Bhagwati 1995).

The term democracy became a reference to a field where different parties test the strength and feasibility of their respective point of views, or even as a reward to be accomplished by a party that can provide the most solid, logical and convincing arguments (Barber 1984). The western practice of democracy was heavily shaped by the consequent politics of representation that followed the French and American revolutions, moving away from the face to face interaction of the ancient Athenian city “direct democracy” to representative democracy (Dahl 1989).


Similar to the overall democracy concept, the notion of representative democracy is no less contestation (Saward 2008). The varieties of human experiences in practicing representation enriched the notion, and made it almost impractical to define using dictionaries statement. The theories have gone far, for example Michael Saward (2008) is claiming that “all democratic politics is representative politics” (p.1005), denying that the direct democracy is not “more democratic” than the representative democracy and representative democracy is not in contrast with direct democracy but incorporating it.

However, I can outline three peculiarities in order to understand representative democracy mainly 1) Election: people vote to elected officials to be considered as their democratic representatives; they have 2) Delegation: they are delegated by their trustees, to practice 3) Mediation: they are assigned to speak on behalf of social groups interests within a forum normally referred to as assembly or parliament etc, having discussions to reach a 4) “Collective decision making”( Laver and Kenneth A. Shepsle 1994). In short, Representative democracy is about having fair voting process and the result of that voting determine who will decide and what decision are going to be decided.

Representation is based on the assumption that members of the society and social agents thriving for Nobel goals of their own society can act as the engineers of social evolution, in settings of cooperation, harmony, dialogue, respect for variations in culture and also for economic agents, opens up bright promising avenues for growth and progress. Primarily this assumption is challenged by the situation of the developing world of today where many democracies collapsed (Diskin 2005).

In the early seventeenth and eighteenth centuries coupling the growth of liberal thought in many western regions, division of powers theory and human right culture that claimed by the mentioned revolutions; the overall representative democracies form of governance and mixed governments has referred to as liberal democracies. Best example for this is England, which a mixed government where the King represented monarchic principle, the aristocratic one being represented by the House of Lords and the House of Commons symbolizing democracy. Now since the King was also identified as an executive, the legislature being the House of Commons, and the House of Lords at least to a degree as the judiciary (Chavez and Franklin 2004).

Within a representative democracy it is assumed that wide-ranging public and political association bonding the society, triggered from outside the political dome of liberal democracy for a mutual enlistment of forces of the entire society and productive cadres from the political groups set up the stage for a powerful and solid representative democracy (Gruegel 2002). In a similar manner as they interact in real life in social procedures and dealings. Expertise, skill and charisma are the true skills of any good governance, but only once reliability, democracy and integrity are ensured (Huber and Stephens 1997). Leadership is not by “self-postulation” in representative democracy which prevents turning suspected support, intellect or expertise into the key sources for any claims to leadership. Gentle, honest, moral, intelligent and social skills acquire enough space to speak for it and perform in a political liberation operation based on progress, representation and ideology, rather than be dominated into exclusion by the immorality and deficits that hold command over the otherwise political scene (Kaufman 1997).

David Beetham (2005) out line some principles to distinguish representative democracy form other forms particularly oligarchy to justify “rule by the few” including equal right for all citizens to elect and be elected for all public office except for those position that requires special qualifications. Transparent official and legal access to it, freedom of expression, and the right of forming associations including media firms and other forms of associations, with the possibility of influencing decisions from the bottom up, the rights of citizens are legally protected and they have the right to vote on constitutional amendments and changes. Undeniably, those are human rights together with other political, social and economical rights are essential frame work for any of our modern era’s forms of democracy, but not necessarily related only to the representative democracy.

The overall practice and theory of liberal democracy or representative form of governance has been critiqued and challenged by many political theories, importantly in this essay I will provide a brief overview about those theories, because re-theorising “direct democracy” in the name of participatory democracy has built its advocacy on the below areas of analysis:

The domination of elite theories: the classics elite theorist like Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, and Robert Michels, tried to articulate the gap between the governing group and the rest of society and highlight the domination of powers in few people hands, interestingly the critiques goes both side socialist and liberal arenas as it focus on the issue ultimate domination by few people to take the decisions, for Michels within any attempt to institutionalise the society there are going to be an “iron law of oligarchy”: an ultimate domination by few people in case of governments they are “beaurocrats”. A more recent attempts to articulate the same gap arguing that the public policies are and administration outcomes not reflecting the will of the citizens, but rather they are from an elite consensus (Bachrach 1967; Van den 1979).

The Marxist critiques of the state being a tool in the hands of the oppressor ruling class; which focus on the structural classification of the society, and articulates the domination of economical sphere, upon the politics and ideology without the necessity for ruling class members to personally oversee the workings of the government. In the Marxist views “the liberal democracy has been seen as distancing the masses from any genuine form of participation, and creating representative bodies (parliaments) which exclude and alienate the bulk of the population” (Blaug and Schwarzmantel 2003 p.232)

The anarchist critiques which emphasises the rule of propaganda in controlling the public, and the media “is naturally in the hands of the powerful” (Chomsky 2003 p. 246) and see the state has broken the “social contract” ; hence the call is for resistance and rebellion for aim of free Society.

The modern political theories critiques, one dimension is the claims that “economic factors exert a powerful effect on” voting decisions, depending on government economic performance the “political support can operate” (Sander 1994 p.93). Another dimension is the valid critique that within a representative democracy there are dynamics for exclusion. One convincing critique is the feminist one, which clarify the fact that “the basic unit of liberal democracy has always been a man, an actor in the public sphere, a male property accumulator” (Blaug and Schwarzmantel 2003 p.301).

Given the “destructive nature of the criticism that dominated the discourse around liberal democracy” (Duncan 1983 p.196), the liberal theorists in return considered remittances by practicing “deliberative opinions polls” and “referendums” in expanding the practice of democracy (Beetham 2005). David Beetham (2005) theoretically argues that a government can be a democracy only to the extent that that the selection to every office, or to each office, except the ones which necessitate expertise and skill, ought to be made by lot. This implies that nobody gets to enjoy the same position more than once except for the case of military positions (Beetham 2005), “thus any theory of civic skills must take into account that citizens are embedded in networks of social, as well as political, relationships”(Mutz 2006 p.150). One can argue Beetham (2005) that changing the faces would not change facts outlined by the above theories that representative democracy is not representing the will of people. Consequently, led to what Herbert Marcuse stated as “a mutilated crippled and frustrated human existence” (as cited in Duncan 1983 p.195).

Participatory democracy:

For participatory democracy a likely starting point is the notion of sovereignty or of “self-government”. Amongst the contemporary theories of democracy, this is the oldest and the only one that is widely accepted by citizens and political leaders, the theory was initially presented in writings of Thomas Paine, United States constitution’s preamble and even in Lincoln’s address of Gettysburg (Beetham 2005). A key component of this concept is political independence, that is, a given set of people shall not administer themselves if they were subjected to any form of governance by anybody outside that set/group. This is considered as an essential requirement for participatory democracy. Another prerequisite is that the given independent set cannot be subjugated by any monarchy, any other traditional aristocracy, or any other group, but is only accountable to and is controlled by the population in general (Pinkney 2003). The theoretical starting point of this stipulation is that in general people are fundamentally concerned with leading their own lives and have a basic right to do so (Gaventa 2004).

Digging in ancient Greeks theories of direct democracy and thoroughly studying the “social contract” of Jean Jacques Rousseau together with “on liberty” of John Stuart Mill, Carole Pateman (1970) came up with notion of participatory democracy aiming to reconstruct democracy by providing structural institutions reforms for participation. According to her the distinction criterion of the ideal form of participatory democracy, that draws the basic distinction between representative and direct democracy; is the equal opportunity of citizens to participate in decision making and in creating institutional platform for this participation based on the argument that individuals and institutions cannot be understood apart from each other. She takes the discussion further to look at the conditions of equal participation arguing that having representatives in the public domain will not ensure proper level of engagement of citizens on decisions affecting them. One of her major views, is the more participation the more “stable system of democracy” can be obtained. She argues that all social and political including family, employment institutions are to be democratised in order to reach the aspired ideal of representative democracy. She also emphasised the necessity of democratic training to be grounded at the family level as foundation for political public participation.

A major shift in Pateman’s notion of participatory was done by Benjamin Barber (1984) who also draws his work on Rousseau and the classics, he critiques of representative democracy which he considers “thin” meaning not “very democratic” and contradicting the Western values of social Justice, equality and freedom because of the second outline in the previous mention peculiarities of representative democracy saying:

It delegates and thus alienates political will at the cost of genuine self-government and autonomy. As Rousseau warned “the instant people allows itself to be represented it loses its freedom”. Freedom and citizenship are correlates; each sustain and give life to the other (p.145).

For him the absence of community sense in representative democracy makes equality just a “fiction” while social justice depraved by “encroaching” “self-sufficiently” and “personal autonomy”. Going back to Sen (2005) and Said (2003) and many others, indeed those principles and values are not Western, they are just human values, maybe Benjamin Barber failed to express the manner of values and relate them to the West, but he succeeded to emphasise the role of community in order to strengthen participatory democracy. When he prioritise community participation over individual participation, indicating that community participation when combined with essential training means real participation in setting the agendas for deliberation, legislation and on policy implementation. The individual participation is just another rational for individualism.

From the same point of favouring training, without direct link with literature of participatory democracy or the mentioned theorist framework, Paulo Freire (1970) coming from socialist prospective and using Marxists lexicons writing Pedagogy of the Oppressed a book that influenced and informed participatory democracy theory and practice. Freire (1970) laid out important foundations for developing world experiences of participatory; first by directing participation from the intellectual rhetoric of the west into the developing countries, secondly by centring the “dialogue” in the heart of participation to reach consensus and agreements and indeed “the earlier dialogue begins the more truly revolutionary will be the movement” (p.128); thirdly and most importantly attributing the theory with social movement aspects of empowering the people through abolishment the” teacher-student dichotomy” as very basic roles in participation.

To summarise the explanation of notion of participatory democracy, I can extract from the reviewed materials and from the above discussion cornerstones of participatory democracy, which involve 1) Democratic active political participation in all society institutions 2) Direct community involvement in dialogue and decision making. 3) Expansion of people participation in governance. 4) Empowering the community through the provision of relevant trainings. 5) Expansion of civil society role within the society.

It is very important to distinguish between participatory democracy and deliberative democracy, because there is overlapping between participative and deliberative theories as both points of views are mutually supporting.

In general, participatory democracy stresses on the extent of citizen participation, while on the other hand, deliberative democracy focuses on the quality of citizen participation (Fisher 2003). In order to comply with the participatory standard, it is essential for all citizens to be politically active with an additional requirement that their involvement be sincere and not driven be any logical reason. While these positions are unique, some advocates of either view contest the benefits of embracing the other one. In short, the advantages of complete citizen partnership will increase if their participation was reasonable, whereas, more widespread participation would boost the advantages of reasonable debate amongst the public. The most vivid distinction in the two ways is that participatory democracy possesses the tendency to absorb and merge civil society into its political system, whereas, the deliberative democracy identifies and even acknowledges the independent reality of the political domain (Webster 2002). Finally, in deliberative democracy different views continues to discuss until reframing a point of view that is mutually acceptable, while in participatory people may accept voting as an exit mechanism from the discussion.

Having discussed the cornerstones of participatory democracy, it is now worthy to mention that over the past twenty years or so participatory institutions have gained popularity throughout the developing nations in an attempt to intensify the quality of democracy. In countries such as India, Brazil, Indonesia, Venezuela, local governments have experimented with participatory form of government to foster accountability and create active and well-informed citizens which help in establishing the atmosphere for realizing social justice (Prendergast 2005). In these states, participatory democracy has been able to produce set political and social progresses which have immensely deepened the quality of democracy (Fisher 2003). Social capital was generated, empowerment of citizens became a possibility and most of all government systems started to became fair and transparent.

Insights of participatory democracy

More relevant to reality than theory is to provide a case, in order to analyse the rigour of the claims in the previous analysis of the theoretical framework, through summarising the outcomes of many studies and researches done around one case which is Kerala in India. The justification for selection of Kerala could be: it is an experience of participatory democracy within a developing country, it attracted hundreds of scholars from around the globe by claiming success in transforming the society (Ramanathaiyer and MacPherson 2000), literature is available, the size of participation claimed is very big compared to other places, it involve both rural and urban areas, it is relatively happened within an world’s largest democracy and the developing countries’ oldest democracy when compared to other examples of Porto Alegre of Brazil and south Africa, it broke through and within a society feudalism specifically caste system and then draw some lessons learnt from the case.

Note worthily the Kerala model of participatory democracy has been referred to: in consulted literature as “socialist democracy” (Heller 2009; Williams 2009) “participatory development” “‘Participatory governance” (Fung and Wright 2003; Hordijk 2005). For the aim of consistency and for the subject of our essay I will keep it as “Participatory democracy”.

Inheriting a burden of a developing region, with a diversity of social stratifications the socialist governments in Kerala adopted participatory approach in engaging the people in their own development (Parayil 2000). Village councils empowered through involvement in the preparation of detailed development plans that are then put to vote in village assemblies, 140 Assembly constituencies created, mass planning and participation conducted at least 10% of the population participated in planning activities, public meetings and seminars are routine for instance Maitreesh Ghatak and Maitreya Ghatak (2002) states that:”Since 1998 meetings have been regularly held in practically all of the around forty-five thousand constituencies over the state”(p.49)., trainings learning-by-doing workshops to directly involve citizens in decision making, the process made to connects the people’s deliberations to actual decisions is more direct and less subject to bureaucratic alteration, social-economic data collection, cadastral plan updating by citizens, On the construction of small bridges and roads many cases of public taking, and drains by themselves, participatory developmental project skills and experiences developed leading to mobilisation of local resources and voluntary networks and excellent projects deliverable in many cases below the estimated budgets, have been reported. Hundreds thousands of citizens are volunteering in planning execution of developmental projects. Networks and structures of expertise retired skilled workers were created and made functional. Mass social and community mobilisation campaigns conducted (Heller and Isaac 2003; Parayil 1996; Ramanathaiyer and MacPherson 2000; Ramachandran 2000).

Many strategies to enhance citizen participation were adopted including but not limited to: (1) allocation of funds that mandates that certain amounts must be spent on interventions targeting the needs of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes, addressing women, children, the disabled, and the elderly; (2) participation, in which one-third of the number of seats in the committees and assemblies is reserved for women and a proportionate number is reserved for marginalised castes and historically disempowered tribes and communities in the assemblies; (3) massive capacity-building and awareness raising intervention and campaigns to sensitize the involved with the planning process as well as the assemblers and committees; and (4) continuous monitoring and evaluation for these components at many levels (Chettiparamb 2006). The allocation of funds in practice was proportionally high “Starting in 1996, about 40 per cent of the state government controlled funds were devolved from the bureaucracy to panchayat village planning councils” (Ghatak and Ghatak 2002 p.53). It has been argued that this led to corruption cases (Das 2000), Indeed it did at the beginning but through transparency and participation in monitoring the practice has remarkably improved in terms of development “there have been some positive outcomes already, including a decline in the prevailing cynicism towards development activities”(Datta 1997 as cited in Crook and Sverrisson 1999).

Kerala participatory democracy model has already established its success in development, centring planning and mass participation as instruments of social mobilisation in decentralised administration; in which “the ultimate aim of decentralisation has to be to give opportunity for as much direct participation of people in daily governance as possible” (Isaac 2000 p.7). As well as supporting microfinance, which aims, alleviate poverty and empowers women (Devika and Thampi 2007)

In this state of 30 million of population, successive waves of social movements, a rich and competitive sector of civic organizations and citizens who know and use their rights have kept political parties and the State accountable, producing India’s most competitive party system and its most efficacious state (Heller 2000). Chettiparamb (2006) stressed that the confidence in civil society institution that competent of decision making was moderately aligned “with goals of participatory democracy, democratic decentralization, and deliberative planning” (p.188).

Success was based not on upraising some subaltern vision but by first destroying feudalism through popular land reform policies and incorporating many people in the anti feudalism policies and campaigns, then continuing to expand a participation on civil society. The expansion of political and social citizenship can become the basis for creating social change in Kerala. Applying examples from farming, small industry, and the informal sectors, Patrick Heller (1999) analysis of the political dynamics through which active participation has reduced the capitalist growth and transformed the state from a period of open class struggle and oppression relationships to one of citizenship conciliation. His work concludes that the model provide broader indulgent to the complicated relationship between participatory democracy and market economies in the context of developing country.

Ramachandran (2000) explains that high participation in Kerala and devolution of government into institutions and the government commitment in participation have increased the government expenditure on education and this is the explanation for higher literacy and better health awareness in Kerala.

Citing comprehensive statistical records and using a Chinese methodology in evaluating the development in Kerala, Ramanathaiyer and MacPherson (2000) research revealed a paradox that the state has achieved high scores according to the Physical quality of Life Index and Human Development Indicator and low economic growth according to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) figures in compared to other states which adopted representative notions in governance. Although the research has well documented the success of Keralas participatory democracy model it remained sceptical to the overall Known development goals and their contradictions with each other for example; achieving higher literacy rate does not really translate into higher employment where unemployment reaches “21.19 per cent”(p.45). However, relatively recent statistical records provides evidence on growth and improvements and sustainability in Kerala’s human development indicators; surveys proves that as well, such as the National Family and health National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3) (MHFWGI 2006); for instance in 2007 a research by Zacharia and Rajan indicated that unemployment has dropped to “9.4 per cent” (Kumar 2007). Hence Sen (1999) capabilities argument in development as freedom: there is more to be achieved in development than just GDP statistics, however, poverty is a major but not the only problem in the developing world, Kerala model stimulated the debate on the many concepts of development.

The Kerala model of participation remarkable achievement in social development indicators has led to question united nation’s common used indicators such as literacy rate, infant mortality rate, life expectancy, fertility rates, etc whether they are reflexive indicators for social development, While poverty still in the state (Kurien 2000). In contrast there are some scholars who argue that GDP as indicator is not properly reflexive and thus illusory (Pritchett 2000) or Kerala income is underestimated (Ahluwalia 2000).

Veron (2001) is arguing that Kerala model addressed some failures in term of community based sustainable development, relying on ecological and environmental aspects incorporated in his drew conceptualisation of sustainable development. He also sees the participation has not gone deep enough, thus “Kerala model has already included allocation of increased funds for village development plans, and has implemented decentralised planning process that that aims to involve the civil society at every stage” (p.612).

Since the 1960s Kerala received attention accreditation and praises, for instance Samuel Huntington (1968 as cited in Heller 2009) describes it “as an example of successful political modernization in the developing world”. And continued to be judged positively for example Amartya Sen (1997 cited in Parayil 2000) appreciated it with concerns about the economic growth.

There are many legitimate questions about what would happen when the socialist movement stop wining the elections?; Can this participatory mov