Local democracy: on balance and respecting minorities

 

Democracy is a matter of balance. Democracy is a dynamic balancing system that organises a space in society for a humane battle about convictions, believes, pragmatic approaches, and decisions on public matters. Furthermore, it provides room for self confidence of people. It serves as a battlefield for moral values, without the killings which are often inevitable in other societal systems.

The Ghanese and the Dutch system for local democracy are not that different. We face similar problems. The tendency of decentralisation of public tasks and laws is similar. As you experience in Ghana, we often get less budget when public services are decentralised as compared to the budget attached to those tasks when executed by the central government. We have our own complications and advantages from mixed systems on ruling and responsibilities, as the Ghanese have with the tribal and federal system. We can lose control, or at least oversight,  now and then of the complications of entangled public services along with private institutions, public-private enterprises, and hundreds of semi-privatised institutions, which are fully payed for with public money without direct public control.

Therefore, no principal differences, though there are differences in the size of the problems. We cannot solve all those governance problems immediately with high budgets, you cannot with low budgets. No difference in that.


Structure of democracy

What is the structure of democracy? Why does it work so relatively efficiently in Ghana and in the Netherlands – efficient, as compared to other systems.

Let us consider the four elements: goals, planning, methods and results.

  • Goals are your political convictions, what you wish to emerge in society
  • Planning is on how you plan to manage the process from wish to the emergence of your dreams.
  • Methods consist of steering continuously on your course, and accept that winds change
  • Results are not your dreams come true, but the results of all these social processes you tried to push towards your goal, as a politician. Results are often not congruent with your goals.

On goals

In 2002-2006 my political party, a new local party, had the conviction that the costs of some public services should define the price inhabitants pay for it. It is about public services as waste disposal, or the provision of a passport, not on all public services. Secondly, we had the conviction that the saving comes before the spending. Save for a new theatre and then build it; no loans.

These two convictions have rooted, though not drilled, into the brains of the members of council, certainly with the help of other political parties. They were political goals, and fairly successful ones.

In 2010, March 3, from the elections a new right wing party entered the council. Their conviction is that ‘the religion of the Islam is a danger to western society’. Within a week they aimed the public attention on their first ‘Islam’ issue – the selling of land to a private health care organisation for a multicultural institution for 24 handicapped children. They wish to disconnect all relationships between public spending and openly Islamic services. Think of halal cooking in that  health care institution. It is not on paying for such religious expressions. It is on spending public money on arrangements that allow islamic expressions. That is their conviction, which I think is totally wrong, not to say against the constitution. They will try to find majorities for their convictions. If they are successful, then the decisions should be executed. Luckily, in these cases a safety valve is installed. Such a decision will not be accepted by the Mayor, I assume. She can send the decision of the council to the Crown, to be submitted to a  National Constitution proof procedure. The decision will be corrected, I trust. Ghana will have its own safety valves in the democratic system, possibly via presidential or tribal ruling. It is a complicated balance, but it is a balance.

Concluding, two groups of political goals, one more or less successful, the other probably not. Both running from goal to result, balancing between all sorts of powers.

 

On Planning

Planning is putting power, third parties and facts in place. It is planning of the commonly friendly battle between the board of aldermen and the council. It is about the debate between the 10 political parties in the council of 39 seats. It is about the presentation to the council of practice oriented plans by the public engineers who make society tic, the civil servants. It is the clash between protesting inhabitants and council members on particular issues. It is the influence of third parties as housing companies. On all these fields there should be a limited number of rules, many unwritten rules and customs, an agenda, and some structure to organize this battle of values. It is a fruitful process. Sometimes plans improve, sometimes a compromise reaches a majority, sometimes plans fade away. No one wins. Now and then a plan is forced into the decision procedure with the power of the majority without the agreement of the majority.

This is the field of debating rules, the informal planning of finding support for your point of view. And it is the field governed by the two rules of democracy: express your convictions clearly and find a majority for your conviction. Planning these processes is the core of politics.

 

On methods

Methods can be formal, even prescribed by the law, but methods is more on slowly changing unwritten rules based on implicit agreement. One of our rules, with a weekly council meeting, is never to decide the same night. The rule is to put a period of a week between the end of the information and discussion phase and the final decision. Another rule is to end the meeting at 23 hrs. Both rules prevent hastily and unwise decisions.

Methods include atmosphere and manners. Be a bit formal in addressing at the small meetings, and enjoy a good laugh. Be more formal in the main council room, but don’t avoid being witty, or even theatrical. Be personal and friendly alongside the meetings. At the same time, always try to tests these rules. Ignoring rules now and then at the price of being corrected is the best method to keep the rules alive. Change rules by a majority vote. If you see politics as a matter of balance, than fixed rules are not very effective.

The 4-years period from 2010 on requires, to my opinion, to keep these methods, written or unwritten, intact, or better, alive by testing them continuously. This is urgent now a large and new political party – 9 seats out of 39 is large in our country – has entered the council. It is a feature of good governmental health that such swings in political opinions emerge. If our local political culture is alive and healthy, then it will improve from the entrance of this new party. The coming four years we must continue with, and even guard respecting political minorities. By necessity, as we all are a minority with 10 factions. This leads to the third rule of democracy, along a clear expression of convictions and finding a majority for those values, the third rule is ‘Respect the minority’. If a minority loses, let them lose proudly.

 

On results

The results will differ from your goal often. In the process between setting a goal and reaching a result your goal has been submitted to the battle of values between the board of aldermen, the council at large, mutual debate and trading between political parties, inhabitants and third parties. An example from 2002-2006. One of the issues of my local political party was free parking. It opposed prevailing anti-car sentiments. The argument was that roads, bus lanes and bicycle pathes are free, and public transport is subsidized. ‘Free parking’ means that parking facilities are paid from the general financial resources of the municipality, not from fees. It seemed fair to see no difference between public transport, car or bicycle.

We lost that issue. But we won another issue: the parking fee’s equalise the costs of the parking facilities. Parking fee’s are no hidden tax.

Our minority lost the case, but it was a fair battle, we lost proudly. And now we defend the result.

Goals change more or less on the route to final results.

Columbus was aware of that, after some time. His goal was to sail to India for a good trade. The result was that he ended up in America, a new continent for Europeans. He was quite satisfied with that result, not being his goal originally.

 

Concluding

Express your convictions clearly and openly. Formulate a practicable goal, plan your efforts with some rigor and be careful with your methods. Change your methods over time if necessary, by majority, but avoid too many formal rules. And cherish the results. Let the minority respect majority decisions. Let the majority honour all minorities.

 

Democracy is not on final agreement. Democracy is on a balanced disagreement.



Nico van Duijn                                                March 28 2010

Council member of the City Almere, the Netherlands

Sister City visit to Kumasi, March 21-26 , 2010

Addressing the Council of the City of Kumasi, Ghana