Political parties are losing the trust of our citizens, who are looking for ways and means to have their voice heard. Internet can offer such possibility, but is it also transforming the nature and functioning of democracy? More and more political and civic activities are moving online, but do citizens participate and influence decisions to a greater extent? Is there a risk that despite its positive potential, the use of digital communication technologies erode(s) civil and political rights, fragment(s) the democratic debate, and undermine(s) the capacity of representative institutions to shape a common position?
These questions were discussed by the 1000 participants from more than 100 countries who gathered in Strasbourg, France, on 27-29 November at the World Forum for Democracy “Rewiring democracy – connecting citizens and institutions in the digital age”, organised jointly by the Council of Europe, the French government, the Alsace Region and the city of Strasbourg.
Discussions were based on real-life examples. The twenty-one Forum Labs analysed thirty three digital participation platforms and initiatives, assessing their impact and the potential risks they carry for human rights and the integrity of democracy. Many of them reinforce the legitimacy, transparency and responsiveness of the governing institutions and help re-build a relationship of trust between citizens and their representatives. Others bring direct democracy elements into the representative system and create tension which may in turn reshape the institutional architecture of democracy.
These new developments do not, for the moment, constitute an alternative to representative democracy. Politics online is still mostly politics as usual. Digital communication tools have not so far produced a dramatic increase in public participation or trust in representative institutions, neither have they hailed the end of these institutions. However, the speed and scope of change are great, and we need to make sure that it reinforces, rather than weakening, democracy. In order to do so, the Forum pointed to some crucial tasks ahead of us:
• Encourage/promote change in political parties to enable greater openness, transparency, accountability and responsiveness to grassroots input, including by exploiting e-initiatives
• ensure that e-participation schemes are transparent, auditable, and accountable to participants and the wider community and in conformity with the highest standards on protection of privacy
• step up media literacy to enable citizens to make full use of the opportunities of digital technology for self-empowerment and participation in political processes.
These tasks require strong partnerships between international and national actors, the CoE is ready to play its part and welcomes other partners in joining efforts to address these challenges.
The Forum participants awarded the Council of Europe Prize for Democratic innovation to Women Of Uganda Network (WOUGNET).