In Conflict Zones, Could Democracy Work Without Elections?

Iain Walker offers on the role of participatory democracy in areas without a working government – and why attempts to solve conflicts often fail

June 2024
June 2024
June 19, 2024
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A recent opinion essay in The Jerusalem Post offered a novel solution to the thorny debate over what form of government should run the Gaza Strip once the seemingly interminable Israeli assault comes to an end and troops are withdrawn. 

The answer offered by Iain Walker, executive director of the newDemocracy Foundation, sounds deceptively simple: Let the people run it. In other words, as the headline says, “democracy without elections.”

His proposal is a form of citizens’ assembly, as practiced widely in Europe but expanded to actually run the government: Fifty randomly selected people from all walks of life would form a Council of Citizens to provide governance and government. Members would serve for a single, fixed term, after which a new group, also selected by lottery, would take their place. 

Proximate tracked Walker down in Australia, where newDemocracy is headquartered, to learn more about his experience with participatory democracy in populations without stable existing governments, or a history of citizen engagement in decision-making. 

Proximate

What was the “seed” for this proposal? Many experts in conflict zones will probably say it’s a bit utopian to simply “let the people govern.”

Iain Walker

I had a conversation with someone involved in international conflict resolution and he observed that, “Many of the places we go into, we leave them worse off. Just look at Myanmar. There’s been a decade of all these groups shooting at each other, and the UN approach is to take those hundred warring groups and tell them to agree on a new constitution. It never works out.”

And so I thought, what if instead that job was given to a random group of residents? They wouldn't have the mindset of, “I must win the conflict.” They'd just be citizens who want to live and thrive. And that was the genesis of my thinking about why attempts to resolve conflicts fail. 

Political entities on all sides, everywhere, are incentivized to stoke enmity and not trust the other, even though they’re each saying, “I’m doing this to protect you.” “Ordinary people” are more focused on making day-to-day life work and not dialing it right back up to 11 again.

Proximate

There is somewhat of a precedent for “governance by the people” when a government has collapsed. In 2001, Argentine President Fernando de la Rúa resigned after mass protests (after the IMF halted loans to the country and the government froze citizens’ bank accounts). In response, Argentines formed hundreds of neighborhood assemblies to fill the vacuum.

Walker

What sets citizens’ assemblies apart, however, and gives them their legitimacy is the random, or lottery, selection of participants.

Proximate

However, Gaza lacked “infrastructure” such as a citizen database, even before so much was destroyed, including the killing of many of its professional class. How do you address this?

Walker

We have some experience with this challenge. Remember, deliberative democracy is essentially a set of basic principles; it's not a fixed, cookie cutter model.

We worked with the UN Democracy Fund to look at the potential of implementing citizens assemblies in Malawi (among other areas), which is the fourth poorest country in the world (about $350 GDP per person).  There were no street names, no addresses, no database. But we said to them, “What we care about is getting a broad cross section of society.” Our local partner there was a village chief, and he said, “In my area, on market days, people bring all their produce to the highway. This is where you get the greatest gathering and cross section of society.”

So, he walked through those markets and handed out pieces of colored paper. Then he had a little kid pull a stick out, with paint on the end of it. People who held that color of paper came over and put their name down. Once they got a large sample, they adjusted by very roughly matching it to the general statistical data they did have. Like, it should be 50-50 male and female, 40% under age 25, etc. It's not about perfect. It's about, does this broadly look like my society?

Proximate

One of the tenets of citizens’ assemblies is that participants should be representative of the overall population. Doesn’t that mean including members of different factions? In the case of Gaza, members of Hamas? And then, I must ask, wouldn’t external players like the Israeli and U.S. governments oppose the effort?

Walker

To the extent that people who are affiliated with Hamas in some way are reflective of a portion of the people of Gaza, the answer is yes. However, I think it's reasonable to exclude people who have held paid political employment with the party. We do that in Australia. But somebody who worked in a government-run hospital, for instance, should not be excluded.

Candidly, this possible objection is why we placed the op-ed in The Jerusalem Post, which we understand is the favored newspaper of the government. We were trying to reach them with a message that, “You are not going to shoot your way out of this. You need to think creatively.” It's like Vietnam; the U.S. knew how to get in but didn't know how to get out. 

Proximate

Many members of the younger generation in Gaza –and across the Middle East, actually – feel divorced from and distrustful of government and “politics.” This makes the concept of citizens’ assemblies attractive but might also be hard for them to relate to at first. What kind of reactions have you received to the concept in this region?

Walker

In 2012 or 13, as a result of the Arab Spring, I attended a conference at the library of Alexandria (Egypt) and I introduced the idea. I could tell the audience was a little lost by it. And then someone among four or five people who had been chatting at the back put up his hand and cited a word in Arabic. He explained that when I say lottery, I should use that word, which I can’t remember now, which means “chosen by God.” And I was like, that’s basically the same idea. People have to put it in their own terms.

Bottom line, though, we’re not asking everyone to automatically trust it. We’re asking them to try it for one to two years, and ask, “Does it make decisions that resonate for you and make your life better?” Also, the purpose of our op-ed was not to say that we have the answer for the people of Gaza, or anywhere else actually, but to plant a little seed. And if citizens’ assemblies are not the answer, maybe it will be one-twentieth of the answer.

Proximate

You say you're a pragmatist. But in your op-ed about Gaza, you’re talking about people who are currently very low on Maslow’s hierarchy. They are literally hungry. Is it realistic to expect them to devote the time and mental resources necessary for a citizens’ assembly?

Walker

Of course, there are absolute minimums that people need first, like restoring water, power, shelter, health care. You need to first get to a basic starting point. And I'm absolutely concerned with, for example, do people feel safe to participate? It's not a day one type of activity. But the thinking needs to start now.

My intent in writing the op-ed was to kickstart some creative thinking about democracy when there is a vacuum of ideas. The existing path of all sides doesn’t lead anywhere good. What we should look at is, how do you break the cycle of incentives to further drive conflict? And to me, that means putting the process more in the hands of everyday people, who are most impacted.

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