Universität Bielefeld

Political Participation

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The term 'political participation' refers to a core issue of political systems in the Americas. Various forms of participation in the political processes for the populations are the central focus. On the one hand, one can distinguish between institutionally representative forms of participation and more open and dynamic forms, and on the other hand, both dimensions are interwoven in practice. Framework conditions based on historical ideas and on norms play a central role in the analysis of political processes from the perspective of political participation. Here there is a contrast between North and Latin America: While in North America political participation is more strongly linked to the individual and the mechanisms of political representation, in Latin America forms of participation of collective actors are more clearly accentuated, more recently connected with direct democratic elements.

North America

In the USA, the citizens' demand for political participation was already an important issue during the foundation of a polity independent of Great Britain. The types and depths of participation were and are formulated based on the basic political understanding between the poles of individualism and representation through politicians. Within the scope of individualist conceptions, the individual citizens are themselves responsible for many questions affecting them, such as economic safeguarding, health and pension provision and are involved in as much decision-making in political questions as possible. This is linked to a more decentralized and local or regional form of political organization. Those who favor representation through politicians and refer back to a stronger centralized organization of political processes are skeptical of self-government by the population. While in the USA exist far-reaching formal opportunities for participation with respect to elections and referendums at federal level, the actual participation therein is low in comparison with other parliamentary democracies at national and local levels (Barber 1994). The participation through practical support of election campaigns of candidates for public office is limited, but it increased, for example, during Obama's presidential election campaign in 2008. In the USA, a broad spectrum of informal participation is practiced in trade unions, non-government organizations, local and regional initiatives, in alliances for the rights of disadvantaged groups (e.g. women's suffrage movement, anti-slavery movement, civil rights movement), in community-oriented initiatives and in civil society campaigns (e.g. pro or anti-abortion, or for more or less immigration).

Whereas the practice and perspectives of political participation in the USA focus on individual citizens, in the neighboring country of Canada there is a stronger orientation towards collective participation due to a different colonial history. In this nation, which only gained independence from Great Britain in the 20th century, numerous language-oriented segments of the population exist (Anglophone, Francophone, Inuit and several hundred first nations), concentrating predominantly in specific territories. Alongside rights to formal participation in elections and election campaign available to the individual citizens and other forms of participation oriented around the individual, conceptions of group right with respect to linguistic and cultural self-determination were central foci in Canada. In addition, the individual territories were equipped with political autonomy step by step. The opportunities gained for influence on maintaining languages other than English and on collective goals are utilized. Charles Taylor's (2009) position supports the legitimacy of collective goals and maintains that in his discussed conception of multiculturalism, certain political rights (basic rights) for all individuals must be guaranteed, but that special rights could in some cases be opposed to the continuity of a culture. State committees of autonomous regions might reach political decisions based on collective goals while also respecting the rights of members of other cultures (Taylor 2009: 44ff).

Latin America

The participation of the population in political processes has been a central issue of the "republican experiment" (Sabato 2009) since the foundation of independent states in Latin America in the 19th century. From that moment on, the republican interlinking of state, nation and population was the legitimate order of the political community; however, this was accompanied by a strong tension between the proclaimed legal and formal equality and the actual social inequality and ethnically-defined and geographical fragmentation. Collective forms of influence also continued to dominate, superimposing the channels of individual political participation (Sabato 2009). The tensions between individual and collective participation, as well as between constitutionally framed processes of participation and open, dynamic participation practices of dialogue and social pressure, could therefore be considered fundamental conflicts between political systems in Latin America in the context of lasting social inequality, widespread poverty and the resulting limited opportunities of participation in general. After the re-democratization in Latin America since the 1980s, high hopes spread for the functional and territorial expansion of democracy, which were expressed as expectations of more participation (Gurza Lavalle/Isunza Vera 2010: 19, 25). Central points of references for the contradicting and broken reality of liberal, western models for state and democracy in Latin and North America are O’Donnell concepts of the "delegative democracy" and the "low intensity citizenship" (O’Donnell 1993).

Increased Political Participation and Market Integration

Decentralization was seen in Latin America in the 1980s and 1990s as a way of deepening democracy, of promoting bottom-up developments, and of increasing civic participation, transparency and the efficiency of public administration (Montecino 2005: 74; Montero/Samuels 2004, Burchardt 2001). During the course of the associated strengthening of local political arenas and counties ("Municipalización"), the fragmentation of Latin American societies was also supposed to correspond more strongly. The local dimension of the polity and the locally established political actors were to be integrated more strongly into a market-oriented, liberally-conceived model of society. Participation in this context was primarily conceived as participation by individual and collective market entities in market activity, their (self-)administration and their connections with constitutional and democratic processes.

Political Participation since the 1990s and the 2000s

In the 1990s, political movements against neoliberalism came into being in individual Latin American nations, placing demands for more political and social participation for larger groups in society in the spotlight. The local area was considered to be less of a formal subdivision of the state or a market-oriented subsystem, but rather as an arena for interaction and a sphere of deliberation, in which different actors and groups participated in the political process. In sociological research, this is reflected in concepts and research projects interested in a heterogeneous and multi-layered concept for the public sphere, taking cultural aspects in the context of globalization into account (Braig/Huffschmid 2009, Alvarez/Dagnino/Escobar 2004, Costa 2002, Avritzer 2002, Cohen/Arato 1992, Fraser 1990). Here, the participation of various political subjectivities and actors in civil society such as so ethnically-defined groups, neighborhood associations, and women's organizations moved to the forefront. In a number of constitutional reforms in the last two decades, participatory mechanisms, direct democratic elements (plebiscite and recall referenda) and the cultural rights of ethnically-defined groups were strengthened. In Latin America there are various institutional "democratic innovations" (Gurza Lavalle/Isunza Vera 2010; Welp/Whitehead 2011): forms of these include, among others, participatory planning and budgetary procedures, the formation of participatory committees on various levels of public administration, ombudsmen, hearings, supervisory authorities in civil society or (local) recall referenda (ibid.).


Even though the tension between forms of participation linked to liberal state and representation models and open, dynamic forms of participation (civil society, associations, ethnic groups, local arenas, protest movements) can be considered a fundamental problem of all west-influenced democracies, and thus are continual subjects of both political reform movements and sociological questions in North and Latin America, it seems sensible nevertheless to emphasize key areas of focus between the two regions. Whereas in North America, liberal and representative forms prevail and have been differentiated functionally, complimented by multicultural spaces for political articulation of minorities, in Latin America less formalized, more weakly constitutionally entrenched and collective forms of participation of ethnically-defined groups or regions, interest groups and protest movements are considered more relevant.

The discussion and practice of political participation in North America are a more original component of political concepts: demands for more participation are present in individualist liberalism; limitations on participation in liberal beliefs consider broad sovereignty of the people inoperable. Here, the positioning of both the axes are moving: of de-central or central organization of the political community and of republican emphasis on common norm-oriented goals or wide-reaching local, more individualistic spaces for decision-making.

The Latin America debate is, on the other hand, more strongly influenced by the effort to separate state from civil society. The forms of political participation and their analysis are positioned between these two fields of society and determine the construction of postcolonial communities and their multidimensional analysis between state, parties, organizations, trade unions, ethnically-defined groups and transnational relationships in the context of globalization. Precisely these amorphous, openly dynamic and "innovative" forms of participation characterize Latin America in the context of continuing social inequality.

Arno Netzbandt / Simón Ramírez Voltaire

Please cite as:
Netzbandt, Arno and Simón Ramírez Voltaire. 2012. “Political Participation.” InterAmerican Wiki: Terms - Concepts - Critical Perspectives. www.uni-bielefeld.de/cias/wiki/p_Political_Participation.html.


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Avritzer, Leonardo. 2002. Democracy and the Public Space in Latin America. Princeton.

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Welp, Yanina / Whitehead, Laurence, (Ed.) 2011. Caleidoscopio de la innovación democrática en América Latina. Mexico: FLACSO.

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