Political Participation and Democracy in Europe

12 December 2001

Political Participation and Democracy in Europe

More and more Roma are becoming moved by the desire to improve the situation of Roma in their town, city, country or in Europe, or even in the world as a whole. There are ever more Romani activists in Europe, seeking to bring about positive change for the benefit of the Romani communities. At the same time, when asked, many Roma frequently say they have "no power" - that their possibilities for influencing or changing the shape of their own lives are few or none. In a strict sense, this is not true - every person has some power. Some people have much more power than others, and at present, the vast majority of Roma exercise very little control over their own lives. However, there is always a difference between the amount of power a person or community has now, and the amount of power they can reasonably attain in the future. That is, everyone has potential power. In fact, in that there are millions of Roma in Europe, as a group, Roma have a very considerable amount of potential power. The question is how to increase the level of real power now exercised by Roma? This pamphlet offers a few ideas to Romani activists thinking about how to use effectively political processes to advance Romani interests - that is, to Roma who are thinking about trying to increase their power, for the benefit of the Romani community, by entering politics.

In a democracy, voters put public authority in the hands of politicians, who then make laws and policies. On the one hand, elected politicians express and defend the interests of their voters. But politicians should not only care for the people who have voted for them. Their aim should be to keep in mind the welfare of the entire community.

Elected leaders at various levels address issues they regard as important to the political community at large - these levels usually include a national, a regional and a local level. For example, decisions about the state budget, designing foreign policy or introducing new state legislation are usually taken at the national or regional level. Authorities at the municipal level (towns or villages) are often responsible for local affairs, such as the supply of potable drinking water, urban planning matters, the maintenance of public roads and public places, primary education, basic health care, basic social services, etc. Depending on the issue, one?s daily life can be affected by policy decisions at the local, regional or national level. But the power to introduce laws and measures is not unchecked. Leaders are monitored by public institutions and by the population at large. They are also limited and guided by domestic and international law. It is a central principle of democracy that the executive and legislative authorities are held accountable by the voters. They must win the voter's confidence, and can easily be replaced through elections.

It is normal and healthy in any society for people to hold and express different views and to advocate varying policy options. At a certain point, a person may come up with an idea or a set of ideas that could change the way public affairs are organised in a society. An ordinary citizen may attempt to participate in a certain level of political life to realise some of those ideas. For example, if someone has ideas for the improved organisation of public spending as a whole, that person might consider getting involved in national politics. Or, if one has an idea about how to improve local infrastructure, for example, one might want to get involved in policy-making at the local level. In a democracy, it is the right of every citizen to participate in politics.

One slogan of the old U.S. labour movement was "organise!" and it remains a good one. Disadvantaged groups such as Roma that seek to influence their governments must overcome problems. For example:

  • They may not have a lot of money;
  • There may not be many members of the group in a particular area;
  • Most importantly, since they are few in number, they have limited electoral power.

These and other problems can at least partially be overcome through focused and effective organisation. Organisation ? bringing people together, building numbers, building mass and forging alliances ? is absolutely necessary because the system often does not provide guaranteed representation or guaranteed consideration of particular interests, or even where it does, a group may not be able to take full advantage of the opportunity provided by guaranteed representation. The system usually provides only some tools with which to compete for such representation. So what are these tools? These tools are rights and freedoms: freedom of speech, the right to information, the freedoms of movement and association, the freedom of the press, and the right to vote and stand for office.

What these rights and freedoms translate into is the possibility to organise and build a power base. Free speech offers the chance to speak about and define problems in the public sphere. The free press offers the chance to publicise those problems in a broader format. The right to move and associate guarantees, among other things, the possibility to form alliances with anyone, anywhere, who might support a given group?s agenda, and the right to vote and stand for office makes every individual a viable source of power, among other things worth appealing to for the endorsement of the vote. In other words, what these rights and freedoms offer is the opportunity to build power from the bottom up, because it is assumed that power will not be distributed from the top down. It is clear that non-Roma in power often do very little for Roma, and it is also unfortunately frequently true that the few Roma in power have little effective ability to secure benefits for Romani communities, so it makes sense to build Romani power from the ground up.

Obviously, there are material problems to organising that must be acknowledged. Poverty, illiteracy, a lack of basic modes of communication such as telephones and other practical barriers challenge anyone organising among a weak minority. Corruption in existing political systems is a major barrier. Roma suffer from racism, but like many of their fellow citizens they also suffer from the fact that politics as practiced can be autocratic, very hostile to individuals, or simply primarily concerned with defending the interests of those people already in power.

Minority groups have successfully overcome these problems before. The most famous example is probably the U.S. civil rights movement, in which African Americans mobilised to overcome such issues as denial of the right to vote, school segregation and other barriers to full participation in U.S. society. Other examples abound. But no group can overcome the problems it faces without a strong and broad conviction that the fight is worth fighting. Thus the key question for any group is not "What don't we have?" but rather, "What do we want?"

This is the core of the interest group: a shared agenda - an agreement among members of the group about their common goals. Without a shared agenda, there is no interest group, even among those of the same ethnicity or who are factually united by the same or similar social condition (e.g. poverty, etc.). People of the same colour or residing in the same district are not necessarily an interest group. Only if they want the same thing on major matters of importance for the group do they become a prospective power base.

So what do Hungarian or Slovak or Czech Roma want? Better schools? Better housing? Better roads? Better access to jobs? An end to police brutality? Their own language on street signs? What do Roma want from their governments? This is the question for Roma to address. But notice that these are all specific and concrete problems around which groups can organise, and such problems represent opportunities, politically.

A problem suggests a goal, and it is impossible to organise politically without goals. A group with a goal is a potential power. A group without a goal is not. Successful organising depends on a great deal of commitment, and organisers must confront a number of oppositional forces that can be daunting, to say the least. But the shared goal is the launching point of the entire process. Without it, nothing works. An interest group that doesn't identify what it wants does not stand a chance of getting it.

Around the world, in the history of minority movements for equal rights, success usually starts with a grassroots component, an organised movement by the minority itself that demands representation, rights, and a full share of the country's wealth. These kinds of movements do not usually succeed on their own. They need allies in high places - in the executive branch, the legislature, the courts, on the international scene - to put pressure on the mid-level government functionaries who set policy and control the distribution of wealth, resources, and legal protections. It is probably impossible for grassroots movements to effect this pressure alone: Bureaucrats tend to respond only when pressure is applied from both below and above. But the movement comes first. The minority must agitate on its own behalf.

This is not just the political reality; it is the citizen's responsibility. What makes a representative democracy work is that people agitate for what they want. They must engage in the process for themselves, or accept the uninformed and narrow will of others.

Racist attitudes among non-Roma do a lot of damage to groups such as Roma. Among their most evil effects is to discourage the group's will to participate politically at all. Roma make it easy for elected representatives to ignore their needs and wishes when they fail to organise, vote, or agree on common goals amongst themselves. Elected representatives are often relieved when Roma drop out of the game, quit, give up, stop trying to achieve power: This means that the elected representatives are not forced to think too hard about the problems and interests of the Romani part of the population. Racist beliefs allow the majority to justify practices that keep Roma out, and to deny responsibility for their results. Racism is a tool in the fight for wealth and privilege. Racists have used it well enough over generations to have effectively turned Roma into something less than full citizens of the countries in which they live.

This means that to increase their own power, Roma must accept and reject racism. They must accept that the system is unjust and that it will not quickly change itself. At the same time, they must reject the proposition that the status quo simply continues unchallenged. The system of representative democracy is designed to adjust the state's behaviour in the face of inequity, and this capacity must be understood and embraced.

It has been said many times that the "Roma problem" is a major test of Europe's democracies. If such democracies work as they should, they must respond to pressure for change. The democratic state is not a monolithic or unchanging entity. It should be a flexible, fluid creature, changing its face and priorities in response to the changing priorities in its overall body politic. This is a relatively new concept of the state, historically speaking, and Europe (and the world) is full of countries with far older autocratic traditions than democratic. Any minority seeking equal treatment faces the challenge of overcoming autocratic tendencies and pushing the state to respond to the breadth of needs and interests which exist among the whole population. The "Roma problem" is a test for states and Roma alike.

On the face of it, this seems an impossible challenge for Roma. Anti-Romani sentiment is widespread, and citizens throughout Europe - Roma and their neighbours alike - have grown accustomed to a segregated society. Racism is deeply rooted and openly supported in some communities, and many non-Roma simply reject the notion that Roma are anything but second- or third-class citizens. But there are a number of reasons for rejecting pessimism and embracing hope:

  • While there is in fact a lot of anti-Romani sentiment, there is also a growing sympathy for and understanding of the plight of Roma, and an increasing number of non-Roma support the idea of Romani empowerment;
  • There is no social reality that political action cannot change - for better or worse. At some point, social action stigmatised Roma. Concerted political action now has a real chance of reversing that process;
  • All individual Roma face a real ethical choice: apathy or activism. In light of the growing division in many countries between those who sympathise with the Romani cause and those who wish real harm to Roma, this choice becomes more urgent every day. Roma rights activism is more and more becoming a moral imperative.

At some point, if you are serious about politics, you are going to need a strategy. Individuals or groups seeking to influence politics may choose just one strategy or may try a mix of strategies at various levels. In choosing your options, think carefully about the following:

  • At which level do you wish to participate: national, regional or local?
  • Do you wish to engage in official politics (usually through the electoral process, for example by standing for office) or to exert leverage and have "a say" in influencing policy (for example through participation in a local citizen's assembly or through civic sector activism in a non-governmental or voluntary organisation)?
  • If you wish to engage in the electoral process, consider what type of electoral system is in place. Does it accommodate minority representation? For example, are there provisions for allocating cabinet or other key positions to members of minorities? Do minorities have secured representation? It is worth noting that while some states may have a system of reserved seats ensuring "representation" for one or two members of a minority in this or that body, in practice such a system may often bring little real influence - sometimes resulting in even further exclusion and alienation. By way of contrast, a Romani expert nominated to, for example, an inter-ministerial commission (perhaps only in an advisory role) may actually exert more direct influence on government policy.
  • Depending on the electoral system in your country, would it be effective to try and form an ethnic-based constituency or are there better possibilities to have influence through co-operation with mainstream parties, either by seeking direct representation or by exploring possibilities for co-operation? There are some examples of Romani parties gaining access to government, but there can be also obstacles for such parties. For example, many countries in Europe demand that a party receive 4% or 5% of the total vote in order to secure seats in the national parliament. If this is true in your country, and you wish to stand in parliamentary elections on a Romani party ticket, it is strongly advised that you find platforms that can appeal also to non-Roma, since a 5% hurdle may be too high for a Romani party to get over.

If you are considering starting or joining an ethnic Romani party, remember that the formation of an ethnic party often requires a degree of consensus, at least with regard to main goals and objectives. Can this be achieved? Can different Romani politicians/parties representing different Romani interests agree to co-operate under one banner for the purposes of elections? If ethnic parties are desirable based on your local circumstances, it might be worth checking whether other political groupings can be found that support demands similar to those of the Romani community, for example parties representing other minority groups, or parties representing groups with similar social concerns and interests as Roma. If other such groups exist, these can be valuable partners in building blocks of power - so-called "coalitions" - of several groups joined together in one association.

On the other hand, organising in an ethnic political party may not necessarily be the best way to stand in elections. It is certainly not the only way. One other way to consider seeking public office is by standing for election on the list of a mainstream political party. Such parties should want Romani candidates, because they should want Romani votes. The key is to negotiate good terms with such a party. For example, as a condition of standing on a given party's list, you may want to demand:

  • A high position on the party list, if your local system works according to a list system;
  • Resources sufficient for effective campaigning;
  • A commitment by the party to pursue concrete and explicit goals of particular concern to Roma.

Crucial for any electoral political activity is building a constituency - a group of people that give electoral support for a person or a party and thus see that person or party as a trustworthy representative. This activity is not only crucial in the run-up to elections but is also vital to effective work in political bodies thereafter: Good, trustworthy politicians constantly draw on the everyday experiences of the members of their constituency to formulate demands and agitate for their accommodation. Also, once elections are over, representatives are expected to keep communicating with their voters, give them proper access to official information and respond to their situation.

Finally, standing in elections is only one method of political participation. Non-electoral involvement is at least as important and can pave the way for success at the elections. Some possibilities for non-elected involvement in government which may be available in your country include:

  • Posts in the state administration (bureaucracy/civil service). Some states have special measures for minority participation in the civil service;
  • Participation in advisory and consultative bodies at the governmental level;
  • The possibility for minorities to establish their own associations/institutions and in some instances to receive financial support from the state for their activities. Citizens can, for example, establish voluntary associations that facilitate leisure activities, deal with youth matters, or aim to promote local cultural activities. Although at first sight such voluntary associations have little to do with formal politics, they can provide a check on governmental activities and can be a basis for further political involvement by the community at large. Associations can also help people to understand and express their common concerns. In Europe, some activist groups have begun life as basketball teams or jazz bands. Almost any grouping of people has the potential to grow into a civic or political initiative.

This list of strategy issues is not exhaustive. The purpose of the above is only to show that there are many different forms of participation available. Progress can be made simultaneously by individuals or groups of Roma on different levels through various channels: It is only a question of choosing the most appropriate means for the given situation. You will want to think carefully about options, and discuss them at length with your friends and neighbours - your potential political allies.

Why is participating in local politics a good way to start?

Local politics may be a good place to start. The area of local politics is crucial in the building of democracy and can be more accessible than politics at the national level. Moreover, much more than in national politics, local politics usually focus on issues of direct relevance to the members of the local community. Local democracy can be about the visible inclusion of the voices of individuals in local decision-making.

Arguably, local politics can be a useful arena to start overcoming the obstacles that face the aspiring Romani political representatives. Through direct dialogue with their communities such politicians can work on issues that are of direct relevance to Roma. They can begin to build the trust of Roma in political action. Moreover, the inclusion of Romani politicians in local politics is likely to stimulate a dialogue between people of various groups in the community about issues and problems of common concern.

Local democracy is also an important arena for the "political education" of citizens. Through participating in a local government or taking up a dialogue with local representatives, individuals can gain knowledge about community affairs. Better informed and educated citizens make democracy more effective. The participation of citizens in local democracy can contribute to closing the gap between the national political "elite" and the members of the political community at large.

An ultimate goal of Romani mobilisation can be a strong pyramid: A large local power base supporting responsive and responsible elected officials in parliament and Romani officers in the halls of the national government. A first step is to become informed. Citizens have the right to be properly informed about how a community is governed and to communicate about this with local authorities. The next step is activism.

There are positive signs that Roma are building power now. There is an increasing number of local Romani politicians, as well as of Romani non-governmental initiatives, and these will likely prove to be the ultimate source of any significant push for equal rights. Certainly they are the seeds of wider Romani participation. The European Union (EU) offers Roma a powerful potential ally. Non-governmental civic institutions are emerging as important sources of information, advocacy, and legal protection. As societies diversify, other "have nots" also emerge as possible allies. Democracy?s cornerstone rights and freedoms - free speech, a free press, the freedoms of movement, association and assembly, and the right to vote - are routinely exercised, notwithstanding many obstacles.

History shows that the process of Romani mobilisation will not start from above. It must start from below. Romani groups must take responsibility for organising and agitating on their own behalf. If Roma do not effectively engage with and pressure governments, then governments will continue to ignore and abuse them.

The Lund Recommendations on the Effective Participation of National Minorities in Public Life & Explanatory Note:

Guidelines to Assist National Minority Participation in the Electoral Process:

Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities:

For further study

World Forum on Democracy:

Council of Europe, Steering Committee on Local and Regional Democracy:

Local Government and Public Service Reform Initiative:

The International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA):

The ERRC is grateful to the following persons for their input and suggestions on this pamphlet: Morag Goodwin, Bill Hangley Jr. and Peter Vermeersch. Further materials on any of the issues raised in this pamphlet are available by contacting the offices of the ERRC.

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