People Power: Going beyond elections and revolutions

“At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper.”

That’s how Sir Winston Churchill summed up democracy at work. Elections – at national and local levels – give ordinary people the chance to decide who would run their affairs for the next few years. At least in theory.

In the modern world, however, elections alone cannot ensure that people’s wishes prevail. Better models of engagement are needed…and are being developed across the globe.

Historically, people responded to bad governance by rejecting governments at elections, and occasionally by overthrowing corrupt and despotic regimes through mass agitation. In the past decade, this “people power” has toppled rulers in the Philippines, Nepal and Ukraine among others, and sent a strong signal to autocratic governments elsewhere.

Yet such people power has its own limits: in country after country where one political party – or indeed political system – was replaced with another through popular vote or revolt, people have been disappointed or dismayed at how quickly the new brooms lose their bristles. The solution must, therefore, lie in not just participating in elections or revolutions, but in constantly engaging governments and keeping the pressure on them to govern well – or else.

So what is to be done, as Lenin famously asked? One challenge is to find new approaches to promoting good governance.

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Photo: An election awareness public rally in Rajastan, India (late 2003)

An example is Social Accountability practices – individuals or civil society groups getting together to demand accountability from different levels of government. This represents a significantly higher level of citizen engagement than merely changing governments at elections or taking to the streets.

It involves the careful gathering of data, their systematic analysis and knowledge-based engagement and negotiation with elected and other public officials. Crucial to this process is accessing and using critical information – about budgets, expenditures, excesses, corruption, performance, etc.

The new breed of citizen voice is about using information in a way that lead to positive change in government and society. People use knowledge as a pivotal tool to improve governance, better use of common property resources, and management of public funds collected through taxation or borrowed from international finance institutions.

The media can play multiple roles in such social accountability processes. At a basic level, media’s coverage of these processes adds momentum to citizen movements. At a higher level, some citizen groups are use media as an information tool or campaigning platform or both, optimising each other’s strengths.

Here’s an example from my own experience. In 2004, TVE Asia Pacific produced a half-hour international TV documentary titled People Power that profiled four Social Accountability projects in Africa (Malawi), Asia (India), Europe (Ireland) and Latin American (Brazil).

First broadcast on BBC World in February 2004, it has since been widely distributed to broadcast, civil society and educational users in the global South. It is still available from TVEAP on DVD and VHS video.

Hernando de Soto

We interviewed the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto (photo, above) of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy in Lima, Peru, who said: “Supposedly in a democracy, if the majority of people are poor, then they set the criteria of what is right. Yet all those mechanisms that allow [society] to decide where the money goes — and that it is appropriately allocated — are not in place throughout the Third World. We take turns electing authoritarian governments. The country, therefore, is left to the [whims] of big-time interests, and whoever funded the elections or parties. We have no right of review or oversight. We have no way for the people’s voice to be heard — except for eight hours on election day.”

When the India story was being filmed, in late 2003, by coincidence several states were holding elections for the state legislatures. Our crew followed the election process in the northern Indian state of Rajastan to see how a citizen group was forcing social accountability for all standing for election.

Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan (MKSS) invited the people of Beawar, Rajastan, to a public meeting where the affidavits on the local candidates were made available to everyone. This process of social accountability and transparency extends beyond the political process to the village level where the MKSS has successfully lobbied for the right to information legislation to overcome the systemic corruption in the political and bureaucratic organisations.

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MKSS’s struggles has led to laws to ensure people’s right to information across India.

“India is the largest functioning democracy in the world and it has significant strengths (but) it also has weaknesses,” says Dr Bela Bhatix (photographed wearing red saree), Associate Fellow of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, interviewed on our film. “Among the strengths is that we have been able to sustain our democracy…It’s no small matter to have regular elections and we usually have something like 60 per cent turnout — around 600 million people, or twice the size of America. But at the same time there are some very important weaknesses of our democracy which we really need to think about.”
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Social activist Aruna Roy, coordinator of MKSS (photographed below), says: “In 1996, the MKSS sat in a 40-day sit-in at Beawar and we were demanding the right to access records of the Panchayat, the smallest elected body in India. We involved the entire city and made it a people’s campaign. We involved people from all over India, and the national campaign for people’s right to information was born.”
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Watch India story from People Power on TVEAP’s YouTube channel:

All photos captured from People Power documentary, courtesy TVE Asia Pacific.

Read TVEAP website feature, People Power beyond elections and revolutions by Nalaka Gunawardene

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