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e-Participation: Fashion or substance?

this article was published on 24 September 2013 on EurActiv.com http://www.euractiv.com/eu-elections-2014/participation-fashion-substance-analysis-530669

Online participation is regarded as the silver bullet to catch voters’ interest at the next European election. But will online tools shift the power to the people?

do you remember war games? (this was youth e-participation in geopolitics!)
do you remember war games? (this was youth e-participation in geopolitics!)

With European elections approaching, campaigns and initiatives are blossoming. While voter turnout rates are at their lowest and “Brussels” is widely considered the scapegoat for the economic crisis, this upcoming exercise in democracy will prove to be both interesting and necessary.

Most of these initiatives are making e-participation the buzzword of the season. Everything “online-ish” is the panacea to the political disaffection of citizens, especially young ones. Nonetheless, I am not surprised to see their young targets ignore or desert a number of those online tools.

A key question to ask is what would make these initiatives successful in the end? Besides quantitative analyses (which might be good for final evaluation reports), I propose that the fundamental criteria for evaluation should be the effectiveness of those tools in shifting some real power to (young) citizens.

Let’s take a few steps back in time and space – 1999, Naples, Italy. The Kosovo War begins. Pacifist students occupy my university. I pass by its small computer room and am thrilled to find it’s been transformed into an alternative information office. Classified real-time information is dispatched with online radios, emails and discussion forums, coordinating parallel actions between Naples and Belgrade.

The most interesting part of this flashback is witnessing one of the first mass operations of online political activism, which by the end of the ’90s became available not only to hackers and computer geeks but to virtually anyone.

Historically, the most successful net users have been anti-systemic movements, comprising mainly young people who learned how to use those communication channels not yet controlled by the established power. (Remember Indymedia?) We can trace this pattern to all the main global movements that erupted since then, from Seattle to Geneva to the most recent Arab Spring and Occupy. In those cases, e-participation clearly had a direct link with offline mobilisation, street actions and calls for change: “another world is possible”.

Beginning in 2010, the panorama changed: online became the new mainstream. These days, it seems everyone running for elected office seeks at least to get some inspiration from the Obama presidential campaign team. Within the anti-systemic movements, however, the use of new technology also evolved and they continue to be the frontrunners.

Something surprising is taking place: anti-systemic movements are paralleling online as the new mainstream. With the rise of the Five Star Movement, the most recent Italian elections are a well-known example of this trend, mastering a completely new set of practices in using the internet for political mobilisation of the masses.

How have established parties and institutions reacted thus far? Quite ambivalently, and dare I say very defensively. That or they lack enough audacity to expose themselves in the brave new world.

Public institutions widely accepted the idea that having online tools is “cool” and is the silver bullet to win people back. Despite their laudable efforts, institutions have limited power to give citizens access to a strong political platform. They can foster dialogue and exchange… but little else. That is because strong intermediate bodies such as political parties (or civil society organisations, for instance) are still key, despite a discourse that tries to say exactly the opposite.

Back to the 2014 European elections. Political parties have a chance at least to get back on track and expose themselves to citizens and more importantly to young people. Abandoning their ivory towers is the only way to start regaining the public trust necessary to lead politically in Europe.

With this philosophy in mind, a consortium of civil society organisations (European Youth Forum, Idea, Votewatch) gave birth to the League of Young Voters (www.youngvoters.eu). The league aims to inform and engage young people about issues that concern them, issues that are at stake during electoral campaigns. What is special about the league is that it proposes a series of online activities that are not self-referential but seek practical impact.

Firstly, young people can magnify issues to feed parties’ programmes through a special cooperation with the four European political parties (European People’s Party, Party of European Socialists, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe and European Green Party). Secondly, a non-partisan analysis of the political manifestos of all the running parties will be provided in a fresh, easily accessible manner based on the issues they choose.

All this combined with other tools such as the recently launched www.MyVote2014.eu will facilitate understanding of the European Parliament and political differences among parties and candidates.

The goal is practical: to ensure that more young people vote in an informed manner, aware of the political differences in the programmes. At the turn of the 20th century in the United States, the League of Women Voters gave power to hundreds of thousands of women who just received their right to vote, to exercise their right autonomously and independently. Today, the League of Young Voters seeks the same – this time for youth rights.