February 28, 2014 | Friday

Debating ‘beyond’ elections: How citizens can impact policy choices and politics – Dren Doli

The evolution of democracy as a political system has been significantly shaped by the use of rights and liberties allowing individuals to debate freely as well as promote ideas and public policy choices. Since the 18th century, the culture of public debate has developed as one of the principles of the public sphere, which, according to Habermas, was an expression of the rights of citizens to debate and participate in issues concerning general public interest.
Today, active participation in public debate and decision-making by citizens is a common practice in European democracies. In Kosovo, however, the public policy debate particularly operates within civil society organizations and media. This does not mean that such a practice is confined within non-governmental sector. The Kosovo government also ‘legitimizes’ its actions and decisions by using public debates.
Nonetheless, in Kosovo, the culture of debate in the ‘citizen versus government’ relationship has yet to be shaped. However, it is going in a troubling direction. Both the government and citizens often perceive debate and participation as an answer to the legitimacy crisis or other ad-hoc problems. In particular, citizens tend to be more active in issues that affect them directly in the short term, and do not involve themselves in discussions and decision-making processes that could affect their long-term interests. Government institutions exploit this short-term thinking and gradually build a culture of debate around select issues rather than core public concerns. This trend demonstrates that political debates and public discussions are mainly becoming instruments to achieve the interests of the government and political parties, but not those of citizens. Within this framework, the culture of public debate is shrinking in terms of the issues to which it applies and the number of government institutions making use of it.
Within this context, elections in Kosovo become more relevant and transcend their mere political function for two reasons. First, due to the limited use of debate and public participation in decision-making at other times, the campaign period before elections is when political parties choose to generate the most active debate. Second, during electoral campaigns, political parties tend to highlight, outside their political debate pursued within parliament, the differences between them in many public policy areas and actively question each other’s policy choices. If this culture of open debate were to extend beyond elections, the government and political parties would be held to account for all of their actions and answers to public policy questions would have to explain how they benefitted participating citizens, not only politicians.
From the above, we, as citizens of Kosovo, must take two important lessons. First, we should not perceive elections as the only opportunity where they impact the public policy making and where government ‘turnover’ is possible. Second, an active citizenry increases accountability and legitimacy in governments. To that end, we should increase the frequency of public debates concerning issues of general interest, as participating in them is as legitimate and important as participating in elections.