Perspectives | Politics

Reforming the electoral system through a citizens’ assembly?

By - 30.05.2019

We need to involve citizens, not only parties, in the process of reinventing democracy.

Would it be normal if regulations for trade in goods and prices of products in supermarkets were to be decided only by big companies, like Viva Fresh, ETC and Emona?

Most likely, many small grocery stores and consumers would react because of the clear conflict of interest and the opportunities it would give these companies to reach agreements that would enable them to preserve their dominant role in the market.

Not only would small grocery stores — that together employ more people (with or without contracts) than large supermarkets — suffer the consequences, but consumers would also suffer from the increase in prices which would follow as a consequence of agreements reached by the mercantile cartel.

Such a process of decision-making would be contested because it wouldn’t necessarily act in the best interest of consumers and other actors of the sector, but large companies would rather cement their own dominant role and establish cartels between networks of large supermarkets.

It would be more or less the same if all of the responsibility and burden of reforming or designing a new electoral system was to fall only on political parties already represented in the Assembly of Kosovo.

Inevitably, political parties in the Assembly would be directed by narrow partisan objectives to develop an electoral system ensuring the capitalization of their electoral results in zones in which they have great support. Moreover, political parties would not necessarily design an electoral system that would address the crisis of representation and legitimacy with which they, as well as the Assembly, are faced today.

From 2011, attempts for reforming or changing the electoral system have failed continuously.

If we add the concerns regarding the internal functioning of political parties — the lack of democracy and accountability — as well as the growing influence of oligarchs or criminal networks over parties, then we are inclined to ask: should we allow political parties in the Assembly to be the only ones deciding on the key regulations of the political game — the electoral system?

From 2011 onwards, attempts to reform or alter the electoral system have repeatedly failed. As a reminder, in 2011 when the PDK, LDK and AKR agreed on electing Atifete Jahjaga as president, they also agreed on forming a parliamentary commission for electoral reform. As a result, the Assembly of Kosovo passed a resolution approving this political statement and established the commission.

Although the parliamentary commission worked to prepare amendments to electoral laws (for the Assembly of Kosovo and the election of the President of Kosovo), these never made it to the agenda of the Assembly and were never approved by political actors.

The most recent initiative — the formation of the parliamentary commission for electoral reform in 2019 — represents a continuation of the same approach. The objective is to bring this initiative to life at a time in which the opposition in the Assembly is saying that the days of this government are numbered, and partners of the governing coalition are barely able to wait for the political divorce so they can hold snap elections.

As such, it does not seem like this parliamentary commission will have sufficient time, nor the opportunity to achieve a political consensus between key actors in the Assembly and the consequent approval of amendments to the electoral system. That is why we need to think of a different approach on how to create a credible mechanism and process that would produce proposals for changes — changes that in turn would lead to an electoral system truefully reflecting the viewpoints of citizens in regards to legitimacy, and address the crisis of representation in public institutions.

Citizens’ Assembly

One of the ways in which to fill the batteries of representative democracy in Kosovo is to use innovative mechanisms in democratic decision-making that go beyond the current system of representation between political parties. This implies the establishment of a citizen’s assembly to draw up proposals for issues causing extreme polarization and unconstructive debate in society.

The idea is to randomly select a number of citizens (120, for example) who would be a representative reflection of social and demographic aspects (gender, age, residence, ethnic background etc.).

The only condition for appointing citizens as members of the citizens’ assembly would be for them not to be part of the decision-making structures of existing political parties. Citizens would be engaged in the work of the citizens’ assembly on a voluntary basis. After a detailed review of the issue of reforming the electoral system, this body would prepare a report including its conclusions and recommendations.

The process of getting to concrete proposals for reforming the electoral system is just as important as the innovative mechanism itself (the citizens’ assembly). This includes the provision of sufficient time to learn more about the subject, the process of reviewing proposals, the preparation of the report with recommendations and the ultimate decision-making regarding the citizen’s assembly’s proposal.

The entire work of the citizens’ assembly could be concluded within a year. To ensure that members of the assembly have access to the right information, they would be offered technical field expertise. Experts of different electoral systems would present the advantages and drawbacks of each electoral system.

This phase would enable members of the citizens’ assembly to receive unbiased and professional information regarding different electoral systems, before beginning the process of reviewing which system would be more suitable to the Kosovar context.

The usage of the citizens’ assembly presents an opportunity for restoring decision-making which includes citizens from the starting point.

Representatives of current parliamentary and non-parliamentary parties, as well as non-governmental organizations, could be invited to public hearings of the citizens’ assembly in order to present their respective positions regarding changes to the electoral system. After concluding the process of public consultation, the citizens’ assembly would begin the process of internal discussion regarding concrete proposals to change the electoral system. Following the conclusion of the internal debate, the Assembly would vote on these concrete proposals.

The citizens’ assembly would present its findings through a report describing all of their work in great detail, as well as outlining the arguments based on which they reached their conclusions and recommendations. After producing a concrete proposal for electoral reform, the proposal would be voted on in the Assembly of Kosovo, or directly by citizens through a referendum.

The practice of delegating political issues for review from national assemblies to citizens’ assemblies is being promoted in countries in Western Europe and North America as a way to increase the level of trust in institutions and solidify representative democracy through transparency, as well as to combat political polarization and populist policies by reviewing the facts.

The essence of this innovative mechanism of decision-making is the random selection of citizens for the citizens’ assembly and the detailed review of the issue of electoral reform, without the pressure emanating from political parties and the current (blocked) process of decision-making in the Kosovo Assembly. This in itself implies citizens taking and sharing responsibility for delicate political issues and moving away from the “us against them” political discourse that is promoted by populist political forces.

At a time when many important political decisions are being dictated by these populist political forces, the usage of the citizens’ assembly presents an opportunity to create a decision-making process that actively involves citizens as a foundation for the functioning of representative democracy and public institutions.

Feature image: Faton Selani / K2.0.