"Citizens' assemblies are an answer to populism"

03. September 2021
Universität Luzern

As part of a project called "Demoscan", political scientist Nenad Stojanović from the University of Geneva has been dealing with randomly selected citizens' assemblies since 2018. After a Demoscan pilot project in the commune of Sion in autumn 2019, another citizens' assembly of 20 randomly selected people dealt with the pensions of state councillors in the canton of Geneva on 4/5 and 18/19 September 2021. The Green Liberal Party had submitted a popular initiative on this. Further projects are planned in the cities of Winterthur and Aarau.

The second Demoscan pilot project, initiated by researchers from the University of Geneva and the State Chancellery of the Canton of Geneva, met with great interest among the Geneva population. Out of 3,000 people initially selected at random from the cantonal electoral register, 319 interested people had responded to the invitation letter. Twenty of them had been selected through a stratified sortition process at a public event on 4 June 2021 to write a statement on a referendum bill to be voted on 28 November 2021. Through the stratified sortition process, the Citizens' Assembly participants were a representation of the population according to various categories such as age, education, gender, etc.

Oregon as a model

Such citizens' assemblies set up in the run-up to referendums are modelled on a procedure that existed in the US state of Oregon from 2008 to 2016 under the name "Citizens' Initiative Review". The procedure is transparent and its neutrality is guaranteed by the impartiality of the moderators.

The task of the randomly selected citizens is to critically examine the arguments of proponents and opponents of a referendum proposal. The citizens' assembly then writes a short report that is sent to all eligible voters to help them form an opinion on the subject of the referendum in question.

"Citizens' assemblies enrich existing democratic institutions"

"Citizens' assemblies cannot be the solution to all problems," says Prof. Stojanović in an interview with Le Temps newspaper. "But they can complement and enrich existing democratic institutions, helping elected representatives to make better decisions that are more convincing to the majority of voters," says the political scientist. Instead of spending a lot of time and resources on consultation procedures with parties and lobbies, which are anyway able to influence the drafting of laws in parliament, he says, it would be better to convene citizens' assemblies, thereby finding out in good time what citizens think about an issue.

"Randomly selected citizens' assemblies can be a means to counter certain dangers of populism," Stojanović believes. The elites fear and fight citizens' assemblies because they are made up of "average" citizens, who are thus different from the elites. "They offer an answer to populism, because the members of a citizens' assembly have a legitimacy simply by virtue of the fact that they were chosen by lot, which populists cannot easily attack," the political scientist explains. At the end of the process, the recommendations of a citizens' assembly were based on facts that often did not go in the direction populists wanted at all.

"Members of parliament sometimes think in the short term"

Citizens' assemblies are not elected for four years. Their members would know that they were only drawn for a relatively short period of time. "On the other hand, MPs want to be re-elected, which sometimes makes them think in the short term because they are afraid of being thrown out of parliament if they make unpopular decisions," Stojanović explains the difference between citizens' assemblies and parliaments.

When it comes to issues like the climate crisis, he says, citizens' assemblies are better able to take into account the interests of future generations. They are "a more representative microcosm of society than parliament, where several population groups are underrepresented: Women, foreigners, young people and the less educated".

Women want more flexible way of making policy

People are also more motivated to participate in a citizens' assembly than to join a political party, he said. "Let's take the case of women. We know that they are underrepresented in politics, such as in cantonal parliaments, where they make up only 25 per cent of elected members. Although many parties try to establish parity on their electoral lists, they find it difficult to do so. However, our experience shows that the percentage of women who respond positively to the first draw (by random selection - ed.) is around 54 per cent. This shows that they are more attracted to a more 'flexible' way of policy-making. Maybe because in a citizens' assembly you try to reach consensual agreements, whereas 'party politics' is generally much more confrontational and polarising," Stojanović surmises.

In any case, Prof. Stojanović is not alone with his idea of linking citizens' assemblies and referendums. The Monitoring Committee of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe already adopted a report on 11 February 2021 recommending to accompany the implementation of municipal referendums with randomly selected citizens' assemblies.

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