26 September 2022

Democracy Week: A Vibrant Space for Participation

The Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy has been actively involved in the Democracy Week that is organised every year in Switzerland in the canton of Geneva. This series of events – dedicated to democracy and its issues – is part of the United Nation’s annual celebration of democracy that takes place every 15 September in some 100 countries. Christine Lutringer, Executive Director and Senior Researcher at the Centre, sheds some light on the Geneva Graduate Institute's implication in the event – held this year from 1-8 October 2022 – and why it's important. 

What is Democracy Week and why is it important?
The annual Democracy Week (Semaine de la démocratie) was initiated in 2015 by the then Chancellor of State, who felt that the activities around the International Day of Democracy should be expanded in order to function as a catalyser of public debate. This year, nine of the 30 public events proposed by the different partners are organised by the Institute’s Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy, which has been playing a key role in the initiative.

Democracy Week will launch on 1 October with an Open Day of the Legislative, Executive and Judiciary. People will be able to wander in the buildings that house the institutions, including the Grand Conseil room in its new setting, but also, through role-playing games, debates and other fictitious trials, to understand the concrete missions of the various representatives and officials who work there. The goal of Democracy Week is precisely to open up the institutions of democracy to the citizenry, and especially to the youth – schools have dedicated activities during that week.

It is an important initiative at several levels. At one level, it is a way to enhance engagement with democracy among the broad public. While Democracy Weeks aims to promote debates in different spaces (schools, municipalities, associations, academic institutions), it also ends up strengthening the links between the people who partake in the initiative. To me, it therefore also represents a lever for some regular, and deep, exchanges, which is fuelled by the collective energies that we put in this project.

The theme for this year's Democracy Week is "Constructing Democracy". Could you explain what this means and how it will be approached?
Our starting point when we designed the programme was that 2022 marks the 10th anniversary of the referendum through which the people of Geneva adopted the Canton’s new constitution. 

The text brought about many changes compared to the old fundamental law, which dates back to 1847, but also compared to the Federal Constitution. It introduced new rights, such the right to housing and the right to a healthy environment, and clarified others, thus facilitating their justiciability. Taking stock of the advances enabled by constitutions – and of the challenges entailed by constitutional change, as we saw very recently in Chile – we wanted to reflect on the different “pillars” of democracy, and on the processes inherent to their construction and adaptation.

How will the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy contribute to the week's events?
The Institute and its community bring a unique contribution to Democracy Week by placing the debates in their broader, global and transnational context. In our events and workshops we will discuss the dynamics of participation and protest in various regions of the world. We build on the research activities conducted by the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy to decentre the gaze in order to understand the plurality of democratic experiences.

In our upcoming programme, we will explore themes such as: diversity and constitutional rights; democracy, media and philanthropy; political participation among the youth; populism and citizen participation in Latin America; participatory authoritarianism; democratic oversight on large-scale recovery and resilience programmes; and participation through art and AI. Our programme has been nurtured by our ongoing projects and by the ideas of the Institute’s students. For example, the event on civic engagement in India and engaged research is co-organised with the student initiative on Asia. We are also organising a “Meet and Greet” with the Centre for the Institute’s community.

What are some of the biggest challenges facing democracy in current times?
Multiple challenges bear on the institutions and the practices of democracy, as well as on its ideal. Diminishing political participation and decreasing trust in political institutions are widespread. One of the primary challenges to democracy rests with socio-economic inequalities, which fuel popular resentment and disenchantment with democracy. 

In parallel, the rise in political violence and election denial can be observed in many different contexts, from newly democratised nations to consolidated democracies. Intense polarisation, where political opponents consider each other as existential enemies, is another connected challenge.

Today, the need to counter “the overproduction of opinionated opinion” – as emphasised by Albert O. Hirschman in 1989 – and to get the citizenry to engage critically in the polity is as urgent as ever. Democracy requires dissent, differences of opinion, and lively debates on problems and policies. Creative imagination is required to have democracies as vibrant spaces of participation. Interestingly, democratic innovations have often emerged in more recent democracies, as for example in Latin America. Hence the importance of broadening our look to multiple perspectives and to a variety of experiments in order to rethink democracy today.