Metta Spencer

Politics Beyond Turf: Grass-Roots Democracy in the Helsinki Process

Published in Bulletin of Peace Proposals, Vol. 22(4), 427-435 (1991).

By Metta Spencer
University of Toronto

Metta Spencer, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, coordinates the Peace and Conflict Studies program at its Erindale Campus, and edits PEACE Magazine.

1. Against Territorial Constituencies

Democracy is generally understood to mean "rule by the majority," but another equally important concern ought never to be omitted from the definition: protection of minorities' rights from infringement by the majority. As the principle of majority-rule is becoming entrenched in the global civic culture, the rights of minorities are coming to seem especially vulnerable and separatist aspirations for "national self-determination" are growing. Everywhere, ethnic communities, unwilling to remain permanent minorities, invariably outvoted under the conditions of majority-rule, are demanding homelands where they, as a "people," will constitute a majority. Separation is a means of turning a cultural or political minority into a local majority that can permanently dominate, ignore, or exclude its rivals. Robert Schaeffer has studied the catastrophic outcome of several national partitions, and his account should give pause to anyone promoting such deceptive solutions.[1] No general principles exist by which to define who should rightfully be included and who excluded from membership in "a people." [2] Moreover, after communities have split, minorities can still be found within both parts, leaving the basic question unresolved: What are their rights?

Separatism is a logical response to the normal arrangement whereby political constituencies are defined in territorial terms. Where there are sovereign states, defined by fixed boundaries,[3] claims for collective political power can often be settled only by draconian fights for "turf." As Robert A. Dahl has pointed out,

"No matter how democratic their convictions, a minority might reject majority rule in a particular political unit. Instead, they might insist on altering the unit itself, maybe by decentralizing decisions on certain matters to more homogeneous units, possibly even by gaining complete independence...

"If one way of bounding a political unit would serve democratic values better than another, then other things being equal, the better unit obviously ought to be selected. In the real world, though, other things aren't equal and boundary questions aren't easily solved."[4]

There is no prospect of devolving much power to small, autonomous polities. Few of the world's nationality groups live in homogeneous communities that could subsist with local rules. The ozone hole or the exchange rate of dollars and yen cannot be managed by splitting big states into small ones. It is precisely at the international level that the most urgent problems must be addressed. Structures are needed that will permit democratic participation in international organizations. "Civil society" must somehow transcend national borders. This paper will suggest some approaches to that question.

2. Toward International Democracy by Parallel Structures

World government is either a dream or a nightmare. After reviewing well-founded concerns about a monolithic global bureaucracy, Randall Forsberg has suggested an alternative approach toward world order -- one that addresses the same concerns that James Madison developed in The Federalist.

"The problem with world government is that you face an even worse tyranny than the tyranny of a small elite -- the tyranny of a misguided majority with no balances, no counter-balancing authority or power. That is my reaction to the traditional image of a world government: an all-powerful government with the monopoly on the use of force.

"I have been trying to move toward an alternative concept-- a "regime" that many people wouldn't call world government. Think of all the different international agreements in which nations give up some little piece of sovereignty out of their own self-interest. All of those overlapping agreements could form a kind of world government, a joint regulatory world system."[5]

Rather than trying to democratize the structure of the UN or to seize NATO or the European Parliament from the governments that are attached to them, it is more promising to create "regimes" involving new, voluntary institutions expanding on the pluralism that already exists. Instead of a single, unified bureaucracy with one hierarchy of authority, a congeries of regional and functional agencies oversee e.g. the surveillance of fissile material, the international postal system, the Law of the Sea, international labor organizations, and some regional security arrangements.. Authority overlaps spatially and derives from different sources. Despite its untidiness, such a dispersion of power has much to recommend it.

Citizens can " thicken" international relations by adding voluntary forums of their own, some of which, by becoming virtually universal and structurally democratic, may attain a level of legitimacy comparable to that of nation-states and international regulatory agencies.

In this watershed of history, innovations abound. While separatist movements are growing within nation states, integrative structures are being proposed for the transnational level -- e.g. plans to democratize the UN by adding an assembly for non-governmental organizations.[6] The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (CSCE) is settling into its first office in Prague. And an independent organization of citizens -- the Helsinki Citizens Assembly (HCA) -- has been founded to complement the CSCE as a grassroots forum for its citizens. This organization provides an opportunity to institute democratic rights and surmount the basis for separatism.

2.1 Sources of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly

Some of the new political leaders in East-central Europe had participated in an underground civic life for thirty years, writing samizdat, inviting Western activists to their homes, and maintaining their own democratic capacities in the absence of a democratic government. [7] The Czech activists in particular had been interested in creating an international organization of citizens.[8] During the 1980s, they and other participants in the "East-West Dialogue" decided to found an independent assembly for citizens of all CSCE nations, to foster civil society within the CSCE and lobby its officials. The founding meeting took place in October, 1990, when 900 people assembled in Prague's elegant community hall to found the HCA under the auspices of a new Czech government; President Véclav Havel was keynote speaker.

The delegates were chosen by national committees that had been forming in member nations by organizations working for social reform, such as churches, Green movements and parties, peace groups (such as END in Britain, IKV in the Netherlands, and the Campaign for Peace and Democracy in the U.S.), civil liberties organization, university research institutes, and organizations defending minorities -- e.g. women, homosexuals, aboriginal peoples. The Besides the national committees, there are six standing commissions which will continuously address these topics: (a) the institutions of civil society, (b) human rights, (c) nationalism, (d) women, (e) ecology and economy, and (f) peace and disarmament.

HCA is of interest primarily to Western and East-Central Europeans who see the CSCE as the best structure for integrating Europe. However, its potential membership is much wider, covering approximately that area of the planet above the 45th parallel. CSCE's "extended Europe" stretches east to Vladivostok and west past Vancouver to the Aleutians and Honolulu. HCA may become an exceptionally important parliamentary body. Its structure is worth planning carefully.

3. Some Problematics of Democratic Structures

Debates about the structure of democratic institutions include the following four issues:

  1. Should decisions be made by consensus or by voting?
  2. If by voting, should citizens vote for policies directly, e.g. through referenda, or indirectly, by electing their representatives in a federal system?
  3. Should eligibility to vote be based on territorial constituencies or on membership in constituencies formed by "functional" affiliations?
  4. Should all voters have equal influence over all decisions -- "One person, one vote"? Or should a citizen have more influence over issues that concern her than over issues about which she is indifferent? If the latter, how can voting rights be allocated fairly?

3.1 Consensus or Voting?

Some organizations try to make their decisions by consensus, rather than by voting. Such a process is slower than one based on voting, but it yields more authoritative outcomes, since the participants are never made into resentful "losers." Nevertheless, most organizations have arrangements for resolving conflicts when consensus seems unattainable, and so should the HCA.

3.2 Direct Democracy or Representative Government?

Telecommunication already makes some participatory democracy possible on a global scale, and this trend will accelerate in the future.[9] Democratic participation by direct voting can be part of some new political institutions. However, such voting is meaningful only after issues have been articulated, debated, and framed as resolutions by elected representatives. Hence our proposed model will include an assembly of delegates, and a means of referring unresolved issues to the wider electorate for a direct vote.

3.3 Territorial or Functional Constituencies?

Another question concerns the aggregation of votes. Customarily, democracies divide their land into zones, with citizens voting where they live. If a district is predominantly populated by a single ethnic or interest group with distinctive commitments, strong claims may emerge for decentralization or even "national independence."

Following the normal way of organizing international bodies, the first HCA delegates were invited as representatives of territorial constituencies -- the diverse populations of the CSCE's 34 nation-states -- in proportion to their respective populations. However, other "nations" were represented within these 34 delegations. The British delegation included Welsh and Scottish nationalists, the Yugoslavian delegation included Slovenians and Serbs, the Soviet delegation included Lithuanians and Ukrainians, and so on. The centrifugal forces that are splitting nation-states were present in the organization being created for the purpose of integrating those nation-states into a larger entity. HCA's prospects may depend on its responsiveness to centripetal and centrifugal impulses alike. Aspirations for national autonomy make sense only in systems that defines political constituencies territorially.[10] What is needed is a system that will satisfy both nationalists and other collectivities and allow one type of group identity to be superseded by another. HCA can offer a choice of options for aggregating votes, without presupposing attachment to particular patches of turf. Models of non-territorial constituencies can be found in political systems that aggregate votes in functional constituencies. Thus in the Soviet Union, some Deputies to the Congress of Peoples Deputies are elected by district constituencies and others by "functional" constituencies, such as professional associations. Ireland too aggregates votes for its senators by having some seats nominated by panels representing occupational and cultural constituencies: universities, labor, agriculture and fisheries, industry and commerce, public administration , and so on.[11] Malta has a similar system.

It is not necessary to choose permanently between territorial and functional systems of aggregating votes. HCA members could choose their own type of constituency, year by year. Since identities fluctuate, why not build in mechanisms for adapting to those changes flexibly?

Certain decisions will always be made most appropriately within local territorial constituencies. However, HCA deals with issues that transcend the boundaries of nation-states, e.g. acid rain, international debt, corporate crime, global warming, and access to natural resources. HCA need not be modeled on the inadequate structures of the present nation states or such agencies as the World Bank and GATT, whose functionaries are not directly accountable to any local electorate, and certainly not to an international electorate.

Citizens need means of influencing decisions made in other countries that affect their lives. Thus if Canadians had been able to vote in U.S. elections, acid rain legislation might have been enacted five years earlier. The HCA should give members influence beyond their local territorial constituencies, even though this runs counter to territorial sovereignty and citizenship. Because HCA covers such a large region, its members acquire influence in all CSCE countries -- a system which might be copied by other international organizations.

3.4 One Person, One Vote?

Democracy's project is to maximize the control citizens can exercise over the conditions of their own lives. Electoral practices ignore differences in intensity of preference, [12] yet what one person cares about, may matter not at all to another. Instead of "one person, one vote," consider this alternative: "one person, five or ten votes on the issues that are most salient to him or her." In current democratic institutions, our votes about the most important conditions of our own lives are cancelled out by the votes of others who have nothing whatever at stake. To overcome this, we can all have the same number of votes, but be allowed to "spend" them as we please on the decisions that concern us, allowing other citizens the same freedom of choice. All that we need to devise is a fair system of allocating voting rights to all citizens.

4. A Proposed Structure

The following proposed structure is equally suitable for large and small organizations. It will allow HCA to expand from a voluntary, non-governmental association into a body with recognized authority. How would such a system work?

4.1 Membership

Any citizen of a nation belonging to the CSCE shall be eligible for membership in the HCA upon paying an annual fee equivalent to, say, one half-hour of his/her self-declared average annual income.

4.2 Constituencies

Annually, on a membership form, the applicant shall declare his/her preferred constituency by selecting one from a list of ten classifications, such as: nation-state citizenship, ethnicity, social class, gender, social movement affiliation. A member may choose to vote this year for a candidate elected by self-proclaimed working-class persons, next year for a candidate elected by self-proclaimed males, the following year for a candidate elected by self-proclaimed Swedes, and so on. If some members of the "Swedish" constituency are actually Norwegian or if some of the "males" are actually female, that is their own business. Social identities may be chosen, but never imposed by "objective" criteria. No constituency may exclude any bona fide HCA member.[13]

Each member shall also indicate on the membership form whether she wishes to stand for election for her constituency. If so, she shall list five issues of concern to her, and the type of resolutions that she favors.[14] Candidates amay constitute themselves as "slates" or "parties."

4.3 Elections of Delegates

Membership applications will be returned to the HCA secretariat, showing each member's constituency preference, willingness to stand for election, and proposed program. The HCA staff shall then allocate a number of delegates to each constituency proportional to its size within the total membership of HCA. For example, if there are 1000 members of HCA this year and 100 of them select "female" as the category within which they wish their vote to be aggregated, this constituency will be allocated ten delegates. If only 6 of the 1000 persons select "Welsh nationalist" as their constituency, they would be entitled to less than one delegate, so they will need to vote instead in a different constituency. Next year, if they recruit a large number of other Welsh nationalists as members, they may become entitled to several delegates. This arrangement encourages individuals and their interest groups to enroll new members.

As the membership grows, the number of constituencies will also increase, perhaps to as many as 100. Constituencies will increase and decrease according to the demand of members. While nationalism is in the zeitgeist, most members may prefer to vote for delegates of their own territory or ethnic community. If their concerns and loyalties change, they need not move to a different country or adjust the boundaries of their nation; they will simply register themselves in terms of their new identity.

The secretariat shall mail to all HCA members a ballot listing the entire array of constituencies and the candidates standing for election within each one. It will identify any slates of delegates that have formed, and describe their programs.

4.4 Assemblies

The elected delegates may participate in any assemblies during the year following their election. At least one assembly meets in Prague, and constituency groups may also convene elsewhere. At the HCA assembly, each constituency will elect an executive group for the following year, and propose resolutions. The proposals which they approve will be brought, first to one of the six commissions and thence, after debate in workshops or full meetings of the commissions, to the plenary, where those resolutions receiving approval by consensus will be adopted. Additional resolutions may arise in the commissions besides those initiated by constituency groups. Any resolutions not adopted in the plenary by consensus will be listed on a referendum ballot.

4.5 Referenda

The referendum ballot will be mailed to all members, along with appropriate position papers and analyses of the issues. Sufficient time will be given for members to confer about resolutions before returning ballots to the secretariat. Debate by telecommunication conferences shall be facilitated.

The referendum will reflect, not only the distribution of opinions in the organization, but the intensity of those opinions. Each member will be entitled to cast a number of votes equal to the total number of resolutions on the ballot. However, those votes may be allocated in various ways to indicate the strength of one's concerns. If the member is indifferent to certain resolutions, she may choose not to vote on them, but rather to cast multiple votes on other resolutions about which she has strong views. Figure One illustrates the various possibilities open to voters.

Figure 1: Hypothetical HCA Referendum with Three Voters
  Voter A's Ballot Voter B's Ballot Voter C's Ballot Results
Yes No Yes No Yes No Yes No
Proposition One: All military spending above 1% of a nation's GNP should be taxed and the proceeds contributed to the U.N. High Commission for Refugees. 1 0 2 0 0 0 3 0
Proposition Two: Abortions should be made available to all women who request them. 1 0 0 0 0 6 1 6
Proposition Three: An international registry should be established and all nations required to identify the transfer of any arms across international borders. 1 0 1 0 0 0 2 0
Proposition Four: The use of animal furs for human clothing should be prohibited. 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1
Proposition Five: The shipment of plutonium by air should be prohibited. 1 0 1 0 0 0 2 0
Proposition Six: All governments should immediately launch programs for large scale planting of trees. 1 0 2 0 0 0 3 0
Total votes cast 6 6 6  

In our example, the ballot lists six propositions. Some HCA members will vote on all of them. Others will vote on only four of the six propositions, "saving" two votes to "spend" by doubling their votes for two propositions. Still other members may "spend" all six of their votes on a single proposition, leaving the remaining five propositions blank. Thus each member's strong concerns will not be countered by others who care little about the issue.[15] Minorities can win on issues that are especially important to them.

It may be objected that certain issues -- e.g. abortion and animal rights -- already tend to be polarized and that the proposed system would only exacerbate conflict by encouraging those who occupy a middle ground to abstain from voting. However, it is equally plausible to assume that this voting arrangement will foster responsible compromise and a search for common ground by the extremists themselves. In any case, it is more fair for elections to be won by those whowant their opinions to count than by those who are indifferent.

The secretariat will publicize the election results. Everyone is encouraged to use these results when lobbying politicians or mobilizing support for the causes that has been supported.

4.6 In Support of this Structure

The foregoing proposal contains several unusual features:

  1. Members cannot attend all assemblies. Nevertheless, they can their views with impact, both by choosing a particular constituency and by "spending" their votes according to their own priorities.
  2. Issues that gain consensus in the annual assembly can be adopted without being referred to the entire HCA membership.
  3. Despite the arrangement for weighted voting, all members will be entitled to the same number of votes.
  4. The system for aggregating votes is not cast in stone, but will change as the members develop new collective identifications. Nationalism may give rise to a list of constituencies representing nation-states or ethnic communities. However, if members later become preoccupied with issues that are global in scope, they may elect delegates to represent environmentalists, feminists, vegetarians, advocates of nuclear fusion, Esperanto speakers, or Lord knows what else. Those who are now preoccupied with territorially-specific concerns can be accommodated by this system, while they become exposed to other agendas.
  5. All members will be able to vote for contentious issues, no matter what constituency they belong to.
  6. The proposal for weighting votes on referenda is more democratic than traditional electoral processes because it allows everyone to assert her own priorities and values and allows minorities to influence decisions that matter deeply to them. The results will reflect, not only the distribution of opinions, but the intensity of the members' concern.
  7. All citizens of CSCE countries, however affluent or poor, will be able to join HCA for a fee that they can afford.
  8. Both direct democracy (referenda) and representative democracy -- and both voting and consensus -- will play a part in the process. The entire membership will have an opportunity to make all controversial decisions.

HCA is not meant to replace any other organization, but it has a potential to grow and assume major political functions, while retaining its independent status as a voluntary organization. Some innovations in this proposal may be useful to other transnational organizations and to nation-states, for which the problematics of sustaining democracy are similar to those of the Helsinki Citizens Assembly.

Unfortunately, the present proposal is unlikely to be adopted by HCA. Such far-reaching innovations are likely to be adopted only when promoted by the primary organizers themselves, but to date none of the organizers have expressed interest in the plan. During the HCA's first year, other disputes have been paramount -- those reflecting substantive political disagreements. The Eastern European members, who are especially influential, are reacting against their previously communist backgrounds by a swing toward conservative economic and social policies, whereas the Western European members adhere to social democratic values and concerns. The search for ways of working together in the face of such disputes is likely to determine the structure of the organization.

5. Conclusions

Reforms such as the proposal described herein should be initiated within voluntary groups, not governmental structures. This is because concern is well-founded about excessive power in a centralized "world government." The mechanisms of international coordination should be plural, a thick overlay of structures upon structures, including regional forums for the popular articulation of transnational concerns.

Such a body now exists for citizens of all nations belonging to the CSCE. The proposed structure for the HCA offers nationalists (and the other minority constituencies that may supersede them in popularity) a means to avoid being a "permanent minority," forever outvoted within the larger organization.[16] The means comprises two novel elements: (a) constituencies that can be defined flexibly, either on territorial grounds or on any alternative ground that is desired; and (b) an opportunity to "weight" one's vote according to the intensity of one's convictions, while retaining equality of voting power.

The model also responds to the need for an international forum by constituting itself at that level initially, rather than deriving its mandate irrevocably from nation-state delegations. The international body to which HCA is parallel -- the CSCE-- consists of foreign ministers and their staffs: people who are not in close contact with any electorate. There is a growing need for structures representing a truly international civil society. Even if HCA does not adopt this proposal, some other comparable body may do so; the principles have general applicability. The development of global authority will probably not take place by the merging of formerly sovereign states, but rather by forming transnational bodies that, from the outset, use non-territorial means of aggregating votes and a system of weighting preferences in referenda.


[1] Robert Schaeffer, Warpaths: The Politics of Partition (New York: Hill and Wang, 1990).
[2] See Robert Dahl's analysis of this question in his Democracy and Its Critics. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1989), especially the introduction and chapter 9.
[3] In her book The Imaginary War: Understanding the East/West Conflict, (Basil Blackwell, 1990) Mary Kaldor begins with an analysis of nation states as entites defined militarily and territorially. Her discussion draws on the work of Anthony Giddens, A Contemporary Critique of Historical Materialism, vol. 2: The Nation-State and Violence (Polity, 1985).
[4] Dahl, Democracy and Its Critics, p. 148.
[5] "Randall Forsberg Discusses Her Work and the Current International Situation," Peace Magazine, Aug, 1989, pp. 10-11.
[6] Example: the first Conference on a More Democratic United Nations (CAMDUN) was held in New York in mid-October, 1990, and plans were laid for a continuation of this process. It involves the Network for a U.N. Second Assembly, which now numbers over 100 organizations. Delegates from every continent presented methods of achieving a "People's House" at the U.N. Frank Barnaby, former director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, will edit the conference proceedings into a book and the Soviet delegation will edit a regular newsletter.
[7] The evolution of this concept has been developed by several writers in John Keane's collection, Civil Society and the State (London: Verso, 1988). It extends from Adam Ferguson, through Hegel, Marx, and Gramsci, to the contemporary reformers, particularly in East-Central Europe, and in an intellectual community centering around the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) movement in Western Europe.
[8] The intellectual background of this movement can be seen in a paper by its chief sponsor, Jaroslav Sabata, "A New Form of Détente," in Mary Kaldor, Gerard Holden, and Richard Falk, eds. The New Détente: Rethinking East-West Relations. (London and New York: Verso, 1990).
[9] The promise of telecommunication has been explored by Dahl in his own reject projections as a way to democratize politics and create the next level of what he calls "polyarchy." See Democracy and Its Critics, pp. 338-40.
[10] The distinction between the aggregation of political support on territorial versus functional grounds was elaborated by Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan in the introduction to their Cleavage Structures, Party Systems, and Voter Alignments (New York: The Free Press, 1967). The paper traces historically the tension between the two principles, especially with respect to European political parties, while situating the distinction analytically within Talcott Parsons's AGIL paradigm.
[11] See J. L. McCracken, Representative Government in Ireland, London: Oxford University Press, 1958, pp. 147-50; John McGowan Smyth, The Theory and Practice of the Irish Senate (Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 1979); and Thomas Garvin, The Irish Senate (Dublin: Institute of Public Administration, 1969). There have been other -- and sometimes questionable -- experiments in constituting occupations as constituencies: ones that violated the principle of the equality in voting rights. The Irish case is not subject to that criticism.
[12] Robert A. Dahl has considered this issue in his A Preface to Democratic Theory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958), Chapter 2, and suggests some alternative rules. In the end, however, he was sanguine about the problem that had troubled James Madison in his Federalist Papers -- the tyranny of the majority -- and concluded that democracies differ from dictatorships in being ruled by a plurality of minorities.
[13] Joseph Schumpeter, having sought a general rationale for exclusion or inclusion of members, acknowledged that none was possible. His response was simply to treat as legitimate all arbitrary definitions of membership that may be made by "a people"-- however racist or discriminatory they might be. See Joseph A. Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. 2nd ed. (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1947). Cf the critique by Dahl in Democracy and Its Critics, p. 121. I can see no fair rule for this except the opposite to that proposed by Schumpeter -- i.e. a totally open-door policy, with each person free to identify herself as she pleases. Such a rule will confer an exceedingly useful bonus: the possibility of transcending fights over territorial jurisdiction within this particular international forum.
[14] The proposal does not, at this point, include any arrangement for having quotas of delegates from different nation-states. The quotas would be determined by the size of the functional constituencies. Because HCA may become more popular in some nations than in others, it must be acknowledged that this system may yield disparities of representation in national terms. To prevent that outcome, it seems reasonable for the Elections Committee to devise some additional mechanism for distributing delegations equitably across regions with regard to population size.
[15] An alternative solution to the same problem would be for each member to vote on all propositions, and then to rank them in terms of strength of concern. Each proposition could then be multiplied by an "intensity coefficient" according to the priority assigned to it on that ballot. In that case, however, a member must not be allowed to abstain on any propositions, for in doing so, she could, in effect, assign higher weights to the propositions about which she was most concerned, in comparison to other voters. Because of this potential source of inequality, I do not favor such a system.
[16] This proposed innovation is not, of course, a substitute for constitutionally entrenched rights and freedoms, guaranteed by a strong judiciary.