Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Even though I don't want to establish a party, can I call you a voter?

My professional development training is coming to an end soon. There were a lot of things which captured me, and there were things which I would do differently. By the end of the summer, I had collected a lot of best practices in this blog, without making a particular effort to provide a critical context. So I would like to start some more reflection. In the next few weeks, I will be publishing a series about five things that I like in community organizing in the U.S. And five things I would do differently.

Source: USNews
Like: The citizen is considered a voting citizen - not only by political parties but also by community organizations.
One person, one vote, says the American. And that's how community organizations count as well. Not because they would want to recruit voters to a political party, but because they know that a forgotten issue will only be important for a decision-maker if they can make political capital out of it. Therefore, the "buying power of the vote" becomes important not only in political but also in civil campaigns. Before a campaign, community organizations make a political analysis: they research the makeup and size of the voting base of the decision-maker, or of their opposition, they check how big the number of undecided voters is and they build a coalition on the basis of this if necessary.

Having observed this, I have the feeling that in Hungary, and maybe in other Eastern European new democracies, we do not utilize this tactic enough. Many civil society organizations simply do not use it because they don't think they should act political in their role (i.e., making a political statement in social issues). Instead, the groups provide services or do soft advocacy, and they try to influence decision-makers behind the scene.

But even those civil society organizations which take a confrontational stance against people in power do not use this tool effectively. On the other hand, in the U.S., I have seen examples of letter-writing and phone-banking actions when citizens simply declared to the decision-maker: I voted for you, or I am an undecided voter, but I can't agree with this statement of yours; or they demonstrate power in a rally by emphasizing how many people they represent in their organization and who their stakeholders are.

The right to vote is a tool and power in the hands of the citizens. It can happen that a marginalized group in itself is big enough to demonstrate power, and it can also happen that it needs to build a coalition with groups which represent power in the eyes of the decision-makers.

In addition, before the elections, most community organizations run campaigns to register historically underrepresented groups and urge them to vote. (In the U.S. - as opposed to Hungary - there is no comprehensive voter database, so that's why voter registration is necessary here.) My host organization, Virginia Organizing, for example, reached out to tens of thousands of people by doing phone-banking in the months preceding the election. (You can read more on voter registration campaigns, and the overlaps between the agenda of the Democratic Party and that of community organizing here.)

Demonstration against harsh voter ID provisions. Source: TPM
Thinking over to what extent we as civil society workers can act as political beings (or to what extent we need to become one) has become relevant in Hungary because of the recent curbing of voting rights. Distancing from parties is naturally fundamental: holding accountable any political party on power, without expediency, always with the same vehemence. Co-option is a threat: we want to criticize the legislature from the outside, without having strong leaders becoming part of the establishment.

But we want to be involved in decision-making. That's why we act political but we do not do party politics (when we put pressure on the decision-makers on social issues). Beyond this, however, do we consider ourselves voters in a campaign? Do we build on this tactic at all knowing that reluctant politicians will yield to us only when they feel threatened, when they are afraid of their voting base shrinking (or that the opportunists stand by us in the hope of acquiring new supporters)? Do we make different groups of stakeholders visible in a bigger demonstration? Do we think about asking coalition partners to emphasize how many people and how different principles they represent when we manage to build bridges between very different stakeholders? As civil society workers, can we encourage the historically underrepresented groups to live with their most basic political right? Could we organize trainings, talks, community events on the voting topic?

The stance Ágnes Vadai (Democratic Coalition, Hungary) took in a recent television debate was an eloquent example of the fact that several politicians would like to monopolize voters for party politics in Hungary when she asked her talking partner, Péter Juhász, why he talked about voting citizens and socio-political goals if he does not want to establish a party. Irrespective of whether Milla establishes a party or not, is that really the proper social setting when only parties can count with citizens as voters? Should the civil groups only distribute food, make some attempts with their petitions, and occasionally jump in front of a ministry, and they can be considered voters only when a political party addresses them?

Read it in Hungarian.

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