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Social domain

How to fix a broken democracy?

As a relatively new member of the Maastricht City Council, I am becoming increasingly familiar with local politics. From Roermond to Heerlen, citizen participation remains a topic under discussion. Fortunately, almost every politician in Limburg is in favor of participation. Yet there are many differing views on participation. Participation, for example, is not the same as co-decision. People usually say "participation must also be done", as if it’s a mandatory box to tick, and a semantic discussion often arises. Participation is good, but then why is there a lot of social unrest in society? Why did only 48% of people in Limburg go to vote and why do we hear a lot of noise from residents who do not feel represented? How to a broken democracy?

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Mart Den Heijer

Cooperation within Limburg is often a tense topic. I can cite plenty of newspaper pieces showing that communication between Maastricht, Roermond, Sittard-Geleen or Heerlen could be better. That too does not benefit citizen participation.

Jan. 31 was one such example. Dozens of people were demonstrating in the Maastricht town hall. The topic: the adjustments around the MKD (Medisch Kleuter Dagverblijf) provided by Xonar. These affect not only Maastricht but also Jens Helpt in Heerlen, which has been struggling with a shortage for years. Every reason to look sharply at new ways to provide care. There is ambiguity, and ambiguity in care is always a source of much understandable stress among residents. The unannounced protest soon became painful for everyone. Residents didn't feel heard, aldermen didn't know how to take a stand, frightened officials were stopped from entering the building, children became overexcited from the noise and sat on the floor with their fingers in their ears, and politicians were literally and figuratively torn apart as tension arose between them.

It soon became apparent that SP Maastricht, in cooperation with SP Heerlen (the socialist party), had put together the demonstration: a clever piece of regional cooperation, although one might wonder if this was the right form. When it became clear that the demonstration came from the SP quiver, other parties were on their hind legs to put an end to what they called this "farce."

As a Volter, I like to look for nuance. Unfortunately, I understand well that when you feel unheard as a parent, you start desperately looking for ways to be heard. But looking at the SP, I also understand that for many this feels like political gain. Although the party said it was a citizen's demonstration, SP party members were eager to speak up themselves in their red SP jackets.

True citizen participation is not used as a covered wagon for a political organisation. If citizen participation was the main goal on this Tuesday afternoon, this was clearly a failed mission.

Getting people to participate takes guts. And the current system is faltering. My attempt to fix democracy a bit is the pilot citizens' council being set up in Maastricht starting in April. Fortunately, all of Limburg feels the importance of this innovation. In Roermond and Heerlen, for example, there are already plans to introduce citizen councils or at least these discussions are taking place. I hereby call upon all municipalities in Limburg to experiment with this new form of democracy! The citizen council is an innovative form of democracy where, through a double draw system, one searches for a representative group of inhabitants. The citizens' council is a form of deliberative democracy, which means nothing more than engaging in conversation with each other, in order to understand each other, instead of just trying to be right and push your own narrative. Perhaps more importantly, the citizens' council is a council in which council members and other politicians do not participate. A space where citizens can participate in politics, without feeling pressure from politicians, is sorely needed in our society.

Will we see together in a year's time whether this has helped a little in fixing local democracy? 

Mart den Heijer

Council member Volt Maastricht