Plenum Democracy or Anarchy

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This article originally appeard on 15 February at: http://www.abrasmedia.info/content/plenumska-demokratija-ili-anarhija

Author: Goran Marković

From the streets and squares the protests in Bosnia-Herzegovina have moved indoors, where plenums are taking place. After Tuzla, plenums have also been set up in several other cities. Every day, or almost every day, citizens come together and debate various issues. For Bosnia-Herzegovina’s way of doing politics, a plenum is an entirely different form of direct democracy. It was “invented”, at least for the former Yugoslav republics, a few years ago in Croatia, when the students occupied the universities. For those who attended the very first plenums, this method of direct democracy, probably must have looked chaotic and anarchic, with minimal results. However, the situation is not as simple, and the plenums are not nearly as dysfunctional. On the contrary.

What should the plenums demand?

To begin with, the importance of a plenum is that it represents an entirely new  “organ” regardless of how inappropriate this description may sound. The plenum opposes the indirect, elitist democracy as we have gotten to know it so far. They turn citizens into political and social subjects whose thinking and decision-making bypass and go against political elites. In our country, this is a novelty.

Second, plenums represent an intellectual outgrowth of the protests, a maturation of their political and social dimensions, a transformation from protesting spontaneously into formulating a method and agenda for social change. Regardless of how much it was insisted that some centres of power had a role to play in organising the protests (something which has not yet been proved),  the plenum as a form of civil self-organising body, is foreign to the political elites, because it is against their social position to have  to bear citizens acting independently.

Third, so far the protests have lacked clear aims and ways of realising them. The plenum represents a place where decisions can be taken and discussed. Perhaps at times, decisions may be wrong, but even as such they are better than the absence of an aim and a plan.

Fourth, it is worth pointing out that the early demands are of an exclusively socio-economic nature. It is true that on the first plenum in Sarajevo (the one which did not succeed) one of the speakers declared that the first aim should be to abolish the cantons. Such demands are fatal to the protest movement because they bring national disunity and no solutions. Firstly, the existence of the cantons is not a problem on its own, and abolishing them will not present solutions to problems. Secondly, it would represent a long and difficult process, which the protests alone cannot achieve. Therefore such demands are either a calculated provocation of nationalist political elites or a naive belief that administrative changes can solve the problems.

Fifth, so far, the plenums’ demands are very general, and the more concrete represent only the most minimal of demands. The plenums adopt conclusions on the need to revise privatization. They are absolutely right to demand this. But what happens after privatization is annulled? Will we have a new wave of privatization which is almost surely bound to be illegal? If not, what do we do with the companies? The plenum’s demand should be that such companies be nationalised i.e., be given to the state to manage, or for the workers to become their owners (worker stakeholders and worker management of the companies). Such measures will ensure that no illegal privatisation happens again.

Sixth, the plenums must insist on planting the seed of democracy where there is none – and that is in the sphere of economy and labour rights. In other words, one of their demands should be that workers must be active participants in the management of public and private companies, and for the workers representatives to make up at least one third of managing committees. Such a measure will ensure that workers are better acquainted with the way companies function and can influence decision making to a certain extent.

Seventh, the right to strike should be treated as one of the key issues. This right is often violated, but is potentially the most powerful tool of the workers in their struggle against exploitation, at least in the current situation. Making new and progressive laws about the right to strike must not be neglected.

Eighth, the plenums must not be limited to demands reducing the privileges of political elites, even though such demands are understandable and acceptable. After all, the Assembly of Tuzla Canton, already abolished the so called “golden parachute” at the [Tuzla] Plenum’s demand. It is also necessary to demand a change in the currently regressive and unjust tax system (or systems), because it does not contain several levels of VAT, neither does it contain a progressive taxation on income, property, profits, etc.

Government of Experts

The demands listed above are of crucial significance for the realisation of one of the most important demands of the plenums: the election of a government of experts. This demand is also understandable. It comes from the fact that the citizens no longer have faith in political parties. They believe there are professional and uncorrupted people in the country who can play a leading political role. In the short term, it is not inconceivable that one of the cantons forms a government of experts. This can only happen if the citizens apply sufficiently strong pressure and if the political parties are unable to agree on coalitions. To summarise: this is possible only if citizens’ activism is strong enough, and the parliamentary majorities fall apart.

A government of experts however, can only be elected by parliament. Besides, it must not be given total confidence. We have no reason to believe a priori that such a government would do its job well, even if were composed of the most honest of people. This is why it is important for plenums to have as precise, clear, and numerous demands as possible.  Otherwise, they will find it hard to control either the current or the new government, whether it is professional or political. When demands are not clear, it is hard to judge whether a government satisfies them or not.

Either way, a state cannot be run by a government of experts in the long term. The domination of political parties would not allow it. This is why a mechanism must be set up which can exert pressure on any future government, and can  mobilise people if the government does not work efficiently. The plenums must form coordination offices, which will be able to articulate precise demands and to organise people for the purpose of exerting pressure for the fulfilment of their demands. To enable all this, it is necessary to be connected to the unions. Of course, we are not talking about the bureaucratisation of top union leadership, but about unions in the companies as well as individual managers of trade unions in different sectors.

Who will participate?

Due to the democratic character of the plenums, many groups would try to (ab)use them:  political parties, nationalist organisations, intelligence services,  and other. Such attempts cannot be avoided. But this doesn’t mean that the plenums should allow it. It is already very positive that plenums have formulated their invitations for citizen participation in a way which spells out that party activists are not welcome. Indeed, they are not welcome because they would use the plenums for their propaganda, and even as a platform for their own conflicts.

It is especially dangerous for the plenums to be used by organisations or groups which emphasise nationalist demands. That’s why it is important that the plenums stick to their initial aim –  that the battle is waged for socio-economic changes, and not for constitutional reform or similar issues, as only political parties can profit from this. The ability of the plenums to stick to defining socio-economic demands will show the citizens’ maturity and the importance of the plenum as a form of national self-organization.

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