ECPR Joint Sessions
University of Nicosia, Nicosia
10 - 14 April 2018

Can Participatory Reforms Save Representative Democracy?

Political theory
Workshop Number
Workshop Director
Kimmo Grönlund
Åbo Akademi
Workshop Co-Director
Brigitte Geißel
Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt

Despite a fundamental triumph of democracy in Europe, worrying tendencies in contemporary democratic systems give rise to concern. Citizens have become more critical of democratic institutions and political actors, such as political parties, politicians and parliaments. The most common way of participating – voting at elections – has declined in most democracies since the 1970s and the decline has been particularly marked in former communist countries in Eastern and Central Europe since the 1990s (Solijonov 2016). In addition, the share of citizens belonging to political parties has waned dramatically (Kölln 2014).

More recently, the increased attraction of anti-establishment policies or politicians, such as the British referendum on leaving the European Union, “Brexit” in June 2016 and the American presidential election with the victory of the politically inexperienced Donald J. Trump in November 2016 have shocked both traditional political elites and political scientists alike. The demands from populist parties in Europe to “take back control from the EU” and enforce strict immigration policies have been increasingly successful. Even in the Nordic countries, commonly known for their generous welfare states and high levels of social and political trust, populist-nationalist parties have gained between 13 (Sweden 2014) and 21 per cent (Denmark 2015) of the popular vote. Democracy is also threatened by authoritarian tendencies in countries such as Russia and Turkey, and within the EU in incumbent governments in Hungary and Poland. The Syrian civil war has presented itself as a large number of refugees in Europe, pushing many democratic states in flux. Especially right-wing populist parties exploit the migrants, together with the terrorist attacks in the heart of Europe in their hard-line policies. Liberal democracies, which are based on basic values such as electoral integrity, freedom, equality and diversity, are under crossfire.

Accordingly, the “crisis of democracy”, “the end of representative politics” (Tormey 2015), and even the “death of democracy” (Keane 2009) have been declared. Democratic institutions, developed in the 19th and 20th centuries, seem to be somewhat out of touch with the popular demands in current societies. The ‘old’ representative mechanisms are challenged through denunciations of misrepresentation and decreasing voter turnout, an increasing political mistrust and sudden, non-predicted and populist electoral outcomes – to mention just a few. The elitist solution seems to be that ordinary people cannot be trusted with policy choices (Brexit). Nevertheless, a democratic system cannot survive without a link between the popular will and the policies of the government. Thus, the democratic solution to the profound problems of contemporary democracies cannot be less democracy.

At the same time, we are experiencing a boom of new institutions and procedures fostering the involvement of citizens and civil society in order to complement representative democracy - e.g. referenda or dialogue-oriented citizen assemblies and deliberative mini-publics (e.g. Geissel & Newton 2012; Geißel & Joas 2013, Grönlund, Bächtiger & Setälä 2014, Reuchamps & Suiter 2016). Political will-formation and decision-making are no longer limited to elected bodies of representatives, but can be described as multi-faceted procedures.

This workshop will focus on these fundamental transformations of democracy, assess current developments, and innovate scenarios for the future of democracy. We are convinced that democracy is in a “process of transition from one type to another“ and that it will “survive, but only by changing” (Schmitter 2015: 35, 32). Debates about the future of democracy are currently in vogue (e.g. Alonso et al 2011). Yet, democratic scenarios, embedded in both normative and empirical research, are rare. This workshop aims at filling this gap and at developing tools through which representative government can be democratised. The focus is in implementable, theoretically sound solutions, which can combine ideas from both deliberative and participatory democracy with representative democracy.

The topic has not been covered in the past two years in the ECPR Joint Sessions. However, the workshop will continue a vivid ongoing discussion within the Standing Group on ‘Democratic Innovations’ at the ECPR. The proposers are the funding members and first Convenors of the Standing Group. Kimmo Grönlund is still Convenor, and Brigitte Geissel is member of the Steering Committee.

Relation to existing research

With few exceptions, published in recent years, the case study approach looking at one innovation in one country at one level (local or national) and in one policy field is still prevailing. In these case studies, each innovation is assessed within its own setting and according to its own goals. Recently some scholars try a more systematic access, e.g. Geißel & Joas 2013 or Grönlund, Bächtiger & Setälä 2014. However, many studies focus on the Americas – for example the British Columbia Citizens' Assembly on Electoral Reform (Canada), Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegra (Brasil), or policing in Chicago (USA). Systematic collaboration of researchers in this field is missing– especially in Europe.


Alonso, Sonia/Keane, John/Merkel, Wolfgang (eds.) (2011). The Future of Representative Democracy, Cambridge University Press.

Geißel, Brigitte/Joas, Marko (eds.) (2013). Participatory Democratic Innovations in Europe, Barbara Budrich Verlag.

Geissel, Brigitte/Newton, Kenneth (eds.) (2012). Evaluating Democratic Innovations - Curing the Democratic Malaise?, Routledge.

Grönlund, Kimmo; Bächtiger, André & Setälä, Maija (eds.) (2014). Deliberative Mini-Publics – Involving Citizens in the Democratic Process. Colchester: the ECPR Press.

Keane, John (2009). The Life and Death of Democracy, Simon and Schuster Publisher.

Solijonov, Abdurashid. (2016). Voter Turnout Trends around the World. IDEA, International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. Stockholm.

Kölln, Ann-Kristin. (2014). Party decline and response The effects of membership decline on party organisations in Western Europe, 1960-2010. Zutphen: CPI Wöhrmann Print Service

Reuchamps, Min & Suiter, Jane (eds.) (2016). Constitutional Deliberative Democracy in Europe. Colchester: ECPR Press.

Schmitter, Philippe C. (2015). Crisis and Transition, But Not Decline, in: Journal of Democracy 26(1), 2-44.

Tormey, Simon (2015): The end of representative democracy, Polity Press, Cambridge UK.

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