1988 the first elections for municipalities were held after 21 years of military dictatorship. In the 1,3 million city of Porto Alegre, Partido do Trabalhadores (PT) won. In 1989 the first PT mayor in Porto Alegre took seat. 1989 was also the year that the working class kid and trade union leader Lula ran for presidential elections for the first time – and took everyone by surprise by almost winning.
Participatory democracy was part of the 1988 electoral program, but nobody knew what it was. We said during the electoral campaign that we wanted to govern with popular participation, with popular councils, but not even we knew what that actually was. There was no other previous experience of this in Brazil. We wanted to change radically the way of governing, and we thought that participatory democracy would be possible. We started with the budget because we thought that was the most important and most urgent thing to open up.
Today more than 50 000 people engage every year in the process of the participatory budget. The process starts in March and lasts until end of January. The city is divided into 16 districts and 5 thematic committees that works with issues that concerns the whole city. People engage or in their districts or in the thematic committees. The local governments goes to every district and thematic committee and present the evaluation of the previous year’s investments, the investment plan, and the statutes of the OP.
After the municipality has defined which three areas are prioritized the investment is allocated according to three criteria:
2. infrastructure requirements
This is where the inversion of priorities is done, the second point is the most important to redistribute wealth and help the areas that need it most. The biggest piece of the cake will always go where the need is largest, that is a guarantee built into the process. An investment plan is made according to the outcome of the OP process and a budget matrix as well that has to go through the local parliament.
This means that the OP process is a parallel power to the municipal power and that means also conflicts and clashes with the local parliament where the opposition to the PT is in majority. The participatory budget has existed since 1989, because the PT has won every election for mayor since. That is 13 years that the process has developed and 13 years the opposition has been criticizing it. The first six years of OP the opposition was simply against the budget process. The years passed and as they saw that the process was popular and that participatory democracy had a strong popular base in the city they changed tactics. Now, nobody is against the OP but the opposition wants to institutionalize it so that everything has to go through the local parliament. Among the local deputies of the opposition there is a strong criticism that the representative democracy – which they claim is the base of democracy – is loosing its importance.
And it has made a difference both practical and political. Today the citizens of the city have access to paved roads, sewerage system, water system, garbage collection, over 70 schools have been built. Redistribution did increase and the public sector as well. When a multinational comes to town they are always welcomed under the conditions that the local government together with the community puts forward. The idea is that the corporations themselves should pay for the problems they cause. It can be about building houses for people that has to be moved, to pave roads or open up roads, build bridges or small boutiques for the small and medium sized enterprises – and always pay taxes.
To take decisions that do not follow the logic of neoliberal globalization is not easy but is made much easier if the decision is legitimated by popular participation. The participatory budget in Porto Alegre, is one of the few examples in the world of a participatory democracy where citizens are given the possibility to take economic decisions. In contrast to neoliberal thinking whereby economists should take economic decisions and sometimes by economists who do not know a region, as the IMF always does. The participatory democracy experience in Porto Alegre is also an example of increased participation in policy and decision-taking.
America Vera-Zavala Is finishing her thesis “Democracy in the Era of globalisation: Power and Counter-Power with Special Reference to Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegre”