Porto Alegre

Judy Rebick


social summit held recently in Porte Allegre Brazil seems to have inspired

everyone who attended that, in the slogan of the conference, a better world is



in all the discussion of events at the Social Summit, I have seen little about

the inspiring experiment in participatory democracy that the city of Porte

Alegre has been living over the last decade. While I couldn’t attend the

Social Summit, I have had the pleasure of meeting Lula de Silva, the charismatic

leader of the Workers Party when he was was passing through Toronto on speaking



as everyone calls him, is a steelworker with an incredible ability to make

complex ideas almost into popular poetry. In Brazil, he is as popular as a rock



people of the world need to develop a new vision of a fairer society,” he told

a Toronto audience a couple of years ago. The democratic participation of people

in their society, he said, has to be the centre of that new vision. He calls it

social citizenship, a new kind of democracy.


we have democracy only to have the right to cry out in hunger?” he asked. What

was the meaning of political democracy in Brazil if so much of the population

was struggling just to survive. In a developing country like Brazil where so

many live in poverty the simple question has revolutionary implications. In the

cities and regions where the PT is in power they have put their ideas into

practice involving ordinary citizens in decisions that affect their lives.


says the PT does not have a new road map but they learning from their experience

as they go. “Where we are in power, we turn neo-liberalism on its head.

That’s our starting point,” he explains. “We start from the needs of the

people, not the needs of capital.”


Porto Alegre, citizens actually decide on municipal priorities through the

participatory budget (OP). Parallel to the usual city counselors, citizens are

elected every year from 16 geographically and socially distinct sectors that

handle local problems. In March and April, in the early stages of the OP a

progress report on decisions made the previous year is presented and debated by

the citizen forums in each sector. They then elect two representatives and two

alternates who serve unpaid for one year only on the OP council. Each of the 16

citizens assemblies in addition to electing their representatives on the city

wide budget council decide what service and spending priorities they want to see

in the coming year. These proposals are forwarded to the municipal council. At

the same time the delegates to the city-wide budget council attend training

sessions on municipal finances. The process, based on the initial applications

from the regional and sectoral assemblies, goes back and forth between municipal

bureaucrats, the OP council and then finally the mayor and the municipal

council, which has the sole authority to actually adopt the budget. By now we

are in mid-July when the legal force of universal suffrage and representative

democracy in the persons of the 33 municipal councillors elected for four years

meets with the grass roots power of direct democracy embodied in the 40 or so OP

councillors supported by hundreds of delegates who have participated in the

regional and sectoral forums and some 20,000 citizens who have taken an active

part in the various stages of the OP. It is the OP that debates discusses and

amends the plan for the new year between October 1 and December. The Municipal

Council has the final say but it is understood that they will make only minor

changes to the OP proposal.


is so exciting about the Participatory Budget in Brazil’s Gaucho country is

the interaction between active citizens, elected politicians and career

officials. Instead of playing an advisory role, as do many citizens bodies in

our political system, the regional and sectoral assemblies actually discuss and

debate budget priorities. In my neighbourhood, for example, we might decide that

a new school is more important than improvements to the highway.


living and working in the community would decide on the priorities that directly

effect our lives. Community interest, not party politics, or personal gain

become the centre of decision making. More importantly, instead of complaining

about the decisions someone else is making on my behalf, I can choose to become

a significant participant in the process for one year or two. I don’t have to

give up my job and decide on a career in the politics. On the contrary, it is my

day to day life in the community that best qualifies me for participation in the

deciding priorities for my community.


the other hand, popular assemblies are not enough. Even if our citizen’s

assembly decide on the school, perhaps in the next region, they have many more

children crowded into a single school. The overall municipal budget has to

decide how much money to devote to each project. If citizen’s are only

involved at the neighbourhood level, then decisions are left to professional

politicians and bureaucrats. Electing delegates from the assemblies to a city

wide budget council ensures that direct democratic input continues throughout

the entire process. The OP process also recognizes that no matter how open and

welcoming a direct democracy process is, it will always involve a small minority

of citizens so the largest number of citizens participate in the usual fashion

of representative democracy. The OP is an example of how direct democracy and

representative democracy can work together.


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