Roger B. Meyerson: Local foundations for stronger democracy
Nobel Prize winner Roger B. Myerson, Professor of Economics at the University of Chicago will be a key speaker in the World Summit of Local and Regional Leaders – 4th UCLG Congress to be held in Rabat next 1st to 4th October 2013. The following article gives an advance of the content that Myerson will present in the Introductory Plenary of the World Summit on “Tackling the major challenges of our era from our cities and regions”.
By Roger B. Myerson
United Cities and Local Governments (UCLG) is the foremost global organization for promoting democratic local government in all regions of the world. Local democracy is vital for democratic development. In some parts of the world, however, powerful vested interests for centralization have resisted the establishment of responsible democratic local governments. In the face of such forces against local democracy, UCLG has an important role as the international advocate of democratic local government.
Successful democracy requires more than just elections. For democracy to be effective, voters must have a choice among qualified candidates with proven records of public service who have developed good reputations for spending public funds responsibly. When such trusted leadership is lacking, democracy is inevitably fragile. This essential supply of trusted democratic leaders can develop best in responsible institutions of local government where successful local leaders can prove their qualifications to become strong competitive candidates for higher office.
We must recognize, however, that new competition from popular local leaders is generally against the vested interests of established incumbent national leaders. Furthermore, in a centralized unitary state where governors and mayors are appointed by the national leader, these positions are among the most highly valued rewards that the national leader can offer to loyal supporters. Then what leader could afford to disappoint his or her supporters by letting such valuable prizes be given away by local voters instead? It is not surprising that national leaders have often chosen to retain centralized control of local government, even when political decentralization could strengthen their country's democratic system.
For example, consider the recent political changes in Egypt. If the transition to democracy had started with local elections, then many factions would have gotten opportunities to start building reputations for responsible democratic leadership in different areas. But instead, the democracy that the people of Egypt demanded was introduced with a presidential election in which only one faction could win power. Although Egypt's old 1971 constitution and its new 2012 constitution both contain promises to introduce local democracy at some future time, both constitutions explicitly postpone decentralization to let current national leaders exercise power over all local government This centralization might have seemed convenient for the short-term interests of national leaders, but it left Egypt's new democracy perilously vulnerable to fears of another autocracy. The empowerment of trusted local leadership throughout the country could have done much to reduce such fears. It is unfortunate that UCLG's message about the vital importance of local democracy was not widely heard among the voices of the Arab Spring.
Excessive centralization can also harm economic development. Poor communities can build and maintain local public goods that are essential for economic development, like roads and schools, but they can accomplish this only when their efforts are coordinated by local leaders whom they trust. Such trust can be expected only from leaders whose authority is based in local politics. Local officials whose positions depend on national political patronage are inevitably less concerned about developing trust among the residents of a small poor community. Interactions between the various levels of local and national politics can strengthen democracy at all levels. I have argued that local democracy can strengthen national democratic competition when elected offices in municipal and provincial governments provide a ladder of democratic advancement that effective leaders can climb from local politics into national politics. But conversely, national democracy can strengthen local democratic competition when national political parties provide alternatives to established local leaders. Local political bosses should know that if they lose popular support then they could face serious challengers from a rival national party. For such mutually-reinforcing political interactions, the institutional pillars for a strong democratic system should include both a multi-party national assembly and elected local councils with clear autonomous responsibilities.
A constitutional system with democratic local government tends to become politically stable once it is established. When governors and mayors are locally elected, they become local power-brokers from whom national politicians must regularly seek support in their competition for national power, which would make it very costly for any national leader to threaten the constitutional powers of these elected local officials. Thus, a transition to a decentralized democratic system, once achieved, can be self-sustaining.
What can the international community do to facilitate the growth of local democracy around the world? International donors of economic assistance funds can help promote responsible local governments by including elected local governments as partners in economic development projects. Donors should insist that any country that receives their assistance should allow provincial and municipal governments to apply directly for some portion of the country's development assistance funds.
UCLG can have a major impact by disseminating information about democratic local governments in its Global Observatory of Local Democracy (GOLD). In the past, academic research in comparative politics tended to neglect local government simply because political scientists found it difficult to gather detailed information about local political systems in many countries. The work of UCLG GOLD in providing a comprehensive data set about democratic local governments (including their electoral systems, comparative budgetary responsibilities, and dates of major local-government reforms) may be the best way to promote academic research that will increase understanding in this area. Then academic political scientists can train the next generation of public officials to better appreciate the value of local democracy. With broader understanding of the benefits of democratic local government, we can truly imagine a world in which people everywhere can trust their local and national leaders to provide the public goods and services that are essential for the welfare and prosperity of their communities.
Source: University of Chicago.