Oramento Participativo (OP) in Porto Alegre
Will you be going to the World Social Forum this year? Whether you are or not, it might be interesting to know that the city of Porto Alegre that will host the forum for the third consecutive year is not an ordinary city. It is extraordinary when it comes to democracy and more specifically â€“ participatory democracy.
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 â€“ and took everyone by surprise by almost winning.
The PT in Porto Alegre ran for mayor with a program that proposed among other things to stop dismissal of workers from the public sector, to increase the public sector, to end tax incentives to corporation and to make a tax reform so that a more progressive tax system could be introduced. The idea of participatory budget was also part of the program and the campaign. The former mayor Raul Pont says:
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.
And so they did. The first year only 1000 persons participated. The municipality was bankrupt as the former right-wing government had mismanaged the city. Taxation became an issue of public debate when the municipality had to raise revenue to be able to invest. In 1989, when the new administration took over the City Hall, 98% of the budget was already committed to pay civil servants. The municipality had no money to invest. That situation generated a discussion with the community about making a tax reform and introducing a progressive tax system. The same year the new administration took power, more than 15 bills were presented to the local parliament and 14 of them were approved. Since that year municipality has had money to invest and the citizens have thereby had means to redistribute and participation has increased.
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.
The citizens decide which three budget areas are the most important and they also decide which investments and projects should be done â€“ which is then presented to the local government that by a mathematic composition counts together the points and see which three areas are the priorities of the city.
After the municipality has defined which three areas are prioritized the investment is allocated according to three criteria:
1. total population of the district
2. infrastructure requirements
3. the area given priority in the district.
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.
The objective of the OrÃ§amento Participativo is to give people the possibility of taking decisions by means of participatory democracy. The people are the ones that decide what the budget priorities should be, which projects should be given priority and how they should be implemented. The people also decide the rules of the OP process and the technical criteria of the projects. The OP process is not institutionalized, itâ€™s not part of municipal legislation, it is in fact legitimized through participation and political pressure created by citizens.
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 â€“ which they claim is the base of democracy â€“ is loosing its importance.
Participation is not only wide-spread but there is also a good representiveness among the participants. They truly represent the multitude that society consists of. The year 2000 43,5 % were newcomers to the budget process. 58 % of participants were women. 62,3 % of the participants were white, 20,9 % were black. Of the black participants 63,6 % were women. There was a good distribution of different age groups, 17,6 % were between 16-25, 16,4 % were between 26-33, 20,4 % were between 34-41, 18,6 % were between 42-49, and 25,9 % were more than 50 years old. The poorer groups were very well represented. 24,9% had less than 2 minimum salaries (ms), 29,3 % between 2-4 ms, 22,7 from 4-8 ms, 10 between 8-12 ms and 13,1 % had more than 12 ms.
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 â€“ and always pay taxes.
This is not only very rare in the era of globalization that public politics put demands on corporations, but itâ€™s also a clear example of a vertical negotiation between the local and the global. What happens in globalization is that demands that are raised on local level automatically leaps to global level. If global power is everywhere it is easy to touch power when local decisions are taken that in a way or another have a connection with the global. Local decisions will neither revolutionize globalization nor end global power structure but will affect it. If then the touch is made several times (like Porto Alegre that always put demands on corporations) that can actually shape globalization. If more places do the same thing, if the touch comes from several places it can eventually change globalization and the global power structure.
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.
To build movements, parties, win elections, develop democracy and struggle to change the world is also about making dreams come true. Who would have thought, after 21 years of military dictatorship, that 50 000 people each year would engage and decide over the Porto Alegre city budget. Who would have thought that the working class kid that used to sell oranges in the street and then as a worker organize strikes at the big Scania factory, Lula, would become president of Brazil 2003. What we dream of today might become true tomorrow if we fight hard. That is why we have to look at examples like Porto Alegre and others and dream of a global democracy â€“ while building it bottom-up â€“ so that it gets real.
America Vera-Zavala Is finishing her thesis â€œDemocracy in the Era of globalisation: Power and Counter-Power with Special Reference to Participatory Budgeting in Porto Alegreâ€