The Buenos Aires Net Party: Weaving a Bridge Between the Click and the Vote
BY Rebecca Chao | Monday, January 13 2014
If you had strolled past the Legislature Palace of the City of Buenos Aires some time in October of last year, you might have seen a towering Trojan horse made of wooden slats taken in tow by a SUV and a group of activists from the nascent El Partido de La Red or Net Party. Rather than housing a lethal subset of the Grecian army, the statue carried ideas from the citizens of Buenos Aires on improving their city government. The Net Party is the city’s newest party and first dabble into direct democracy.
The party binds its elected representatives to vote on bills according to a consensus reached after an informed debate and vote on their online platfrom, Democracy OS. While the Net Party did not win any seats in their first legislative elections in October, with only a three month campaign, a team of 50 and $30,000 (much of it crowdfunded), it made a small but noticeable dent in Buenos Aires’ political scene: it ranked ninth out of 24 with the top three parties -- Union Pro, UNEN and Front for Victory -- nabbing the available seats.
“It started about a year and a half ago,” Net Party cofounder Pia Mancini tells techPresident over Skype. From Occupy Wall Street to the Arab Spring to manifestations on the streets here in Argentina, Mancini says that she was seeing a “crisis in representation” among citizens frustrated with the current political status quo and citizens who are online, “voicing concerns, sharing, collaborating with no middleman.” She wondered, “How can we use tech to close the gap between the system and the citizens? How can we transform this noise on the streets and actually update our democratic system?” She and her cofounder Santiago Siri were fixed on the idea of changing politics from within. “That’s when we started thinking about creating a political party,” says Mancini.
The Net Party was born alongside their online platform, a place for debate, policy discussion and voting on actual legislation. Mancini’s cofounder, Siri, a web developer, has said of their party, “We want to weave a bridge between the click and the vote.” Their goal is to break down the idea that people are not capable of directly voting for the laws that affect them, explains Mancini who has a background in political science. While bills “are written by lawyers for lawyers,” she says, the Net Party’s platform translates them for a lay audience. “When we actually see what these issues are it sort of takes the myth out of what they do in congress. It’s not rocket science.” Yet should an online constituent feel uneasy or unqualified to vote on a bill, they can delegate their vote to someone they consider more informed, such as an expert, and have them vote on their behalf. In theory, an activist or expert can receive several votes for one issue.
In terms of any limits the Net Party places on voting, “The only barriers that we set in place are in regards to the constitution for example,” says Mancini. “Beyond that we trust the community to stand up and participate itself.”
The Net Party is preceded by a number of direct democracy platforms that have sprouted as of late, some of which have had moderate success. In Italy, the Five Star Movement had a popular run but has recently been tainted by opaque leadership. Its founder, the comedian-cum-politician Beppe Grillo and its tech master, Roberto Casaleggio, have toted their platform as a way to eliminate the middleman. Yet they have been accused of being middlemen themselves, creating rules without deliberation and failing to allow independent monitors to verify the online selection of Five Star’s parliamentary candidates. As techPresident has previously covered, one local chapter of the Five Star has had better results, creating an electronic platform that gives the people's votes binding power.
The Swedish-born Pirate Party, a group that champions direct democracy or "liquid feedback" as well as transparency and open information, now has a number of sibling parties throughout Europe, some of which have adopted liquid feedback platforms that allow only members to propose and vote on policy online. Two of its original Swedish members occupy seats in the European parliament and there are three Pirates in the Icelandic Senate, but in Germany, the party was recently dubbed a “splinter party with little influence” by Der Spiegel as it failed to gain the 5 percent of votes needed to join the German Bundestag despite large representation across municipal and state parliaments.
Iceland has had a mixed reputation for its experiment with digital democracy. Reykjavik Mayor Jon Gnarr partnered with the nonprofit Citizens Foundation to create the Better Reykjavik platform, which allows users to debate and recommend policies but not to vote on them (except on micro-issues like within a neighborhood). However, users can “like” certain policies. With enough “likes,” an issue makes its way to the top of the list so that a leader can respond. The platform has been well received.
But Iceland’s experimentation with a crowd-sourced constitution has not fared as well. In 2010, one thousand Icelanders were randomly selected to decide on the founding principles for a new constitution. A diverse 25-member Constitutional Council was then elected to draft the document. The crowdsourced constitution, however, has failed to past muster in Parliament with many longstanding politicians finding it inexpertly cobbled together. Finnur Magnusson, the chief technology officer of the Constitutional Council in Iceland told Opening Parliament in March, “As things stand right now, I’m not very hopeful that this parliament will adopt the constitution.”
Mancini says she and her team studied all of the available direct democracy models. But what differentiates the Net Party from other initiatives is this: they don’t need to win seats in parliament for them to change it. They only need other members of Congress to adopt their model -- to be bound to vote according to decisions made via the OS platform. So far, the government has responded to their ideas “surprisingly well,” says Mancini. “We’ve been reached by several parties because they want to use our platform. We had several offers from MPs that want to vote on at least one law using the platform.” Two small political parties in Argentina have also shown interest, one within the province of Buenos Aires and one in Cordoba. The party’s model is also being exported to other regions of Latin America, such as Mexico, Paraguay and Chile.
The Net Party has also taken their online efforts to the streets. In mid October, they gathered around 900 people to demonstrate against a bill that would turn the neighborhood of Caballito into a bland development, full of high rises and a large shopping mall. In the end, the bill was not passed. As part of their campaign to stop the bill, the Net Party projected the results of an online survey onto iconic monuments throughout the city showing how a large majority were in favor of axing the bill.
The Net Party’s offline work has been just as important as their online work. While over 70 percent of Buenos Aires has Internet, many may not understand how they can get involved. “If they live far away or are impoverished or do not have access to education, then they can’t interact with the system,” says Mancini. “We need to build those capabilities.” The Net Party plans to partner with grassroots organizations and host a number of workshops to train people throughout Buenos Aires to use technology in expressing their political views.
To qualify for the next legislative election in 2015, the Net Party must balloon into a 4,000 member party. For their first election, the Net Party was allowed to run with only 50 members under a provision called “personeria transitoria,” which allows parties to qualify in their first year so long as they gather 4,000 signatures. Since their founding a year and a half ago, they have now grown to 400 members and 3,000 online users. Not bad for a group of young techies that have been dubbed by the media as “cute, smart, crazy [people] who don’t hurt anyone.”
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