Research is an integral part of the operation of ICLD. In a couple of interviews, we would like to feature some of our Advisory Group members who are researchers in the fields of local democracy and decentralisation.
Today we meet Tomila Lankina, who is a Professor of International Relations at London School of Economics, and take part of her insights on today’s challenges of local democracy. Tomila did her PhD on Russian local government and has since then done research in areas which remained connected to regional and local democracy and local governance.
What are the main challenges of local democracy today?
– There is evidence of processes of gradual erosion of sub-national governments in the context of consolidation of national power. The way it works is that in many cases mayors are appointed rather than being elected democratically, which means that instead of being accountable to the local populations they are accountable to the national center. As we know from other countries, an appointed and kind of subservient local government often serves as a mobilization machine during elections, facilitating the delivery of the electoral result for the regime that is already in power. That is, for example, exactly what we have seen in Russia over the last 15 years or so.
What does it mean for the citizens?
– It means that at the local level citizens do not have the same accountability mechanisms as they would have via normal democratic institutions. For instance, if they have limited control over the elections of local councilors or mayors because of the fact that the mayors are appointed, or because elections are not free and transparent, that means that the channel of citizens’ communication of local concerns and preferences is broken in a way.
“All politics is local”, as the famous saying goes. Most people care about very down-to-earth issues such as local parks, schools for their children, clean environment, etc. And if they cannot influence those day-to-day matters of local concern when these matters are decided by, for instance, powerful economic interest that might be associated with the political regime nationally or regionally, or other political forces, then citizens cannot influence outcomes and politics at a local level in a way that would have consequences for their ordinary lives. One of the consequences of that in Russia, that I study a lot, is that people have moved very much towards street protests, which are often not very safe because they might go against powerful interests. Protests have become a kind of non-institutionalized channel for people to express their grievances.
How can local governments protect democracy?
– It is a good question. Local governments from my own research could be very effective vehicles for serving as a sort of checks and balances mechanism. In Russia, there is the municipal, regional and national levels. Often, elected local governments can challenge undemocratic decision-making of regional or national bodies. In this way, such democratically elected local governments can serve as an effective check on these other institutions, and thereby promote democracy.
Another effective instrument for sustaining local democracy is networking with other local institutions both within the national settings and across – with municipalities from other countries that share experiences. Some people think that Western donor projects are trivial and that they do not achieve really much, because they often involve training projects and there is never enough money to sustain democratic governance in a large country. But from my own research, I think the potential effects are very non-trivial, because oftentimes training seminars or aid projects that improve local technical capacity can make a big difference.
Could you provide an example of such non-trivial effects?
– In early 1990s while doing research into EU projects in Russia, I saw that such minor improvements as getting a computer or Internet could make a big difference for a municipality. It sounds trivial, but it can make a real difference in terms of the capacity and also in terms of the opportunity to communicate with local citizens.
What consequences might a global pandemic such as covid-19 have on the role of local governments and local democracy?
– Some of my colleagues, who are following the developments with local politics, specifically in Russia, more closely, note that in times of crisis there has been more delegation of authority to local and regional bodies, because the political regime doesn’t want to take the blame for something that goes badly, for instance, if there are many covid fatalities. They could always blame the municipalities or regional authorities, which is obviously a bad thing. However, the good thing is that some of these municipal actors and politicians have become more visible in the context of pandemic, because they are really taking matters in their hands. They might have also been given more resources and powers to deal with this situation. In this way, the connection between local needs and the responses by local authorities is being restored and that is the essence of local democracy. That is the reason why we need a functional local government that is democratically elected and accountable.