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World Social Forum: Politicization Vs "Purity" Debate Comes to a Head
Published on Sunday, January 29, 2006 by the Inter Press Service
World Social Forum: Politicization Vs "Purity" Debate Comes to a Head
by Humberto Márquez

CARACAS - Politics, especially party politics, on which representative democracy is based, is in crisis. But not even the social movements brought together under the umbrella of the World Social Forum (WSF) are doing enough to respond to the demands of the societies in which they are active.

Activists wear masks depicting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld (R) and Vice President Dick Cheney during a protest against the Iraq war at the venue of the annual World Social Forum in Caracas, January 26, 2006. (Francesco Spotorno/Reuters)
This debate has cut through the discussions on other issues addressed by the seminars, workshops and panels at the sixth WSF, which opened on Tuesday and ends Sunday in Caracas.

This year's annual WSF civil society gathering was polycentric, with a Forum held in Bamako, Mali last week and another scheduled for late March in the city of Karachi in southern Pakistan.

"This is a political forum. The participating organizations take a political approach to the world and to their presence in it," social science professor Edgardo Lander, a member of the Venezuelan WSF organizing committee, told IPS.

As seen in Latin America, "politics is in crisis, and that has to do with the lack of representation of the people by their elected officials, who tend to represent themselves more than the interests of society in this region," said Pedro Santana with the Colombian organization Vía Ciudadana.

"It is in response to that crisis of representativity that social movements emerge, like feminism, environmentalism, ethnic movements, or groups that fight discrimination," said Santana.

In some cases, "these movements voice their grievances and demand solutions directly from the state itself, since the political class ignores them," he said.

Juan Carlos Monedero with the Complutense Institute of International Studies, in Spain, said "the divorce between political parties and social movements is similar to the one between reform and revolution, and bogged down transformational thinking throughout the entire 20th century."

In Monedero's view, "political parties are a necessary evil, and social movements arise for noble purposes but are short-lived and corruptible."

"Today, political parties behave like cartels, although the name sounds ugly, because there are rules of the game, and those who do not stick to them are pushed out," he added.

Monedero pointed to the loss of the traditional functions of political parties, which he said no longer play a role of helping to build political and social values, and do not inform the citizens, but use the media as a tool to maintain support for the cartel.

As an example of the complexity of the exercise of democracy, he noted that while only 25 percent of voters took part in Venezuela's December legislative elections, a regional annual poll known as the Latinobarómetro found that Venezuela is the country with the highest level of confidence in the democratic system, with 70 percent of respondents saying they trusted the system.

In the view of Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of the Inter Press Service (IPS) international news agency and a member of the WSF international committee, "In Latin America there is a divide between political institutions and civil society, and to close it, civil society must focus on concrete agendas."

This is because, in his view, "the region experiences a swing of the pendulum from the right to the left approximately every ten years, and different policies are established in each decade. Civil society should take advantage of the present years," in which there is a clear inclination towards social concerns.

According to Lilian Celiberti of the Uruguayan women's rights organization Articulación Femenista Marco Sur, "the political parties have a responsibility to incorporate the demands and struggles of social movements, and it is important for governments to create mechanisms for participation that can translate these demands into public policies."

In addition to the relationship between civil society and political parties, the participants in the Caracas session of the WSF - some 70,000 people representing 2,200 organizations - have also devoted considerable discussion to the politicization of this annual event, and its potential conversion into a launching pad for political action.

Addressing around 15,000 Forum participants on Thursday night, host country president Hugo Chávez declared that "it would be tragic if the WSF became merely folkloric or just another tourist gathering. I don't understand why this is still being debated and no conclusion has been reached. In the face of the challenges from the empire, there is no time to waste."

Santana noted that "one sector of the WSF believes that this is a civil society initiative that should not be confused with political society and must reaffirm its autonomy, but without refusing to take part in the dialogue critical for implementing the changes discussed in this meeting space."

Others, however, maintain that the Forum "should remain pure and uncontaminated, because they perceive any association with politics as sinful, and maintain that social movements are the actors historically destined to bring about changes."

Then there are those who take a middle-ground approach, and advocate maintaining the autonomy of the Forum while developing "an open and clear-cut policy on the relationship between the WSF and social movements on one hand and political society and governments on the other."

Yet another current has emerged in support of transforming the WSF into a full-fledged political movement.

Savio recalled that the Forum "was born with the notion of serving as an open space for sharing, comparing, learning and creating networks among organizations."

"This has worked, but I believe we need to redefine it, so that it is less dispersed and there is more discussion around the thematic areas of debate," he commented.

"Every day it becomes more urgent to take action on issues. The last five years (since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States) have not been conducive to the causes of peace, justice and international cooperation," he stressed.

"There has been a strengthening of the domination by the ruling systems, and a weakening of the United Nations. Globalization has been discredited in cultural terms, yet maintains elements of power, and on an international level, it is relations of force that prevail," Savio added.

Between the two extremes of politicization and "purity", Savio advocated a more moderate approach, calling on "the organizations that come to the Forum, and the ones that don't come, to adopt concrete propositions on specific issues and an agenda of concrete actions."

Copyright © 2006 IPS - Inter Press Service


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