Participatory budget: a civil society that puts pressure but does not engage.

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Last week, Mexico City’s Electoral Institute (IEDF) held the second popular consultation on participatory budget for 2015. The consultation was conducted in 1,793 neighborhoods within the capital and around 6000 projects were taken into account -from the 8,234 that were submitted in categories such as works and services, urban infrastructure, equipment, crime prevention, recreation as well as cultural activities. This time, only 161.440 voters participated in the consultation, which amounts to 1.6 percent of IEDF’s total list. In 2012, participatory budget amounted 704 million pesos, almost 751 million in 2013 and in 2014, 762,927,283 pesos -the equivalent of Cuajimalpa’s 91% total budget. Therefore, the voters’ snub to decide (or at least try to impact) the fate of this expensive matter is not to be taken lightly. According to the law, up to 3 percent of each borough’s budget is available for all citizens via this exercise of direct democracy. However, beyond the insufficient dissemination for this consultation as well as the apathy about the process behind it – from the 2013 election of members of the Citizens Committees and Councils for People, institutions that are responsible for defining the proposals to be voted -, what does the failure of this tool for citizen participation say about the society’s interest in decision-making?
Mexico City’s participatory budget (PPDF) is a part of the boroughs’ annual budget – it is around one to three percent – and is aimed at projects that voters, through Citizens Committees and Councils, will think as necessary for their boroughs . These Committees and Councils are comprised by nine members, who are elected for a three-year assignment, and whose process is organized by IEDF. Any citizen who wishes to do so and is willing to pay with his own pocket the costs for his campaign can join the corresponding council for his borough. However, few seem interested in participating and those who actually do, are often backed by a political party or organization.
Although the concept of participatory budget has been boosted by some civil organizations, the effort has been reduced to turning it as part of the legislation. The unsettling fact is that this unfinished process for enhancing citizen participation has been repeated in federal mechanisms such as the referendum and citizen’s initiative. In light of the overall turnout rate -which was both physical and virtual via the internet vote- the PPDF initiative resembles a sort of abandoned conquest from a civil society that puts pressure, but does not engage. Even worse, just like the recent failures of popular consultations at the federal level ended up as a publicity stunt for political parties’ weak agendas, PPDF could become a subterfuge for local authorities to recklessly spend public resources , distance themselves from their responsibility in decision-making as well as to hide behind an alleged public legitimacy.
The current PPDF model is not the scheme that was originally backed by society in the consultations that were held at Mexico City’s Legislative Assembly. Although the PPDF is not a consolidated model, the organized civil society allegedly wanted to focus some of its efforts into promoting citizen participation. Monitoring the effects of the law has been clearly insufficient. The tool is not perfect, but it’s a start. As society leaves PPDF into oblivion, political stakeholders and their clients will gladly sign its implementation.


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