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Participatory democracy », often brandished as a given in political speeches, is never really defined and very rarely transcribed into legal provisions. Fortunately, from Namur to Brussels, it can count on elected officials who defend it ardently… 

Popular consultation is a procedure, provided for in the Code of Local Democracy and Decentralization, allowing the population to make its voice heard on specific issues. In Namur, a citizen’s collective collected more than 13,400 signatures, forcing the city of Namur to ask the opinion of its population on the choice of razing the Leopold Park to build a shopping center. Thus, forced to take a great leap into the democratic unknown, the city took everyone by surprise and launched its own popular consultation on the subject! This allowed her to choose the wording of the questions to be asked to her fellow citizens. Not crazy, the wasp. 

In this unprecedented democratic impulse, the city quickly put its hand in the public wallet and launched a campaign (€38,000) to inform the people of Namur about… the reasons to vote yes to the three convoluted questions they were asked on February 8. Meanwhile, the defenders of Leopold Park, whose patient work helped initiate the popular consultation, were volunteering and crowdfunding to make their case… 

variable geometry

Fortunately, there was an opposition party that had the courage to denounce this  » imbalance », this  » outrance ». A party that knows how to flush out the maneuvers of power and does not hesitate to hit or denounce. « By dint of directing the result to such an extent, it is no longer a popular consultation but a plebiscite that the majority is organizing, » he said, going so far as to ask the Mayor to share the budget of the information campaign with the supporters of the no

What party is so quick to denounce the « theft » of a popular initiative and its « detour » into a marketing operation in favor of a private developer’s project listed on the stock exchange? I’ll give you that. The PTB? Nope. Ecolo, this fervent defender of participation? No more: member of the Namur majority, he carries at arm’s length this masquerade which distorted the request of 13 400 Namurians. The CDH, then, this party which declared a short time ago in the Walloon Region that « Putting the procedure (of the popular consultation) in the hands of politicians would distort the popular dimension of the process » and the « would quickly turn into a form of political instrumentalization of the debate »? The Mayor of Namur, Maxime Prévot, is a CDH and despite the scathing disavowal of the people of Namur by answering « no » to the three questions asked, he retains for his part « a willingness shared by all parties to promote the creation of a commercial center in Leopold Square ».

But you’re getting warmer… This rebellious party, holed up in the opposition from which it forges seasoned protesters and for whom the contract with the voter is a sacred bond to be earned at every moment, is the PS. The same one who, when he had the absolute majority in Huy, sat on the result of a popular consultation where 95% of the voters had refused, once again, that a park be razed to the ground in order to carry out a fictitious real estate project. Regardless of this a priori unquestionable score, Mayor Anne-Marie Lizin had estimated that only 27% of voters had turned out, which meant that 73% of the population implicitly supported her project! 

move along…

In Brussels, at the same time as his party was denouncing the Namur masquerade, PS Mayor Yvan Mayeur was also claiming « massive support » from the population for his project to pedestrianize the central boulevards, trumpeting the fact that 73% of the people questioned in his  » Participatory workshops  » are in favor of it. A figure identical and just as far-fetched as that of his Hutu colleague. Because the mayor forgets to specify that his « workshops », subcontracted to a consulting firm, were rather like a simple questionnaire submitted to 600 passers-by on the sidewalk of the Bourse, and who in their great majority do not live in the district. The questions asked did not insist on the fact that the redevelopment of the boulevards will create a series of squares intended to host events throughout the year, transforming the Place De Brouckère into a « city square ». Times Square « , initiate the social and commercial transformation of the area to attractquality signs » and more tourists… 

Not a word either, in the « The city is also planning to hold « participatory workshops  » on the traffic plan accompanying this redevelopment, with its detour of buses, its mini-ring road that will encircle the pedestrian zone and suffocate narrow, inhabited streets, and its four underground parking lots that the city wants to build under historic squares in the center… Since we’re talking about pedestrian traffic, there’s no point in upsetting people’s minds by explaining at the same time that we’re going to create 1,600 new parking spaces to « compensate » for the 600 parking spaces that have been eliminated, when the occupancy rate of the 19,000 « public » (i.e., paid and private) parking spaces in the Pentagon already doesn’t exceed 60%! The « participatory workshops » on the pedestrianization of the central boulevards took place before the traffic plan was made public, so as not to pollute the participation with useless debates. And when the Brussels alderman for Mobility Els Ampe (OpenVLD) organized information meetings for the inhabitants, it was after the decision had been voted (without any prior consultation or public inquiry), just to show that there was no point in contesting it. 

However, the protest took off like wildfire as soon as the project was announced. First on social networks and internet, then in the street. On December 1, 2014, more than 300 people spontaneously gathered to express their anger at the Common Council meeting that was voting on these measures and had to be suspended. Collectives and platforms have been formed, launching actions, petitions and appeals. In three weeks, more than 23,000 people have signed against the creation of a parking lot under the Place du Jeu de Balle. In response, the city has voted a budget of €100,000 to campaign for its plan. And the mayor continued to promote his pedestrianism as if nothing had happened. 

On January 22, he organized at the Ancienne Belgique the second « grand general assembly » to present the results of his vast « participatory process », during which 60 participants, drawn at random and divided into several groups, were invited to give their opinion on well-framed subjects such as the shape of benches and other elements of urban furniture. On stage, members of the design offices and the municipal administration presented to an incredulous audience the « top 24 » of the proposals retained at the end of these working groups. On the screen, it smelled like novlangue and the JCDecaux® catalog… Announced as the headliner of the evening, the burgomaster finally remained cloistered in his chair in the front row, surrounded by his aldermen, mute, offering the image of a royal court that turns its back on its populace. « Yvan » did not flinch when the audience, annoyed, chanted his name so that he would deign to answer the questions. He was too busy giving directions in small gestures to the minions sent to do his bidding. This gave rise to scenes worthy of a Soviet congress, where they remained frozen and mute, for example when the room insisted on asking « Where are the mobility and pollution studies, why aren’t they public ? « The only dry answer from the moderator:  » We won’t answer you, it’s not the subject of the evening »

But the audience did not come for nothing: a slogan and logo contest was announced that evening. There are rumors that it would be financed from the participation budget. 

Participation is an art. 

Gwenaël Breës

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