Limited Opportunities for Political Participation: A Case-Study of Roma Local Councillors in Slovenia

Article excerpt

Throughout the transition period, Roma populations in Central and Eastern Europe have been largely left out of economic and policy-making processes. Many Roma communities were marginalised through poverty and physical isolation. When addressing this issue one should consider that if the Roma are to advocate better opportunities and solutions to the problems of their own communities, they will need to strengthen the level of their participation in political processes. Since few Roma have any political experience they will need strategies that address the obstacles to the Roma's political participation and the development of organised Romani political leadership. Such strategies should be implemented in legislation at the national level, considering the specifics and culture of each individual civil society. In Slovenia, legislators recognised this problem and have amended the Law on Local Self-government in 2001, which obliged local communities and political leaders to include the Roma minority in the policy-making process. This led to the first elections of local Romani councillors in 2002 in 19 Slovenian municipalities. The article aims to offer an evaluation of the institution, tasks and function of the Roma local councillor. Another goal is to challenge current practices and solutions and to criticise the method used at the national level for dealing with the problems that the Roma encounter.

Keywords: Roma rights, Roma local councillors, positive discrimination, local government, Slovenia

1. Introduction: the importance of political participation for the Roma minority

Democracy is defined through citizens and their political actions. Citizens participate through political parties and elected government bodies or other forms of political participation. The term 'participation means being involved in decision-making and other activities in the area of social life. In most cases, the term relates to the concept of political participation which Nie and Verba (1975: 1) defined as 'those legal activities by private citizens that are more or less directly aimed at influencing the selection of government personnel and/or actions they take.' We can divide forms of public participation into two broad categories: formal and informal. 'Public participation maybe formal, meaning its form has been prescribed by a law, or informal, meaning the public decides independently the form of participation it will take' (Bowman et al., in Nagy 1994: 65).

Most often, public participation takes the form of participation in elections. There are other forms too, such as participation in referendums, political demonstrations and election campaigns, further political party or pressure group memberships, civil disobedience, etc. In addition to these forms of political participation, other forms exist which are less politically charged, such as participation in public exhibitions and public debates. Due to today's changed circumstances and the rapid development of information technology, new informal forms of public participation have emerged, such as:

* organised groups of citizens (environmentalists, denationalisation claimants etc.) forming networks aimed at influencing the development of policies;

* groups of citizens drafting laws or commenting on draft laws;

* grassroots lobbying; and

* the use of new technologies to make suggestions or to participate in debates.

Not having access to the means for improving or even establishing informal forms of public participation, those groups that are in an underprivileged situation or discriminated against in some other way need extra protection of their rights to be able to function in society. Nationally mixed societies or societies with one (and often several) national minorities must provide additional institutionalised forms of political participation for minorities. Especially vulnerable are those minority groups that do not have a motherland to act as their patron, which through mediations and interventions provides a favourable atmosphere for preserving and developing the national culture that links a minority to its motherland. …