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Democracy Beyond the Ballot Box : Citizen Participation and Social Rights in Post-Transition Chile


Summary, in English

The global expansion of democratic rule in the developing world has attracted much scholarly interest. The societal implications of the democratisation process, i.e. what democratisation actually means for the citizens in terms of opportunities for participation and influence, have not received as much attention though. This study makes a contribution to redressing the imbalance. Drawing on normative democratic theory, the author advances an analytical framework that directs our attention beyond elections to explore citizen participation as a vehicle for influence in the democratisation process. A notion of democracy as political equality and popular control and an acknowledgement that democracy is a question of power relations provide the requisite substance and support to the framework, which encompasses tools to explore the who, how and what of citizen participation, i.e. the conceptualisation of citizen-state relations, the impetus behind the process, and where and in relation to what participation takes place. The framework is applied to a detailed empirical analysis of the Chilean democratisation process and the possibilities for marginalised groups to strengthen their social rights, in particular the right to health. What practices are conducive to voice and influence? What main obstacles may be identified? Participatory processes initiated from above, i.e. by the state, as well as processes initiated from below, i.e. by citizens active within civil society organisations, are scrutinised with regard to their conceptual underpinnings as well as how they are borne out in practice.

This study shows the relevance and contribution of normative democratic theory and a citizen perspective to capturing the process of political change in post-transition societies. It illustrates that citizen participation is an inherently political enterprise that can be proffered on different premises and with different goals and is marked by constant interaction between actors and societal structures. The Chilean case shows that promising participatory processes initiated both from above and from below do exist. Generally, however, practices initiated by the Chilean state reflect a depoliticised notion of citizen participation, which limits their capacity for structural change. Citizen initiatives anchored in a rights-based approach on the other hand tend to challenge existing societal norms and structures and can work as a vehicle for influence, especially if mobilisational and judicial efforts are combined with extensive media coverage. Nonetheless, they encounter important impediments that need to be dealt with if the scope and depth of the Chilean democracy are to be enhanced, including the domination of an interpretation of democracy as elite rule and a neo-liberal development model that proffers a narrow conceptualisation of citizenship and is dependent upon low levels of politicised citizen involvement.

Publishing year





Lund Political Studies



Document type



Department of Political Science, Lund University


  • Political Science


  • Chile
  • right to health
  • social rights
  • rights-based approach
  • citizen-state relations
  • power
  • citizen participation
  • democracy
  • democratisation
  • Latin America
  • Political and administrative sciences
  • Statsvetenskap
  • förvaltningskunskap




  • Mats Sjölin


  • ISSN: 0460-0037
  • ISBN: 91-88306-49-6

Defence date

23 May 2005

Defence time


Defence place

Pangea hörsal 229, Geocentrum II


  • Olle Törnquist (Professor)