Growing pressure on mayors
Threats and attacks against local government representatives are becoming an ever more frequent occurrence. The mayor of Gdansk and the mayors of Altena and Haarlem made this clear when recounting their own experiences in a debate on "mayors under pressure" held by the Congress’s Chamber of Local Authorities on 3 April 2019.
Involving citizens in the exercise of power is the most effective way to train them for democracy, said Aleksandra Dulkiewiczin a message to representatives of the Chamber of Local Authorities of the Council of Europe’s Congress. Elected Mayor of Gdansk following the murder of Mayor Paweł Adamowicz on 14 January 2019, she warned her colleagues about the consequences of populist policies that endanger local democracy. Only citizens who are free, responsible and aware of their rights and duties could, in her view, provide a bulwark against propaganda that stigmatises certain social, ethnic or religious groups. Hence Gdansk mayor’s office’s policy of encouraging local residents to get directly involved in the running of the city. To this end, it has introduced a series of discussion panels that invite citizens to take part in debates on municipal policies, a €3 million participatory budget that allows residents to decide on investments that meet the needs of their neighbourhoods or the city, and a city-specific model for integrating immigrants.
The issue of integrating immigrants continues to generate tensions elsewhere at municipal level, however. The mayor of Altena in Germany, Andreas Hollstein, paid a high price for the integration prize awarded to him by Chancellor Angela Merkel, followed by the Nansen Refugee Award. Stabbed in 2017 in the street by an opponent of the refugee reception policy, he told the Chamber of Local Authorities about the growing lack of respect not only for mayors, but for all local elected officials, including even municipal firemen. "More than 50% of mayors in Germany have been threatened in one way or another,” said Mr Hollstein, “and it is very often the representatives of local authorities who are held responsible by the population for policies decided at central government level." The answer? Listen and build confidence among citizens on all sides to try to identify and repair the cracks.
Talking about his own experiences, the mayor of Haarlem (Netherlands), Jos Wienen, confirmed the escalating pressures on mayors, even in a country like his "where mayors used to go around on bicycles". For 7 months now, Jos Wienen has only been able to perform his mayoral duties if he has round-the-clock bodyguards. Currently in hiding, he lives apart from his family who have been forced to move because of death threats. The increase in mayors' powers in the fight against hooligans over the past 15 years has, according to Jos Wienen, been a major factor in the current state of affairs. The closure of bars frequented by Hells Angels, curfews in certain problem neighbourhoods, and the quest for housing for refugees are some of the reasons that have fuelled hatred against him. The mayor of Haarlem continues, however, to draw inspiration from the messages of support which he has received from many citizens and he has not lost faith in the power of democratic procedures.
During the debate that followed the personal testimonies, delegates stressed the need to keep this topic on the agenda of the Congress and the Chamber of Local Authorities. The political and collegial support, but also the expertise, which these bodies have to offer are essential in order to encourage mayors to continue upholding the democratic process, despite the pressures they are under. The discussion ended with a proposal to set up a specialised working group and to draft a thematic report comparing the situations of mayors under pressure in the 47 member states of the Council of Europe.
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