The institutionalization of deliberative democracy in European multi-level states: A comparative analysis of the experience of South Tyrol

Elisabeth Alber, Institute for Comparative Federalism at Eurac Research in South Tyrol

Tue 9 October 2018

11:00am - 12:00pm

The Dryzek Room, Building 22, University of Canberra


The institutionalization of deliberative democracy is progressively experimented as a means to ameliorate decision-making processes at various levels of government, in Europe and worldwide. To what extent the recourse to ordinary citizens as co-creators properly meets the requirements of normative deliberative theory or, in the end, simply serves as an instrumental purpose, heavily depends on the context in which so-called democratic innovations take place. Empirical research shows that the increasing lack of trust in traditional channels of representative decision-making and the structural limits of direct democracy translate in what has been defined with the metaphor of the dam effect: the water tries to flow in alternative ways, and additional channels in decision-making processes have to be used so as not to waste too much water. Scholars of political and legal science, at different pace and with different foci, are increasingly paying attention to the proliferation of practices of deliberative democracy and looking for the development of sound criteria on how to define, classify and explain this phenomenon. Common to all attempts is the fact that practices of deliberative democracy go beyond the majoritarian rule of interest aggregation by voting and, in order to improve the quality of democracy itself, they propose tools that are centered on public reasoning among individuals (and groups).

The institutionalization of such tools is increasingly discussed in academia, and among practitioners: both call – even though for different reasons – for an ever more articulated attention to the procedural design of deliberative processes and its impacts on both the organization of a deliberative process itself and the role of persons/groups, not only in the preparation and implementation phase of a deliberative process itself, but also when it comes to evaluating it (a phase which mostly is neglected). Moreover, when it comes to deliberative democracy in ethnically plural (divided) societies, the institutionalization of a deliberative democracy process faces additional challenges. Even though from a normative basis it can be argued that negotiations between groups (typical for consociational democracy arrangements) should be replaced by deliberation aiming at rendering any divided society more sustainable in the long run, in practice, the institutionalization of deliberative democracy does highlight (and eventually also increase) tensions, rather than reducing them. Therefore, particular attention has to be paid on the procedural aspects of processes of deliberative democracy.

In this presentation, I firstly outline general principles of institutionalized deliberative democracy at subnational level in European federal and regional States. I present some examples and highlight how deliberative democracy processes came into being. Secondly, I briefly present an excursus on the geographical Alpine region and introduce South Tyrol and Trentino, two autonomous provinces that together form one out of five autonomous regions in Italy. Their autonomy arrangements developed over seven decades. While Trentino is predominantly Italian-speaking, South Tyrol is home to three language groups (German-, Italian- and Ladin-speakers, with German-speakers being the majority). The broad spectrum of complex regulations enshrined in South Tyrol’s autonomy statute (1972) establishes a model of consociational democracy that is characterized by cultural autonomy of the groups, a system of veto rights to defend each group’s vital interests, language parity between the groups, and ethnic proportionality ranging from the field of public employment to education and finances. Thirdly, my presentation aims at comparatively analyzing the two large-scaled deliberative processes that were undertaken from 2016-2018 in South Tyrol and Trentino. Ordinary citizens, organized civil society, stakeholders and politicians were asked to elaborate proposals for the amendment of the autonomous statute of the region Trentino-South Tyrol (which contains a few provisions applying to the regional level and two large distinct parts containing provisions applying to Trentino and South Tyrol). Both in its scope (revision of the basic law) and method (inclusiveness in territorial, intergenerational and socio-linguistic terms) the deliberative processes in Trentino and in South Tyrol are certainly a novum to the respective autonomous province, and in Italy as well as Europe. Especially in South Tyrol, the institutionalization of such a process challenged core principles of its autonomy. Using data from both processes, I examine key aspects of the institutionalization of each process by both referring to principles of normative deliberative theory and emerging literature on constitutional deliberative democracy/participatory constitution-making (a classification valid also for the two processes in Trentino and South Tyrol, because their basic law is of constitutional rank).

About the speaker

Elisabeth Alber is Senior Researcher, Leader of the Research Hub “Institutional Innovation and Participatory Democracy” and Academic Lead of the Eurac Federal Scholar in Residence Program at the Institute for Comparative Federalism at Eurac Research in South Tyrol, Italy ( She holds a PhD in Comparative Politics from the University of Innsbruck (Austria) and a degree in International Sciences and Diplomacy (Focus on Comparative Public Law) from the University of Turin (Italy). Her research interests are deliberative democracy and participatory constitution-making, comparative federalism and regionalism, decentralization and democratization processes (South-East Asia, especially Myanmar), ethno-linguistic minorities, territorial and personal autonomies. Her working languages are English, German and Italian. Elisabeth can be contacted at and by phone at +39 0471 055 211 (office) or +39 339 32 98 604 (mobile). Her most recent publications in English are: (co-editor with F. Palermo) Federalism As Decision-Making: Changes in Structures, Procedures and Policies, Brill Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2015; (single authored peer-reviewed article) „South Tyrol’s Negotiated Autonomy“, in: Treatises and Documents - Journal for Ethnic Studies, 78, 2017, 41-58; (co-authored peer-reviewed article), “Autonomy Convention and Consulta: Deliberative Democracy in Subnational Minority Contexts“, in: ECMI et al. (eds.), European Yearbook of Minority Issues, Volume 16, Brill Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2018, 194-225.