In preparation to the launch of the European Capital of Democracy, we talked to Matúš Vallo, Mayor of Bratislava, Slovakia about how politicians are held accountable in cities, the impact of climate change and digitalisation on the state of our democracies and the crucial role of public spaces. 

Do cities have the power to defend democracy?

Looking at our region, I think cities are indeed more democratic. There is less populism in cities. Compared to politics at the national level, people are closer to their elected representatives. Cities offer more opportunities for direct contact, which makes it easier for citizens to keep politicians accountable for their actions and to demand that they should keep their promises. 

Which current developments will have the strongest impact on the development of society? 

More and more people start to recognize that the environmental challenges we face are serious. Thus, people expect that politicians pay due attention to these issues. City residents in particular experience the consequences of rising heat in cities, torrential rains that limit traffic, destroy infrastructure, and cause the drastic multiplying of mosquitoes. 

The second most important societal trend which has a tangible impact on our lives and the development of our democracy is digitalisation. On the one hand, it is a great opportunity to strengthen communication; on the other, however, it poses an immense challenge due to the accelerating spread of hoaxes and conspiracy theories.

What do you consider to be the biggest threat to democracy in your city?

In one word: populism. In countries where populists win at the national level, it is subsequently more difficult to do politics at the city level. We are currently facing many difficult and unpopular choices, such as limiting the number of cars, implementing parking policy and other urban development regulations which, in fact, are key to the future of the city. I did not take office as a layman. Before I became Mayor of Bratislava, I was an architect and an urban planner. Thus, I never feel the pressure of expectations that come with populism. Personally, I advocate for liberal values, but in my position as mayor I seek a balance between conservatism and liberalism. I fully promote a healthy debate between the two sides, it is very important and often enlightening. Ultimately, it leads to decisions that are beneficial to everyone and are perceived as such. 

Which democratic processes or institutions should be improved to make democracy work better?

As mentioned before, communication is crucial if you have to make difficult decisions and want to stay clear from populism. Enhanced communication between groups that have different, but still legitimate interests is an important prerequisite for a functioning democracy, at the national as well as at the local level. Finding common ground is key, and I personally devote a great amount of time and energy to it. 

Which policy areas do you consider to be most relevant for the democratic development in your city? 

As an architect, I believe that the quality of public spaces has an impact on the behaviour of people. People tend to be more considerate of their surroundings and other people if the public space reinforces such behaviour. For example, if you place more street lights in dark corners, you send a clear message: the city is safe and available for everyone, even the most vulnerable. Thus, people should behave as such.  

Another important factor that comes into play for the democratic development of a city is political participation. A greater involvement of citizens in the democratic governance of their city makes politics and politicians better, both in the sense of heightened public scrutiny and a growing sense of trust between residents and their representatives. It creates a shared responsibility for the future of the city.