Inter Press Service News Agency WORLD SOCIAL FORUM:

Unaffiliated Leftist Elite Emerges

Mario Osava

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RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 20 (IPS) - A new leftist élite is emerging at the World Social Forum, unaffiliated with any political party and made up of university-educated activists, according to surveys by IBASE, the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis.

With the help of other institutions, mainly universities, IBASE conducted surveys to investigate the profile of participants in the World Social Forum since 2003.

Their study, "A Cross-Section? of Participation in the 2005 Forum," reported the results of 2,540 interviews of those attending that event, held in the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre. Most of the data were similar to those of previous years.

The novelty on that occasion was the presence of "more young people and more people from the United States," Cándido Grzybowski, IBASE director and one of the best-known organisers of the WSF, told IPS.

Forum participants are a highly-educated élite, as 67.9 percent have some university education (the number includes those who were students at the time), and 9.8 percent have a master's degree or a doctorate.

The proportion of those with postgraduate qualifications would be even higher if the participants of the Youth Camp, most of whom are too young to be studying for higher degrees, were excluded from the calculation.

At the fourth WSF, which took place in the Indian city of Mumbai (formerly Bombay) in 2004, 42 percent of participants had master's or doctoral degrees.

Of those interviewed in Porto Alegre, 60.1 percent considered themselves to be "of the left", and 19.8 percent "centre-left," adding up to a sizeable majority. Surprisingly, 2.2 percent identified themselves as being " of the right" or "centre-right", and just 4.5 percent as "centre."

The Forum itself, whose overarching theme is that "another world is possible," was categorised as "centre" by 9.5 percent of interviewees, and "right or centre-right" by two percent.

Most of the participants are a university élite, but have non-traditional backgrounds, and they prefer being activists in popular movements and non-governmental organisations, rather than in institutional political parties, Grzybowski said.

This is reflected in their relatively low affiliation with political parties — 23.4 percent — and in the lack of confidence in such parties expressed by 58 percent of those interviewed last year. The results of the study will be presented at the Caracas phase of the sixth WSF, which begins next week (Jan. 24-29).

The African chapter of the polycentric WSF is under way in Bamako, Mali, through Jan. 23. The Asian WSF is to take place in Karachi, Pakistan, tentatively scheduled for Mar. 24-29.

Past forum participants, according to the surveys, had confidence in social movements (70.6 percent) and in NGOs (58.3 percent). They had surprisingly low confidence in trade unions (35 percent), in religious institutions (16.4 percent) and in the media (11.7 percent).

Movements that have grown in the last few decades, like feminism, environmentalism and ethnic movements, are not limited to particular social classes. They have a non-hierarchical structure and they eschew "the old practices" of power politics, Grzybowski explained.

"It's important to have the trade unions on our side, but not in the leadership role they used to have" in the social struggle, because "there's a new political culture, and new issues," in which the diversity of interests and organisations, dialogue and networking predominate, the IBASE director observed.

The WSF is an opportunity for the trade union movement to "open up to the new reality, find new alternatives and not exacerbate its isolation," he stated. "We need the trade unions and they need us."

Last year, 155,000 participants from 149 countries registered for the fifth WSF, in Porto Alegre. Also known as the "movement of movements," the WSF started in 2001 with 20,000 participants, and has continued to grow ever since.

In 2004, its first meet outside of Porto Alegre, 115,000 participants gathered in Mumbai.

In addition to a strong presence from the United States — with 1,753 participants, this was the first time they outnumbered French and Italians at the forum — Indian participation tripled with respect to 2003, proving that strategy of moving the conference venue around was the right thing to do, according to the organisers.

But it is impossible to alter the fact that the host country is always the best represented. Last year, 80 percent of participants were Brazilian, and other Latin Americans totalled 8.8 percent, with markedly larger contingents from nearby countries like Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

And young people are the majority. Seventy percent of the participants last year were under 35, and this proportion was 62 and 63 percent in the previous two years, respectively.

The hoped-for "internationalisation" of the WSF will increase this year with the policentred approach of forums for the Americas, Asia and Africa.

IBASE, with help from local universities and institutions, will repeat its survey at all three meetings. It is an "instrument of self-knowledge" that contributes to social learning and to making dialogue more democratic, says Moema Miranda, another IBASE coordinator and member of the international and Brazilian committees of the WSF.