"To call party-based parliamentarism "democracy' is the greatest bluff in the history of mankind."
"There is no causality between elections and democracy. To issue every four years "carte blanche" is the most humiliating thing that can be expected of democratic citizens."
Kobach states at the end of his book, "Too often, observers deem Switzerland an oddity among political systems. It is more appropriate to regard it as a pioneer."
In many countries, there is a rising agony towards politics. Politicians are either corrupt, or not keeping their promises from election time. There's much of demagogy - at the same time, the really burning issues of society are not adressed. Armies go to war, even though a vast majority of the population is against it.
At the same time, the USA is legitimizing the war in Iraq partially with the slogan "we bring democracy to the world!".
A lot of western people, in a "weak hour", get second-thoughts: "Is democracy any good?".
Well, first of all, since we have witnessed the rise and fall of the "German Democratic Republic", we should know that not everything labelled "democratic", really IS democratic! Actually, it would be more appropriate to say "we bring oligarchy to the world!". Because that's a more appropriate designation of the real-life political systems on national level in most western countries today.
So, the disappointments and reservations in relation to western countries politics today are in most cases not issues of democracy, they are issues of oligarchy.
In 1869, the state of Zurich (member of the Swiss Confederation) has implemented the most democratic constitution of its time which is referred to as "direct democracy" or "true democracy" and is still valid today.
It includes the Citizens Initiative, the Mandatory and the Facultative Referendum.
The ideas and experiences of Zurich spread to other Swiss states and lead to a revision of the federal constitution 1874. Since this time, there have been conducted several ten-thousands of votes in Switzerland from which more than 500 on national level.
Around the turn of the 19th to the 20th century, Direct Democracy spread also to other regions of the world, especially the West Coast states of the USA like Oregon and California who took Zurich as an example to solve the problems of rising responsibilities of governments.
Historically, development of modern Direct Democracy can be seen as a learning circle moving forward in different steps between the USA, (pre-)revolutionary France and Switzerland - starting with the first modern constitution that was voted on directly by the citizens of Connecticut in 1639 - the "Fundamental Orders of Connecticut".
The (direct-)democratic constitution in Zurich was an achievement of the liberal-democratic movements which had been inspired by American and French democracy movements. This movement was active all over Europe, but unfortunately only in Switzerland it managed to break-through the forces of the old elites. In all other countries, conservative forces could restore to a bigger or lesser degree the old order leading to various political systems from democratically legitimated oligarchy through to autocracy and fascism.
The 20th century was a lost century in terms of advancement of democracy, considering the steps that had been already taken in the 19th century in some places. The first half of the century saw the rise of fascism or militarism and in the second half the rules of the Cold War order were a strong hinderance to the advancement of democracy. In this time, a lot of countries called themselves "democratic" or "democracy" but nearly none of them really was in the true sense.
The fall of the "Iron Curtain", though, has brought about the opportunity to make up for lost time. From the year 1989 to 1998, the number of the national plebiscites worldwide doubled in comparison to the preceding decade! Direct democratic instruments are rising greatly on a local level in countries like Brasil ("participative budgeting" in 70 cities), USA (around 10'000 local plebiscites per year) and the German state of Bavaria. Many countries have made their first steps with direct democracy on a national level in the 90-ies, including many Eastern European countries (eg. Lithuania with 17 plebiscites between 1991 and 1996) and also African countries like Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Sudan, Gambia and Central African
Interestingly, at the same time, from 1992 to 2005, the number of armed conflicts in the world have decreased by more than 40%.
Originally, the ideas of power for the people have been around since a long time already and have been also implemented in one or the other form. Examples include the old Athenian democracy and the Roman democracy until the adoption of Lex Titia in the year 43 BC. Even Russia had city-states like Novgorod with an early direct democratic development.
There are different forms and levels of True Democracy - it can be implemented first only on local level and/or for certain issues, and then expanded to all issues and national level. Nevertheless, the pre-steps like plebiscites are only an entry-point. Because for real democracy to have a value, it is crucial that decisions taken in votes are legally binding for parliament, government and bureaucrats. Otherwise, the plebiscit has not much worth - just a huge in-depth opinion research.
Another crucial ingredient for the democracy is the Citizens Initiative. Votes need to be possible not only on the initiative of the government, but also on the initiative of citizens - by gathering signatures. Only with these instruments, a democracy is really a democracy, in the original sense that the people can decide on the political direction of their own society.
The Citizens Initiative puts the needed pressure on politicians to be response-able on all important areas of policy all the time - and not only limiting themselves to some populistic speeches in the time prior to elections.
The advantages of Direct Democracy are:
- regarded as the most fair decision-making process, in all important political issues: "one human, one vote": the political decisions represent the real view of the people, the government cannot take decisions against their own population
- better decisions because they are based on each person's judgement from a neutral position (like the jury at court)
- direct democracy is more likely to lead to decisions which serve best the population at large, and not only some small interest groups with a good connection to government & parliament which can take hostage the whole country (eg. weapon industry, professional associations)
- more likely to lead to peaceful relations with other countries, power concentration on the other side is automatically attracting the abuse of power, corruption and armed hostilities
- experience of real-life direct democracies shows that people are more mature in their decision-making than politicians; they are ready to take "unpopular" decisions which serve society at large, but gives them some disadvantages individually, whereas politicians fear to take unpopular decisions because of the upcoming elections
- as the people have the power, politics become much more transparent - there is less corruption, power games and odd party-politics
- there is less politics fatigue and the distance between politicians and the population is smaller
- when people can take decisions on concrete, down-to-earth issues, there is much less room for demagogy and populism, there is less room for extremists
- how people behave is a self-fulfilling prophecy, not only in business or personal life, but also in politics: if you build a political system with the assumption in mind that people are stupid and bad - they will actually behave like this within this system; on the other side, if you build a political system with the assumption in mind that people are intelligent and good - they will validate your expectations as well; as long as people know they cannot decide anything, their political discussions stay on a buzz-word level - but as soon as they have to make a decision YES/NO, it changes their way of
thinking - they start to ponder the issue more concretely and look at it from different angles
- giving the people the trust to make the decision will also be a pull-factor in rapidly increasing the level of political education - people will start to look for credible information and discuss within their families and friends based on facts and figures; it also has a positive impact on the education system of the country
- direct democracy has also be found to be increasing happiness and fostering an active life-position because people have more of the feeling that they are in control of their lifes and what's going on in society - they will be less likely to take a passive stance of things or feeling themselves as victims to uncontrollable outside forces
- decisions taken in a popular vote are much more sustainable, have a higher legitimacy / public acceptance and also more easy to implement efficiently; this is because
popular votes foster a dialogue and thinking process in the whole population prior to the vote, so any people and institutions affected by the decisions will be very advanced in the thinking process and therefore ready to accept the implementation by the state bureaucracy - all society groups are included - the conflicts or obstructions (like strikes) in the implementation phase are basically zero -> this leads to a quicker advancement of the society at large - taking quick decisions is worthless, if it cannot be implemented in due time with broad support
- decisions in popular votes are like a "mirror of society", more accurate than researches could ever be - like individuals, societies also need to understand reality and themselves properly in order to learn, change and advance
- "hot topics" are tackled earlier and more effectively, the whol range of issues is adressed - not only a limited amount of them every 4-5 years around elections time
- direct democracy clearly strengthens civil society, also small and financially disadvantaged society groups can be heared (that may be a reason why elites often are against it)
- real-life examples of direct democracies suggest that quite likely, such a political arrangement brings with it also stability and economic growth - the most democratic country, Switzerland, is at the same time one of the richest countries of the world - its economic rise is directly connected with the implementation of direct democracy 130 years ago - the USA, economic powerhouse of the world features many direct democratic instruments at least on local level - in Germany, the state with the most direct democratic instruments (Bavaria) is also the economically most successful
What if the whole world would be direct democratic? Would anywhere people vote in favour of war? Would people vote in favour of small elites exploiting the country? Would people vote in favour of discrimination and uneven rights?
At least, this all seems much more unlikely, if the whole world would be direct democratic!
Questions and doubts arise like....
..."direct democracy is not possible in big states"
-> the examples of France, Italy or California show that it is very well possible, there is no restriction in terms of the size of the state
-> anyway, the votes are organised by the local administration of each municipality - and it doesn't make a difference how many municipalities are involved
..."direct democracy is too complicated and expensive, elections every 4-5 years are already expensive enough"
-> in Switzerland votes are conducted on 4 sundays per year in a smooth way with low costs
-> votes are much more straightforward than elections; it doesn't need any fuss or complicated procedures; it's just a piece of paper where the voter writes YES or NO
-> there are no registrations of candidates and voters necessary
-> and when it is held on a regular basis, the organisation runs efficiently like a machine; it's just another public service like issuing passports
-> it only needs a few local administration workers and a bunch of volunteers in each municipality for one or two days every three months counting the ballots
-> and these small costs are really worth the price 100 times; as Direct Democracy reduces corruption, increases financial transparency of the state and leads to a more careful management of money by the elected officials, not even talking about the positive effects on stability of the society and smoother implementation of policies
..."decisions in direct democracies tend to harm the economy"
-> experience of Direct Democracies shows that the people are making very reasonable decisions, often more reasonable than politicians, because they don't have to take into account party politics, pressure groups, election campaign donors, important journalists and the like - they can vote only on the issue in question
-> the examples of Switzerland or California as two of the most developped democracies and at the same time two of the most wealthy regions of the world show also that it is for sure not an economically harmful system
-> the Brasilian city of Porto Alegre has a PLUS in their budget since they started to decide on it in a direct democratic way
..."the average citizen doesn't have any clue about complex political questions"
-> the idea of direct democracies is that people decide on the BASIC issues
-> these issues like army, healthcare system, education system or taxes are anyway affecting the citizens' lifes and they have to inform themselves about it
-> votes help to increase the interest and the knowledge on political affairs, it makes people more "smart" and well-informed because they have a responsibility to make a decision
-> Switzerland has the highest density of quality newspapers
-> people get additional information from various experts and sources just as politicians or the jury at court do as well
-> it is not logical that one can have confidence in citizens to elect the right person, but not to decide on factual issues - to make a decision about people is much more complex and difficult and there is much more missing information in such a decision
..."the mass of the population is too stupid to make decisions on their own"
-> politicians are human beings as well and basically subject to the same influences like everyone else
-> on the other side, the population as a whole is superior to a bunch of politicians because of the laws of collective intelligence (see eg.Surowiecki)
-> the impression that people should be too stupid for politics is based on experiences made in representative democracies (oligarchies) where the missing involvement of the citizens in decision-making leads to political discussions on the street based on buzz-words and demagogy - a self-fulfilling prophecy....
-> citizens anyway need to understand, support and follow the laws, otherwise there will be problems with their implementation - if people would not understand the basic laws and the constitution, then society cannot function properly -in this way, Direct Democracy can be also a way to force bureaucrats to make laws more understandable and transparent
-> to elect a person only known through media or a speech is much more complex than to vote on a factual issue - if people are too stupid, why are there elections at all?
..."it's not possible to find compromises in public votes"
-> in direct democracies, the pressure of potential public votes leads politicians to always find solutions with a strong potential to gain a majority in an eventual public vote - it is also possible for the parliament or government to suggest counter-suggestions to People's Initiatives, so the citizens can vote on two suggestions and choose the better one
..."it's necessary to make fast decisions, direct democracy is too slow"
-> politicians as they are preoccupied with getting re-elected are afraid to touch hot topics, in Direct Democracies these hot topics are adressed earlier and faster
-> politicians for the same reasons are also making many quick decisions with some short-term advantages (but long-term disadvantages) just to increase their popularity - in Direct Democracies this danger is very low
-> policitians normally don't adress issues with a long-term outlook beyond the next elections; in Direct Democracies these issues also are adressed much earlier
..."media and demagogues get too much power in direct democracies"
-> it is much easier to influence a few politicians than a whole population - its enough to win a few opinion-leaders in parliament through corruption or through an article in a capital-based elite newspaper, or through a hidden deal between parties/political groups
-> everybody is influenced by media to a certain degree, also politicians, but the population as a whole is reading and listening to a much bigger variety of media than politicians which again leads to a higher collective intelligence
-> real-life examples from Direct Democracies show that people have their own brain - they might read also demagogues texts, but in the end make their own decision - that's why it is also very difficult for demagogues to gain any relevant influence
..."in direct democracies, minorities are not protected enough"
-> there is no evidence that politicians would protect minorities better than the public - also in Direct Democracies, the constitution and the international treaties of human rights have to be respected
..."in direct democracies, agile minorities are going to rule the country"
-> this is the case in "representative democracies"
..."there is a danger in direct democracies that not enough people will go to vote and a decision will be taken by a minority of the population only"
-> in every vote, also in a parliament, there are three options: YES / NO / ABSTENTION. people not going to the vote can be counted as "abstention"
-> in Direct Democracies the percentage of citizens voting is between 30% and 80%, depending on the subjects
-> in a "representative democracy", however, only the parliament or even only the government or president is deciding - this is what I would really call a "minority of the population"!
..."direct democracy in the Weimar Republic has been partially responsible for the rise of Hitler and the NSDAP"
-> this is wrong. The direct democratic elements in the Weimar Republic were very weak and didn't have anything to do with the failure of the Weimar Republic. It was the parliament, not the citizens, who put Hitler with the "enabling act" in power.
..."the population in my country is not ready for direct democracy - we first need to develop a new kind of citizen who is mature enough for it"
-> "a new kind of citizen" is very unlikely to emerge from nice words alone
-> it needs opportunities for real participation in political power which is more than just propaganda
-> in Switzerland first the laws for Direct Democracy were adopted - then for about 10 years nothing much happened...and then suddenly citizens started to use their rights and a new political culture evolved which strongly contributed to the unity of a diverse country
Direct Democracy is a political system that could be implemented right away without problems in any country, except maybe the ones with an extraordinary high rate of analphabetism. The only precondition is that the citizen really WANT to take the responsibility and make the decisions by themselves. If people don't want Direct Democracy, then there is a power vacuum that will be filled by a small elite or different kind of potential elites will fight for it. As long as people are "happy to be unhappy" with their politics - and believe the bullshit that they are, in fact, too stupid to take the decisions by themselves, nothing will change. So, as one wise man said - "every nation has the government it deserves."
Interesting links about Direct Democracy:
Now, it's only possible to make a judgement on Direct Democracy by getting to know it in practise....
That's why everytime I am participating in a vote (happens 4-5 times a year), I am going to put up the issues that I will be voting on plus afterwards the results. That is the votes on federal (national) level in Switzerland, and the votes on state level in Zurich and the ones concerning the municipality of Zurich. I am not going to comment the (huge amount of) other votes happening at the same time in other states and municipalities in Switzerland where I am not eligible to vote myself.
ZURICH VOTING NEWS
So here, with a little bit of delay are the votes for 27. November 2005
1. Citizens Initiative "for Food from a gene technology-free agriculture"
The intent of the initiative is to prevent genetically modified plants and animals to be grown/kept within the borders of
Switzerland. The prohibition should be valid for 5 years. It doesn't concern the research of gene technology, only the growing.
According to the current law on gene technology from 2004 the growing of genetically modified plants would have been possible
after a thorough study. For the initiators of the Citizens's Initiative this law was not strict enough. The initiative was
supported by a big variety of people ranging from Green Party-sympathizers to farmers. The majority of the parliament and of
the government recommended to vote "NO".
Result: 55,4% YES - the Citizens Initiative has been adopted
2. Referendum on Change of the Labor law
The regulations concerning shop-hours are still quite restrictive in Switzerland. Concerning shop-hours on Sundays there has
been so far an exception that shops in big railway stations and airports can employ employees on Sundays in case they offer
products or services which are directly needed for travellers. But the consumer habits are changing and therefore government
has put forward a suggestion to change the Labor Law in a way that shops in big railway stations and airports can employ
employees on Sundays, no matter what kind of products or services they offer. The majority of both chambers of the parliament
have agreed to this suggestion, but Labor Unions have successfully organised a referendum against it. The referendum has been
also supported by people and organisations related to church. Also in this case a quite varied opposition from different kind
of "corners" of society against the law.
Result: 50,6% YES in favour of the Change of the Labor Law
-> therefore all kinds of shops can now open their doors on Sundays at Airports and big Railway Stations - the result, though,
has been one of the most tight ones in recent history
State of Zurich
1. Referendum on the Facility for state contributions to Integration Classes for 15-20 year-old foreign-language citizens
Municipalities are offering one-year full-time special Integration Courses for kids who came as teenagers to Switzerland
and therefore often have integration problems as they missed on the important parts of local school education.
In these courses they can learn the language and get accustomed with the local specifics, so they will have better
opportunities on the labor market. These classes are supported also by the State and the Federal level. A minority of the
state parliament of Zurich has organised a referendum against the state contributions for the next three years (6,15 Million
Swiss Francs). The opinion of the organisers of the referendum is that the state should not pay for such courses.
Result: 58,3% YES in favour of the state contributions to Integration Classes
City of Zurich
1. Change of the Municipal Code - adaptation to the state law on Referendums and Initiatives
Suggestion to adapt the Municipal Code to the new State Code in the area of Referendums and Citizens Initiatives. There are
several small changes - the most important ones: the number of signatures needed to be gathered on a municipal level for
Citizens Initiatives should be reduced from 4'000 to 3'000 and for Referendums on municipal level from 4'000 to 2'000.
Result: 83,0% YES
2. Referendum on the prolongation of the Building Lease Contracts for two residential high-rise buildings
In 1950 and 1951 the Municipality of Zurich has signed Building Lease Contracts with a private company concerning a specific
piece of property owned by the Municipality of Zurich. The private company is allowed to build and maintain two high-rise
residential buildings and pays the Municipality of Zurich a yearly interest. The contract ends in the year 2021. The high-rise
buildings need to be renovated now and the private company therefore has asked the Municipality of Zurich to prolong the
contract to the year 2066, so that their investments for the renovation of the building will make business sense to them. The
government of the Municipality of Zurich has agreed to this and used the opportunity to negotiate a much higher yearly
interest. A committee of citizens has organised a referendum against the prolongation of this contract because they fear that
with the higher yearly interests the rents will be increased as well and therefore again the number of low-rent flats reduced
in the city.
Result: 69% YES - in favour of the prolongation of the Building Lease Contracts negotiated by the city government
- - - - -
Imagine you could have decided on the above-mentioned issues in your own country / state / municipality.
-> what is your opinion on the issues that were up for vote?
-> how would you have decided, YES or NO?
-> And why?