What does Modern Direct Democracy Mean?

Flag DE [DE] Was bedeutet moderne direkte Demokratie?

Modern direct democracy gives citizens the right to exercise popular sovereignty also between elections by voting on (policy) issues. It is not the same as classical assembly democracy that was born in ancient Athens. Originally modern direct democracy meant direct legislation by the people through the right of proposal (initiative) and rejection (referendum).This was a principal demand of the early workers movement in many countries, for example in Germany, Austria, and Finland.

Direct democracy decides on issues, not on people. In this view, recall elections and the direct election of representatives (e.g. direct elections for mayors or the president) do not belong to direct democracy.

Direct democracy means power sharing: sometimes people choose to decide an important question directly themselves. But the bulk of legislation continues to be done by parliament. Direct and representative democracy are interdependent and complementary.

Direct democracy empowers people, not governments. The distinction between top-down and citizen-initiated procedures is crucial. Plebiscites are popular vote procedures which citizens cannot initiate, and whose use lies exclusively within the control of the authorities. This distinction between plebiscites and referendums is fundamental for a proper understanding of direct democracy. The distinction is frequently not made, often leading to considerable confusion in the debate about direct democracy.

Classification of Popular Vote Procedures. Citizens’ assemblies are forms of direct democracy; they call for their own analysis and are not considered here.

Looking at the table above, we can discern at least 5 possible concepts of direct democracy, and all of them can be found in the literature. The most stringent concept includes only procedures which are designed to empower citizens and to make decisions on issues. In this understanding modern direct democracy contains two types of popular vote procedures: INITIATIVE and REFERENDUM. Wider concepts include also plebiscites or recall elections or both. The widest concept, which makes little sense, includes even direct elections of representatives.

It is obvious that the nucleus of any definition of modern direct democracy consists of two TYPES of procedure: INITIATIVE and REFERENDUM. In addition it makes sense to restrict modern direct democracy to decisions about issues, excluding elections and recall elections which make decisions about persons and therefore belong to electoral democracy. Whether to include plebiscites or not is debatable.

If plebiscites are included, the concept of direct democracy becomes more heterogeneous, even Janus faced, since it includes procedures designed to enhance the power of representatives and procedures designed to give more power to the citizens. Such a concept of direct democracy embraces both, instruments for people to implement democracy and instruments for power holders using people as means for an end other than the achievement of democracy. Such a concept blurs the distinction between a political system that disempowers citizens and gives representatives monopoly political power and a political system that empowers citizens to partake in decision-making. Clearly plebiscites alone do not abolish the categorical inequality between citizens and their representatives with regard to decision-making.

If plebiscites are not included, the concept of direct democracy becomes more consistent and distinctive. It means direct legislation by the people through the initiative and referendum. In this view – which will be used throughout this guide – the right to decide which issues are referred to popular vote belongs to the citizens, not to the politicians. This concept includes only instruments designed for empowering citizens and implementing democracy. However, this does not prevent us from analyzing plebiscites, but they are now considered as a part of indirect rather than direct democracy.

Whatever solution is chosen, it remains crucial that the concept of direct democracy is clearly stated and that the distinctions between the different types and forms of procedure – initiatives, referendums, plebiscites (see Typology tables 1-3) are kept clear.

It is also important to keep in mind, that a popular vote procedure is a process and should not be reduced to the moment of decision-making at the ballot box; other aspects like creativity, public debate, and implementation, are equally important. For example, the process of a citizens’ initiative begins with an idea, and this idea must be organized in many ways and made public. Public debate is at the very heart of an initiative process from beginning to end. And the initiative does not end at the ballot box, the decision has to be implemented as well. To sum up, the entire process is more and more important than the result of the vote alone.

Four aspects of MDD
Creativity: Idea for a popular initiative, organisation of the idea. Making use of the creative potential of individual persons and small groups (minorities).

Deliberation: Exchange of information, to gain knowledge, democratic will formation, to come to an understanding about basic values, formation of political identities, to develop a sense of responsibility, to build trust.

Decision-making: If people have no say, deliberation cannot fully accomplish its fundamental task. Without the right to decision-making participation becomes devoid of its substance; it becomes a sham.

Implementation: Voters expect, of course, that their decisions are put into practice. If this aspect is missing, people lose their trust in politics and democracy.

Of course it is possible to sabotage or to misuse the initiative or referendum process. Public debates can be undermined by propaganda, non- or misinformation, fear mongering and smear campaigns – and in all of this money is involved. Money that is out of control destroys democracy. We can see that this is happening everywhere. From this it follows, not that we have to give up the idea of democracy, but that we must not only control money but eliminate the possibility that money rules.

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last updated 25.06.2015