Direct Democracy – What Does it Mean and How Does it Work?

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1.What is Direct Democracy?

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2.Where and when has Direct Democracy been tried?

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3. The Swiss experience

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  • A first draft is prepared by experts in the federal administration.
  • This draft is presented to a large number of people in a formalized kind of opinion poll. Cantonal governments, political parties as well as many non-governmental organisations and associations of civil society may comment on the draft and propose changes.
  • The result is presented to dedicated parliamentary commissions of both chambers of the federal parliament, discussed in detail behind closed doors and finally debated in public sessions of both chambers of parliament. Members of parliament do take into account the results of step 2, because if they fail to do so, step 4 will be inevitable.
  • The electorate has the ‘facultative’ right of veto on federal laws. If anybody is able to find 50,000 citizens to sign a form demanding a referendum within three months, a referendum must be held. In this case, laws only need to find a majority of the national electorate to pass a referendum, not a majority of cantons. Referenda on more than a dozen laws per year are not unusual in Switzerland.

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The idea of direct participation and collective decision making has deep historical roots. In medieval times, the pastures in the high mountains were communal property, so decisions about these pastures were made communally. All cattle owners assembled under the open sky and decided, for example, on what day the cows should be brought down to the valley in order not to be trapped by the first snow. When modern Switzerland was established with the constitution of 1848, its founders drew on these ancient traditions.

Under the slogan “sovereignty of the people” the Swiss cantons established direct democracy in 1831.  These democrats called for full democracy, law-making by the people and self-government. The holding of referenda would give the people direct control of parliament by ensuring their own ideas on law-making were taken into account.

Prince Metternich, the Austrian Chancellor, wrote in 1845: “Switzerland presents the most perfect image of a state in social disintegration…Switzerland stands alone today in Europe as a republic and serves troublemakers of every sort as a free haven. Instead of improving its situation by appropriate means, the Confederation staggers from evils into upheavals and represents for itself and for its neighbours an inexhaustible spring of unrest and disturbance”.

Nevertheless, unlike the Hapsburg Monarchy, the direct democratic system has been successful over the last two centuries. As the Swiss constitution evolved in the 19th Century, there was a second motive behind the calls for direct democracy: to prevent political and economic power being concentrated in the same hands.

The Swiss were aware that government through the people was not possible for every decision. However, they wanted the people to participate in the most important ones.

Thus, the people are not excluded from participation in the most important decisions, and the base of all important decisions is an agreement between the authorities and the majority of the people. Direct democracy constitutes an essential element of Swiss self-definition.

As a member of the EU, Switzerland would not only give up a part of national sovereignty, but also part of direct democracy.

4. Taxes, federalism, and direct democracy

A country’s tax system is more important than some constitutional frameworks.  The Swiss tax system is not only based on three different levels – one-third local, one-third cantonal, and one-third federal – it is also based on three principles.

First, the principle of mutual trust between the taxpayers and the tax authority.  It is true that the principle has eroded somewhat in Switzerland in recent decades.  We are far away from the medieval system of voluntary taxation based on self-declaration and a kind of community sponsoring. Nonetheless, the Swiss rely on a form of self-reporting when it comes to taxes.

The second principle is competition.  Democratic systems tend to a progressive income tax system because wealthy people are always a minority that can be outvoted.  Progressive taxation is the motor of redistribution, and redistribution corrupts the political system, the economy, and society as a whole.

The third principle is the identity of those who pay and those who benefit, and those who rule.  In Switzerland, it is the citizens and taxpayers who, by direct democracy and with majority decision making, determine the amount of tax to be paid.

Doubts are constantly being expressed as to whether governments and parliaments should be able or allowed to leave something as delicate as the responsibility for levying taxes in the hands of the taxpayers. If a majority of the people is responsible for fixing the taxation levels at all levels of the state organization, these different levels cannot be structured in an overly progressive manner, otherwise, it can result in democratic domination over those taxpayers with higher incomes, and this will culminate in their effective exile.  Per capita voting works only if those parties concerned are comparable on a per capita basis as well.

The competing tax systems, and the sharing out of direct taxes between the three levels of confederation, canton, and municipality, lead to a situation in Switzerland that combines relatively low taxes with a good public infrastructure.

The competition between different rates of taxation has a dual effect. On the one hand, Swiss citizens tend to “vote with their feet” i.e. affluent taxpayers move away from a given municipality, because of the tax rate; while, on the other hand, there is the power of attraction for capital from other countries with higher taxation.  This latter point explains the constant and deceitful demand by EU countries, especially Germany, for a “harmonized” tax system, which would put a stop to any tax competition within Europe, and consequently continue the tax policy that has proved disastrous thus far at higher levels.

5. The community of Appenzell as the counterpart of ancient Athens

Appenzell joined the Swiss Confederation in 1513 after a local secession war. It consists of two small cantons, Appenzell Innerhoden and Appenzell Außerrhoden, that are economically and culturally distinct.

Direct democracy as embodied in the Appenzell “Landsgemeinde” differs markedly from the democracy of the Athenians.

In Athens, the popular assemblies were convened three or four times a month and those who attended received a per diem payment. The assembly of the people controlled the civil service, supervised the state-regulated distribution of grain, decided whether to go to war or make peace, passed verdicts in cases of treason, ostracised citizens considered a danger to the state, listened to petitions, and selected the key functionaries for military matters, for whom war then became crucial to their survival. The Council of 500 met practically every day.

The Convention, which was established during the French Revolution and became the model for many contemporary parliamentary systems, took many of its ideas from this system. In this way, politics itself becomes the disease that it is supposed to cure.

A marked contrast is provided by the political system of the two Appenzells, which have managed to compete peacefully for centuries with politically comparable but religiously and culturally differing ways of governing and living.

This political system, which has been practised consistently for more than 500 years, is as close to direct democracy as we experience today. This refutes all assertions, including those of Aristotle, that rule by the many must collapse eventually under the weight of its internal deficiencies because it would inevitably lead to exploitation of the minority of rich citizens by the majority of the non-rich.

At the “Landsgemeinde”, a kind of open-air general assembly, elections were held and laws passed – or thrown out if there was no consensus. The chief magistrate, who was mandated by the people to act in a part-time capacity as head of the government, was entrusted for one year with the state seal with which contracts were officially sealed and was required to render public account to the effect that any action taken had been “for the good of the country”.

All posts in government and the judiciary were – and in some cases still are – part-time, unsalaried and restricted to one year. There is no such thing as a professional politician; politics is merely a part of the function of each citizen.

Those in positions of responsibility are elected and dismissed directly by the people. Their powers have always been severely restricted. These involved, in particular, foreign policy, the legal system, and cantonal road construction. There was almost nothing to distribute apart from burdens. The decision to embark on a military campaign was taken by those who then made up the army. This co-identity of those taking the decision with those who had to implement it is crucial, especially in the area of military service where the collective demands that the individual put his life in jeopardy. In this case, Aristotle got it right. Where it is a matter of choosing war or peace – a fundamental political question – the many, who bear the consequences of the decision, are in fact more competent to decide than the few who may benefit from it.

This is the essential difference between the slave-owners and politicking idlers of Athens and the hard-working small farmers of Appenzell, who not only laboured on their own land but also formed the militia that protected it. The importance of public and private issues – res publica and res privata – was fundamentally different.

Generally, the minimum consensus was found at the “Landsgemeinde” through the procedures of direct democracy, often with very substantial majorities. Sometimes the assemblies would end in dispute, but although all those present were armed, the disputes did not lead to bloodshed. For one day in the year, each man was a zoon politikon. The other 364 days belonged to the “Häämetli” (i.e. the home farm), its private economy, the community of one’s family and the locally anchored culture. In summary, therefore, the process of building consensus within a democracy on the basis of the principle of majority rule is possible if it is limited in terms of scope, timeframe and finance to the smallest possible portion of the life of a civil society, and if co-determination remains the exception to the rule of self-determination.

The practice of direct democracy in the two Appenzells has been presented here in a simplified and – admittedly – idealized way. It is regrettable that the open assembly, which had been an institution in the Canton Appenzell Außerrhoden, a heavily industrialized area since the 19th century, was discontinued about 15 years ago. However, it proved possible to retain the militia principle and the relatively lean political apparatus.

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The decisive question for the future is not “how direct can and should democracy be?” but rather, “how restricted must political control be in order to be fit for democratic purpose and democratically acceptable?”

The more circumscribed executive political power, the more readily it can be entrusted to the direct democratic majority, who do not always get it right by a long chalk, but are no more often nor more disastrously mistaken than some self-elected or externally imposed political leadership.

For a properly disposed polity, the justification for majority rule is more likely to reside not in the greater insight of the majority, but rather in the more extensive formal guarantee of the exclusion of inappropriate interests and ambitions.

In its abstraction, it corresponds to the equivalence created through logic and approaches the abstract equity that automatically excludes all inapposite ulterior motives from the exertion of public authority. And if, just as with a formal principle, erroneous or even disastrous decisions cannot as a matter of course be obviated with this democratic apparatus either, we should remember the words of Aristotle: “the many are more incorruptible than the few; they are like the greater quantity of water which is less easily corrupted than a little”.