Canadians for
 Direct Democracy (CDD)

Direct Democracy -- the right of citizens
to hold referenda on any issue

Full Democracy

by Brian Beedham

This article was originally published in The Economist magazine of London, England, December 21st 1996. It is 12 pages long, approximately 60 screens. It is loaded in four files: econom-1.htm through econom-4.htm.


Democracy in the 20th century has been a half-finished thing.
In the 21st, it can grow to its full height, says Brian Beedham.

This survey argues that the next big change in human affairs will probably not be a matter of economics, or electronics, or military science; it will be a change in the supposedly humdrum world of politics. The coming century could see, at last, the full flowering of the idea of democracy.
The democratic system of politics, which first took widespread root in the 19th century, and then in the 20th century beat off the attacks of both fascism and communism, may in the 21st century realise that it has so far been living, for understandable reasons, in a state of arrested development, but that those reasons no longer apply; and so democracy can set about completing its growth.

 The places that now consider themselves to be democracies are with a handful of exceptions run by the process generally known as "representative" democracy. That qualifying adjective should make you sit up and think.

The starting-point of modern democracy is the belief that every sane adult is entitled to an equal say in the conduct of public affairs. Some people are richer than others, some are more intelligent, and nobody's interests are quite the same as anybody else's; but all are entitled to an equal voice in deciding how they'should be governed.
There is therefore something odd in the fact that in most democracies this voice is heard only once every few years, in elections in which voters choose a president or send their representatives to an elected parliament; and that between those elections, for periods of anything up to seven years, it is the presidents and parliamentarians who do all the deciding, while the rest of the democracy is expected to stand more or less quietly on one side, either nodding its head in irrelevant approval or frustrated disagreement.
This is part-time democracy.

There exists in a few places a different way of doing it, called direct democracy. In this straight-forward version, the elected representatives are not left to their own devices in the periods between elections. The rest of the people can at any time call them to order, by cancelling some decision of the representatives with which most of the people do not agree or, sometimes, by insisting that the representatives do something they had no wish to do, or perhaps had never even thought about.
The machinery by which this is done is the referendum, a vote of the whole people.
If democracy means rule by the people, democracy by referendum is a great deal closer to the original idea than the every-few-years voting which is all that most countries have.

The test is: "who gives the order?"

It has to be the right kind of referendum, of course.
A referendum organised by the government, posing a question of the government's choice in the words the government finds most convenient, is seldom much help to democracy.
Not many referendums are quite as blatant as the Chilean one of 1978. ("In the face of international aggression... I support President Pinochet in his defence of the dignity of Chile"). But General de Gaulle in the early 1960s plainly saw his de haut en bas sort of referendums as one means of making sure, as he put it, that "the entire indivisible authority of the state is confided to the president," meaning himself. Napoleon liked the technique, too. Even more modest politicians are unlikely to resist the temptation to put a spin on their referendums' wording: "Your government, having after careful thought decided that X is the right thing to do, asks you to agree..."

No, the proper referendum for democracy-strengthening purposes is the one which happens whether the government wants it or not. This can be arranged by constitutional requirement, an instruction in the constitution saying that certain kinds of change in the law must be submitted to a vote of the whole people.
Better, because this way is more flexible, an agreed number of voters can insist, by putting their signatures on a petition, that a law proposed by parliament must be submitted to the people for their approval or rejection.
Best of all, an agreed number of signatures can ensure that a brand-new idea for a law is put to the voters whatever the president or the parliament thinks about it.

Change calls for change

These are the channels through which power previously dammed up by the politicians can be made to flow into the hands of ordinary people. The politicians, naturally,  present various arguments against doing anything of the sort. Some of their arguments do not stand up to a moment's examination. Others are more serious, and one in particular raises a genuine problem for direct democracy if a current weakness in the economies of Europe and America becomes a permanent fixture.

On the other hand, the defenders of the old-fashioned form of democracy have to face the fact that the world has changed radically since the time when it might have seemed plausible to think the voters' wishes needed to be filtered through the finer intelligence of those "representatives". The changes that have taken place since then have removed many of the differences between ordinary people and their representatives. They have also helped the people to discover that the representatives are not especially competent. As a result, what worked reasonably well in the 19th century will not work in the 21st century.
Our children may find direct democracy more efficient, as well as more democratic, than the representative sort.

This is a far bigger change than any alteration in the way in which the representatives get elected -- proportional representation rather than the first- past-the-post system, alternative voting, and so on. These are just variations in the method by which power is delegated. Direct democracy keeps it undelegated. First, then, a picture of how direct democracy actually works, a matter about which most people have only the haziest idea.

It is still, admittedly, a pretty scattered phenomenon. Slightly over half of the states in the United States use it, some with fairly spectacular results, though it so far has no place in American politics at the federal level.
Australia has held almost go nationwide referendums, and its component states almost as many again (one in every six of which was about bar-closing times).
Italy has recently become a serious exponent of direct democracy, and its referendums in 1991 and 1993 played a large part in breaking up the corrupt old Italian party system.
The new light has flickered occasionally in Denmark, New Zealand, Ireland and a few other countries.
But the best country to look at is Switzerland, which virtually invented direct democracy, and uses it at every level of politics.
The next three sections describe how the Swiss manage to keep their politicians under control in the central government, in the country's 26 cantons, and in the 3,000-odd communities which make up the cantons.

So long as it's clear who's in charge

Take Switzerland for both a model and a warning

The first lesson from Switzerland is that direct democracy is hard work The second is that, though it makes politicians less important than they like to be, it does not remove the need for an intelligent parliament; the system works most efficiently when politicians stop assuming they know best, but do their proper job with modest zeal.

This proper job, as with any parliament, is to sit down, discuss the problems of the day, and propose solutions for them. The difference in a direct democracy is that the parliament's solutions are not necessarily the last word in the matter until the next general election, which may be years away. In Switzerland, 50,000 signatures on a petition, a bit over 1% of the current total of qualified voters, are enough to haul any new countrywide law before a vote of the whole people. Twice that number of signatures will put a brand-new idea for a law to the people's decision, even if parliament wants nothing to do with it. Because of a Swiss quirk, new federal laws coming from outside parliament have to take the form of amendments to the constitution, with the result that Switzerland's constitution has come to look like an over-stuffed cupboard; but there is no reason why the same process could not put such new laws on the ordinary statute-book, as happens in many American states and in most of Switzerland's own cantons.

From the ridiculous to the sublime

In all, almost 450 nationwide questions have gone to a vote of the whole Swiss people since the current system got going 130 years ago -- over half the world's all-time tally of national referendums, and overwhelmingly most of the genuine, non-Napoleonic, sort. At three and a half a year, that may not sound all that much. But the pace has been accelerating lately; and, when you add the votes in which the Swiss decide what to do in their cantons and communities, it means that three or four times a year they are invited to read in the meticulously impartial documents sent to them through the post, or watch on television, or pull off the Internet, the arguments for and against up to a dozen assorted issues, and give their decisions.

That is hard work. Those decisions, at the all-Swiss level, range from the tiny to the huge. Last March the country's voters solemnly decided to let the French-speaking Catholics of the hamlet of Vellerat (population 71) leave the mainly Protestant and German-speaking canton of Bern to join the French-Catholic canton of Jura, which had itself for the same reason been allowed to break away from Bern in 1978. In September I993 the Swiss rather belatedly gave themselves a day off work every August 1st, the anniversary of Switzerland's birth a mere 705 years ago.

Such things bring a condescending smile to the foreigner's face. But, a few months before the holiday vote, a band of signature-collectors who wanted to stop the Swiss air force buying any new fighter aircraft for the rest of the century, and to reduce the number of bases the army is,allowed to use, had got within a few percentage points of winning their case.

And six months before that the voters, against the advice of most of their leaders, had momentously decided not to join the European Economic Area, lest even this small step to Euro-cohesion should eventually enmesh them in a European political union most of them do not want.

It should not be deduced from that act of defiance, however, that direct democracy spells chaos for Switzerland. In return for the parliament's acceptance that the people are the boss, the people are quite often willing to heed the parliament's views.

It's not a war - outcome of Swiss referendums, 1866-1993
Accepted  Defeated  Percentage
Parliamentary laws and decrees
brought to the people's vote 
115  56  59  48.7 
New laws proposed from outside parliament  110  11  99  10.0 
Parliamentary counter-proposals  27  17  10  63.0 
Constitutional amendments proposed
by parliament 
143  104  39  72.7 

Source:"Referendums around the world", edited by David Butler and Austin Ramney
Only a handful of the measures that could under Swiss rules have been summoned to a referendum in the past 130 years actually have been summoned.
Of the laws written by parliament which have been called before the people's judgment, half have then been given the people's okay (see the table below).
Nine-tenths of the new legislation proposed by the signature-collecting process has been turned down by the voters.
When parliament puts up a counter-proposal, it is accepted two times out of three.
If anything, people and parliament get on better these days than they used to; only about a quarter of the acts of parliament put to the referendum since 1960 have been rejected, compared with well over a half 100 years ago.

Still, a certain weariness has crept into the proceedings lately. The turnout for referendums, once pretty regularly 50-60%, or more, went into a decline in the 1950s. Despite a few moments of big-issue excitement, it has been floating around the 40% mark for most of the 1980s and 1990s. The people of Switzerland have lost some of their enthusiasm for voting, compared with people in most of the big representative democracies.

It does you good, in moderation

This almost certainly does not mean that the Swiss no longer think direct democracy a good idea. The much likelier explanation is that, as the population has grown (and since women won the vote in 1971), the number of signatures needed to summon a referendum has become a much smaller proportion of the total number of voters than it used to be. This means not only that there is a lot more voting to do -- ten nationwide votes a year on average in the 1990s, compared with three in the 1920s and 1930s -- but also that a fair number of referendums are the work of small and excited groups of enthusiasts. This turns people off and some of them stop voting. The.politicians thereupon explain that direct democracy is dying, so they themselves should be put back in charge.

This can be remedied when the Swiss overhaul their voting system, as they plan to do in the next few years, especially if they look at what some of their more adventurous cantons are already doing; see the next article. If the number of signatures needed to call a referendum is raised to something nearer its old share of the electorate, there will be fewer referendums. If the procedure for collecting signatures is made a bit sterner (some Swiss super-markets will let you do it at the check-out counter), maybe more of the referendums that do take place will be seriously thought through. The voting turnout will then presumably go up again; the fear that referendums are becoming the voice of excited minorities will subside; and the superior look on the politicians' faces will duly disappear.

There is still a solid basis for partnership between the politicians of Switzerland and the people with their special power. The voters are content to let the politicians do most of the routine work of politics, and to listen to their advice on many complicated issues. The politicians, for their part, have learned that ordinary people are often surprisingly (to politicians) shrewd in their decisions.

In the 1970s, the voters refused to be frightened by anti-immigrant propaganda into sending home most of the foreigners working in Switzerland (and this December they declined to tighten the rules against asylum-seekers).
In the 1980s and 1990s, they were persuaded to dig into their pockets to start paying value-added tax.
And not long ago there was a splendid moment after most of the political class had shaken a furious fist at the voters' refusal to accept an anti-urban-sprawl planning law.
The politicians then discovered that just as much sprawl could be prevented, more cheaply, by a different scheme.
Politicians and people may occasionally snarl at each other, but they have learned how to work together.
The Swiss will go on doing democracy their direct way.

Continue to Part 2

We welcome ALL communications and suggestions, including those from students and researchers: Canadians for Direct Democracy

JOIN our Listserv, put "SUBSCRIBE CDD-L" in the message BODY.

Index  FAQs What's New  Top of Page  Home  E-mail  Listserv