Direct Democracy – putting power in the hands of the people

08.03.2011

In the final article in a series on social change, Daniel Winter looks at politics and direct democracy.

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The Reichstag, the centre of German democracy. / Photo: Timur Emek/ddp

What does it feel like to be a politician? From your humble beginnings as a normal nobody (if you consider normal to be a rich meglomaniac or a professor of particle physics) to having power and influence across the nation – it can’t be easy. You have your every innocent move criticised to death, and then you get kicked around like a political football or a child at an orphanage (Mr. Guttenberg’s recent resignation is an interesting example of this – whether it was right or wrong that he was treated the way he was I will leave for you to make up your own mind). In Germany’s coalition-frenzied political system specifically, you have to try and come up with new ways of making your fellow countrymen more oppressed, cough up more cash or work harder, and the only way to do that is to make nice with your bitter enemies on the other side and strangle your newly born legislative brain fart into concessional hell. It’s like asking two old, grey men to mud wrestle but awarding the prize to the one that makes the best mud castle in the process.

Okay, so maybe I’m cynical. Maybe.

I think it’s quite clear that our current political systems are far from perfect, including Germany’s multi-party model.

The coalition government system sacrifices clear-cut decision-making and harmony, in favour of, at times, acrimonious consensus politics. However, by allowing the smaller parties to have a say, it could be argued that this system represents the popular opinion in the country in a far more nuanced way. Whilst Britain currently has a clunky coalition, the situation usually falls in line similar to the situation in America – the two-party system. This particular political situation of two main parties fighting for the public vote gives politics a clearer direction and focus, but at the expense of giving a voice to opinions outside of either of the two parties. The British parliamentary system allows for more minority views than the American constitutional system, but both of these are still far from being diverse in their representation.

In all political systems, there exists one phenomenon which crops up, in some countries far more frequently than in others – corruption. Whilst in Germany, Scandinavia and native English-speaking countries, criminal political corruption is fairly low, there exists frequent political ‘favours’ for companies or influential individuals who are seen to support a politician’s or political party’s election campaign or policy initiative. There is a thin line between lobbying and bribery. One recent and well-known example in Germany is that of Guido Westerwelle, of whom I wrote about in a previous article. He received €1.1 million from a hotel chain whilst, coincidentally of course, he decided to reduce tax for hotels in Germany. Lobbying or corruption?

Furthermore, lying is seen as a political staple.

Politicians are often forced by the media in its relentless criticism of small, human mistakes (as well as, of course, the big ones too) to present an acceptable face to the rest of the public, especially during election time. Barely an election goes by without people complaining that what politicians promised in the election campaign didn’t materialise once they entered office, whatever the reasons for this might be.

Maybe it is time we took power from these individuals and put it in the hands of those whose lives are changed by the implementation of laws. Being able to vote on every major law would give the power to everyone. Also, it is extremely difficult to corrupt an entire nation of people.

This doesn’t mean entirely getting rid of politicians altogether, as we still need people to administrate and help run things smoothly, perhaps also dealing with the dull bureaucracy and minor laws that would not interest the most of us. Countries with a system of ‘direct democracy’ as it is called still have parliamentary debates (and like many other countries, the people can propose laws to be debated by organising petitions), however these politicians can be ‘recalled’ if they abuse their power, as well as their decisions vetoed if the popular vote shows disapproval.

Indeed, direct democracy is already being used to great effect in Switzerland. Laws proposed in government can be challenged by any citizen at any time. Votes on constitutional matters are triggered if a petition can gather over 100,000 signatures. 550 referendums have passed since Switzerland introduced direct democracy in 1848. One such referendum took place last month, where the Swiss voted on a law which intended to tighten gun controls in the country. Many Swiss keep their rifle after returning home from conscription – some argued this led to increased gun-related crime, others citing tradition and protection from criminals as important factors. In the end, 56% of the population voted against gun control, and the proposed law was dropped. In my opinion, this is democracy in action.

Many would argue though, that people shouldn’t have an automatic right to vote on some issues. Take for example complex economic reform. It would be quite a challenge to ensure as many voters as possible are provided with all the information they need to make a well-informed decision. I for one start to fall asleep at the mere mention of economics (like I said last week, I’ll leave the economics to the economists). How to balance the need for specialist research and popular opinion is a tough one. Pure research alone puts the people at risk of ‘lawmaking by committee’ and is unrepresentative of the people who are actually affected by changes in policy and law.

As is often the case, the answer is somewhere in the middle.

Many higher ranking politicians especially seem to have less and less to do with the common man as a king or a queen,

but some know a lot more about how a society works than you or I, with their advisers and top-down view of how sociopolitical institutions function. Looking at it as objectively as possible, is the leap from putting power in the hands of the few into the hands of the many really weighed down with too many disadvantages as to make it not worth bothering with? Or to put it the other way round, and to use a cliche, what price are we willing to pay (in terms of the hard work of implementation and adapting to change) for the freedom to decide the destiny of our own countries, to decide the way policy and lawmaking affect us on a daily basis?

The point I would like you to take away from this mini-series of articles on social change is that just because this is the life you are used to, no matter how happy you think you are or how content you might be, there are better ways of doing things – ways which would help not only you, but others to be happier in life, and to make life for all of us fairer. The way it is now is not the only way. Above all: complacency is not an excuse, indifference is not an option.



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Daniel will return in April.