Democracy seems to be in fashion right now. Not perhaps in all parts of the world (hi there, General el-Sisi), but definitely in the west. Mind you, not just any democracy: the representative kind is so last century, we want the direct kind.
Out of the countries I’m familiar with, United Kingdom seems to trot out the direct democracy card every time a thorny EU question comes up, in a wonderful attempt by politicians to wash their hands of difficult decisions (which I thought was what politicians were elected for) and Finland has been the last one to fall head over heels in love with direct democracy. I’m intrigued to see how long that infatuation lasts, considering how little results you get for all that brouhaha. In the particularly diluted Finnish version of direct democracy the Parliament doesn’t even have to bring a question raised by a successful citizens’ initiative to a vote. So far, as far as I understand, exactly zero such initiatives have been voted on. While the citizenry has been quite enthusiastic about their new found political power, the politicians have been decidedly less so.
This might just as well be for the better. I have had the privilege of observing the frontrunner in direct democracy for a number of years now, and my feelings about the whole thing are very mixed. The Swiss system works, to a large extent, but that might just be because it is Switzerland. The country and its political system are both quite peculiar. The Swiss are extremely wary of anyone getting one up over the rest. There is no capital city, there are four official languages, and the presidency rotates every year among the members of the Federal Council (the Cabinet) – the Council itself being the official Head of State. Try THAT at home...
As far as direct democracy is concerned, it is very real: Anyone can introduce initiatives to either reject laws passed by the General Assembly, or force the country to adopt new ones, including amendments to the Constitution. Many cantons, including Geneva, also permit referendums at the local level.
This can actually be quite tiring. Although there are sometimes sensible initiatives to get at least the conversation going on issues that are important to the population but less attractive to politicians, in its more usual form direct democracy permits special interest groups to hijack the national (or local) discussion with their niche interests. The system also demands a lot from the population. There is a vote going on about once a month on one initiative or another, and the issues are rarely straightforward. Most people just don’t have the patience to inform themselves of all the relevant aspects of a given question, which leaves the door open to knee-jerk decisions based on first, often emotional, impressions. This unfortunately also shows. The streets are always full of posters urging people to vote one way or another on a given issue, and the message, when given in a single picture with a few sentences, is rarely nuanced. Most of the time it is cringe-worthy, even on issues with which I agree.
The easy example is of course immigration. UDC/SVP, the local right-wing party (think Front National in France, UKIP in Great Britain or Perussuomalaiset in Finland), at regular intervals brings one anti-immigration measure or another to a vote, just to keep the issue perpetually on the agenda.* The garishness of this really hit me when my friend J, who is Jewish, remarked drily upon getting off the train from Paris that the posters around the Geneva station is what Berlin must have looked like in the 1930s. Ouch. Here is an example of a poster that the citizens are currently being bombarded with, as yet another UDC initiative to reduce immigration is coming to a vote:
As I said, hardly subtle.
So before you ask for more direct democracy, ask yourself whether you want to spend a lot of time educating yourself about complex political issues almost every month, as opposed to once every 4-6 years (when general elections are held). Ask also whether you would want to have the political discussion dominated by emotive questions pushed by groups obsessed by marginal issues.
Political activity and interest is good. The two times I’ve personally witnessed political excitement were in Kenya when the first post-Moi election was held in late 2002 and in Paris in the run up to the 2007 presidential election. What seemed to electrify people was real choice, and potential real change. This never appears to happen in countries like Finland where there is a wide coalition in power no matter what one votes or United Kingdom where the majority of parliamentary seats are always safe in a first-past-the-post system. But nor does it seem to happen in the queen of direct democracy, Switzerland.
The key does not seem to be lots of opportunities to impact the little things, but an occasional opportunity to have a real say in the big things. Sometimes less democracy can be more.
Or do you disagree?
*Switzerland on the whole is a very open, pro-immigration place, which I must mention in case anyone suffered from a bout of holier-than-thou snootiness as a result of that poster.