Direct Democracy: Germany, Greece and Europe

Democracy was born in Athens:  In June 2013 I spoke there about the struggle for the right to initiate referendums in Germany, Europe and beyond.

Part One: Direct Democracy – The modern Agora

In ancient times there was a place were the members of a polis discussed and decided public affairs. It was called the Agora. In some regions of Switzerland this is still taking place.
Of course in our times it is no longer possible for all citizens to come together and debate.
But modern direct democracy can have a lot of the functions of this procedure:

  1. Everyone can initiate a debate
  2. Public exchange of arguments
  3. Everybody can equally influence the decision-making

Thus we can benefit from these principles. But we need a well designed procedure: good laws regulating direct democracy.
From our point of view, modern direct democracy should be established at all levels of decision-making: in villages and cities, regions, nationwide and internationally.
What is a good procedure? It has three basic elements:

  • citizens themselves can initiate a referendum that includes a law designed by them
  • a simple procedure of collecting the necessary number of signatures i.e. 1) free collection; 2) low threshold
  • finally, the referendum must be binding.

I will now proceed to prove that direct democracy can change the outcomes of the political decision-making process.

Part Two: How citizens have already changed politics
Part Three: How Germans fought successfully for direct democracy
Part Four: Direct Democracy on an international level
Part Five: Political System must be open to new ideas


Part Two: How citizens have already changed politics

In Germany we can observe that we have had a change of outcome of political decisions – at least in some respects. For example: The return of the public services to public control – or more precisely: the ownership of power and water supply systems.
Many of these were privatised in the 90s. Sometimes against the will of a majority of the people – attempts to initiate referendums failed because of the difficulties the procedure presented.
Now, after ten years many privatisation contracts are due for a revision – so there is an opportunity to renegotiate the whole or parts of the contracts. In two Bundesländer citizens used this opportunity to initiate referendums.

Case One: Soon the submission of a referendum by the citizens of Berlin will reach the final stage of phase 2. On June 10 it will be clear if they have gathered enough signatures: 200.000 are necessary. The aim is to bring the power supply system again under public control again – to run it as a public company. Currently it is owned by Vattenfall – a Swedish company that also produces atomic energy to run power plants.
The proposed law was written by representatives of various initiatives. So it dealt with social and ecological issues as well as democratic control and transparency.
If enough people sign, there will be a referendum together with the national elections in September. Then the citizens of Berlin will have the final say.
Case Two:
In 2010 a very small initiative triggered a referendum on the privatisation of Berlin’s water supply. The proposed regulation was very simple: they demanded that the contract regulating the privatisation should be published. It had already been approved by parliament behind closed doors. Against all odds the initiative managed to overcome both hurdles: the necessary number of signatures and the turnout quorum in the referendum.
Of course the publication was only a first step. The final aim of the campaign was to regain public control. Nowadays some parts of the water supply are run by the city again and it wants to increase its control.

Case Three: In Hamburg, too, an initiative triggered a referendum on the power supply. Citizens can vote about the issue in September together with the national elections.

All these cases prove the importance of direct democracy: in all cases the privatisation policy was rejected. This also influences the government position. Privatisations will be harder in future.
For me it doesn’t matter if a service is provided by a public or private firm, but the citizens should have a say. By the way, while gathering signatures for the actual initiative in Berlin, I observed the reason why citizens are in favour of the referendum. They do not see the benefits of the privatisation as prices have risen and service has got worse.

Ronald Pabst and Acropolis

Part Three: Fighting successfully for referendums

Mehr Demokratie has fought hard to improve the regulations for referendums in Germany. In many of the sixteen Bundesländer we have pretty fair regulations on the local level. It is here, where people are affected directly by political decisions. In the regions (Bundesländer), however, the regulations are in most cases prohibitive. In my home region not one referendum has taken place in sixty years. Berlin and Hamburg are exceptions.
We have two strategies: Big Bang vs. Slice by Slice
Big Bang: We initiate referendums – using the existing (often poor) laws. If we are successful, the citizens can improve direct democracy at the ballot box themselves.
Examples: Bavaria 1995, Hamburg 1997, 2007, 2009
Slice by Slice: Political campaigning and establishing a live and lasting organisation which will be able to do a lot of PR and research is tough work. To make this possible it needs three things: organisation, organisation and organisation.
For example: publish an interesting newsletter regularly, gather addresses whenever possible.


Part Four: Direct democracy on an international level

This has two aspects:

  1. Direct democracy in other countries apart from Germany
  2. Direct democracy on an international level

Direct democracy on an international level: More and more decisions are made on the international level that affect our daily life directly. I do not need to emphasize that in Greece. They can hardly be influenced by the citizens: This causes a lot of frustration and mistrust. We want to change that with implementing direct democracy in the EU. A first step was the establishment of the European Citizens’ Initiative. With this poorly designed procedure people can raise their voice in Europe – it needs one million signatures to get a hearing by the EU Commission and European Parliament. At least one initiative was able to get the support. It is directed against the privatisation of water supply.

But modern direct democracy is being established in more and more countries. In at least two countries initiatives affiliated with democracy international are successful: Austria and the Netherlands. The current proposals anticipate a non-binding referendum, so there is still a lot to do.


Part Five: The political system must be open to new ideas

A political system must be able to adopt new ideas and alternative thinking. We must stop TINA. It is the principle called “There Is No Alternative.” It is wrong. There are always many alternatives and their predicted outcomes have to be discussed in public before a decision is taken.
Whenever the circle of decision-makers is too small and not transparent, the results will be poor.
But without any doubt we need more direct democracy in Germany, Europe and – I think most importantly – in Greece. It is absolutely necessary to improve the political system. Let’s work together to change the rules of the game, which far too many of us are losing.
Now is the time to re-establish the principle of the Agora. I hope that our brave Greek friends will continue the work and find many supporters.

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2 Antworten zu “Direct Democracy: Germany, Greece and Europe

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