California’s recall is part of a global direct democracy experiment

The participatory budget has been practiced in Porto Alegre since 1989. Courtesy of Ricardo André Frantz / Wikimedia.

The recall attempt against Gov. Gavin Newsom is widely – and wrongly – dismissed as a peculiar and illegitimate consequence of California’s bizarre direct democracy.

The truth is, the recall is part of a vast and desperate global search for tools to hold powerful elected leaders to account.

You can see the thirst for methods – any method – to eliminate failing officials in all corners of the world.

Recently, for example, a prominent Nigerian scholar, Maduabuchi Ogidi of the Alvan Ikoku Federal College of Education in Owerri, wrote in exasperating detail how the democratization of his country has produced relentless corruption, embezzlement of public funds, abuse of civil service and books. ‘value of broken election promises.

How, he asked, could everyday Nigerians end this cycle and be held accountable to their democratically elected leaders?

Unlike many academics, Ogidi had the courage to answer his question with a detailed proposal – for the creation of the National Commission for Election Campaign Promises, an official body of ordinary citizens with the legal power to demand that politicians quit ‘they keep their promises, or withdraw them from office.

This suggestion may sound fanciful, but it corresponds to a 21st century global revolution in democratic practice. People invent tools and processes that allow citizens to intervene and participate directly in governance, with the aim of both collaborating with elected officials and controlling them. As places around the world embrace them, the tools evolve and change.

The recall is largely part of a vast and desperate global search for tools to hold powerful elected leaders to account.

Direct democracy – in which ordinary citizens, rather than elected officials, legislate and amend constitutions – has quickly spread from its strong roots in Switzerland and the American West to localities and regions in more than 110 countries. Participatory Budgeting, a process first created in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 1990, is now used by citizens of six continents to decide on local budgets. Citizens’ assemblies, which bring together representative groups of ordinary people to consider an issue or solve a problem, have their roots in 1970s Germany and Minnesota. They have become popular ways of letting ordinary people grapple with it. big questions; French citizens’ assemblies, convened in response to protests over a fuel tax, recently recommended major changes to that country’s climate laws, including stricter emissions standards.

Countries are also undertaking more innovative experiments, such as European Union “National Parliaments”, where people come together in small groups, online or in person, to make recommendations for senior continental officials. And there is growing interest in places like Indonesia – the world’s third-largest and most diverse democracy – in the application of non-Western cultural decision-making to modern democratic processes.

This emphasis on citizen participation represents a significant advance over the democratic reforms of the 20th century, which tended to focus narrowly on improving electoral processes. But this progress also perversely coincides with the rise of authoritarianism in many nation states. Autocratic leaders from Turkey to Russia in the Philippines have been prepared to tolerate local democratic tools, especially participatory budgeting and related processes, as long as they do not challenge their power.

This raises essential questions. Can the tools of the 21st century be scaled up to protect and extend democracy at the national level? And can such tools, used in concert by localities around the world, inspire more democratic international decision-making on climate, economy and public health?

In this context, Professor Ogidi’s idea of ​​a National Commission for Election Campaign Promises is intriguing, especially if it turns out to be more than an academic whim. He argues that the commission should hold citizens accountable in a variety of ways, including holding hearings to see if politicians have kept their word. But he also suggests going further, allowing citizens to impose real legal sanctions against breakers of political promises. This is a risky suggestion in a country with a considerable history of political violence.

To truly change nations or states, to truly empower democratic leaders, the tools of participatory democracy will need to be improved and made more powerful. (Newsom’s recall sparked some ideas). But, more importantly, those who use the tools of democratic accountability will need to be skillful and courageous.


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