Direct democracy: another way of thinking

In Britain, we rely on our elected politicians to make all decisions, with the cabinet setting the agenda on which parliament must debate and vote.

But the Swiss use a system called “direct democracy,” which gives citizens the right to vote on key political issues in open referendums, often up to four times a year.


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“You are asked to vote for anything; from a change to our constitution, to a referendum, to a law, to a vote for the people. explains Franz Muheim, Swiss citizen and member of the Federation of Swiss Companies in the United Kingdom.

“So basically any part of the legislative process there are ways that anyone can launch an initiative, so something new or a referendum on an existing bill”

Matt Qvortrup, professor of political science at Coventry University, explained the benefits of this system: “We are individuals, as consumers we are individuals. We want to have our cake and eat it, and we can have it as consumers. You can’t have that in politics.

“I may want to vote for a party that is progressive on, say, LGBTQ rights, but conservative when it comes to economics. ”

Democracy is a complicated matter, and for millennia philosophers have debated how to create the most effective democratic system. President Jimmy Carter once said, “The experience of democracy is like the experience of life itself, constantly changing.”

But MP Alex Norris, chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on Deliberative Democracy, doesn’t think direct democracy is the way to go in Britain.

“I think with direct democracy you are essentially reducing decisions to a final binary yes or no proposition.” Norris explains.

“Instead, with proper deliberation, you can fix all the issues and then define the range of options for the people and maybe the decision makers here would act then.”

And some fear that direct democracy is simply untenable with a first past the post system.

“Such a system can only work in a proportional democracy.” Muheim said.

“Without proportional representation, direct democracy will be very, very difficult.”

But that hasn’t stopped others from claiming it.

“If it works in all the German Länder, if it can work in Italy, why couldn’t it work here? Said Qvortrup.

“The problem is, politicians don’t really want this to work or maybe they don’t want to introduce it. Why would they have introduced something that would limit their powers? ”

For many in Britain, when they hear the word ‘referendum’, the alarm bells may ring when they think of Brexit. But it was inherently different from the way direct democracy is supposed to work.

“The British referendum failed on all the rules of a referendum.” explains Munheim.

“First he was called in by the government. In Switzerland, the government is the only group that cannot call a referendum.

“There was no qualified majority. Things so important [need] a qualified majority. It is therefore not only a majority of the population, but also a majority of cantons [states]. ”

Whether or not we have a system similar to direct democracy in place, can we learn from Switzerland?

“What I would like to see happen next is a constitutional convention where we get citizens, we travel the country and discuss with people options to renew our democracy.” Norris said.

“Whether it’s the voting system, whether it’s more direct models, whether it’s deliberative models – and just brainstorm with people what we might want to do differently to try to create more engagement, more trust, more interest. ”

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