The new conventional wisdom is that electoral democracy is in decline, but this ignores a different global trend: Direct democracy is booming, especially at the local and regional levels of government.
Today, 113 of the world’s 117 democratic countries offer their citizens legally or constitutionally established rights to bring forward a citizens’ initiative, referendum or both. Moreover, since 1980, about 80 percent of countries have had at least one nationwide referendum or popular vote on a legislative or constitutional issue.
Of all the nationwide popular votes in history, more than half have taken place over the past 30 years. According to our research, almost 2,000 such votes have taken place as of this month: 1,075 in Europe, 193 in Africa, 192 in Asia, 187 in the Americas, 117 in Oceania and 201 in Asia.
Taiwan’s newly revised referendum law pushed the number for Asia to more than 200.
The amendments to the Referendum Act (公民投票法) and popular votes on 10 referendums held on Nov. 24 last year, issues from the environment to LGBT rights, are an example to the world and a leader in direct democracy.
Taiwan’s adoption and expansion of national direct democracy puts it ahead of other major democracies, such as Germany, the US and India, none of which permit popular votes on substantive issues nationally.
However, such democracies do support robust direct democracy at the local and regional levels. The number of local votes on issues has defied all attempts to count them — they run into the tens of thousands.
Yet, despite these trends, the myth persists that democracy is in decline globally because of confusion about the meaning of democracy and direct democracy.
So we should be clear. When we talk about democracy, we mean the right to self-government, as enshrined in the the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We mean the right “to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives.”
When we say direct democracy, we are actually talking about two very different families of democratic votes. The first is the citizen-initiated forum, in which people propose new laws or popular referendums intended to stop (or amend) legal decisions taken by elected officials.
To do so, citizens gather support from a certain number of citizens to trigger a vote. This is the way well-developed democracies such as Switzerland, many US states, Uruguay — and now also Taiwan — are doing it.
The other form of direct democracy involves government-initiated, or top-down, votes on issues. These can include mandatory referendums based on a change of legal provision or other kinds of decision such as a bond issue, a constitutional amendment, a treaty or even territorial status or independence.
Into this category also falls government-initiated popular votes voluntarily put forward by elected or non-elected rulers. Such referendums are called plebiscites and can be highly problematic, as in the UK with Brexit, or in Venezuela, where they are manipulated to consolidate the rule of a government with waning legitimacy.
This autumn, we will cochair this year’s edition of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, the world’s oldest and largest gathering for elected officials, civil society advocates, academics, election administrators and journalists dealing with the procedures and practices of modern (direct) democracy.
This open and free event will take place at National Chung-Hsing University in Taichung and will offer a great opportunity to examine Taiwan’s emerging referendum practice.
The event will also offer an opportunity to show the deep connections between Taiwan’s story and trends in democracy — the rise of populist authoritarianism in some nations, as well as the rise of local and direct democracy.
We believe that Taiwan could show global leadership by continuing its reforms and developing more deliberate and integrated forms of direct democracy.
Based on Taiwan’s progress, we want to encourage lawmakers, election administrators, colleagues in the media and civil society as a whole to consider the following:
‧ Make time and space a priority. Direct democracy requires more time and space for true deliberation — including the gathering of signatures, institutional deliberations after submitting an initiative and the campaign ahead of a vote.
It neither helps the issues raised nor the democratic quality of the debate if things are rushed and fast-tracked as they were ahead of last year’s referendums. To slow things down, we recommended expanding the time allotted for signature gathering from six months to at least 18 months.
‧ Decouple initiative and referendum votes from general elections for government officials. Voting directly on laws is a different process than voting for representatives, and the two should be separated so that people have more time to consider each.
Having a different schedule for direct democracy and representative democracy would also make it more difficult to misuse direct democratic processes on behalf of political candidates.
‧ Eliminate or reduce the approval quorum. By separating ballot measures and candidate votes, turnout would likely go down for direct democracy votes.
That means that the approval quorum for referendum votes — currently set at 25 percent of eligible voters — should be eliminated or at least reduced to 10 percent so that opponents of ballot measures do not use boycott strategies to invalidate votes.
These are just a few of the fixes, big and small, that could be discussed and implemented as Taiwan seeks to improve its referendum system.
Learning from experience and failure is essential to a healthy democracy — and to direct democracy.
Improvement requires national recognition that direct democracy is here to stay and is likely to become an increasingly important feature of self-government in Taiwan, and elsewhere.
The challenge for Taiwan, and the world, is to design new practices and institutions that insure that this form of democracy enhances the public good, is not captured by special interests and expresses the results of careful deliberation among citizens.
Joe Mathews and Bruno Kaufmann are copresidents of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. This year’s Global Forum is to be held on Oct. 2 to 5 in Taichung.
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