Tue, Apr 16, 2019 - Page 8 News List

Setting the example for direct votes

By Joe Mathews and Bruno Kaufmann

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.

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