Let the people vote!

Don’t kid yourself! Regardless of whether you vote this month for the winning party or for one of the opposition parties, your representatives will undoubtedly introduce legislation with which you disagree or which is clearly not in your best interests. The only way to stop elected officials of any persuasion from introducing unpopular laws “on the people’s behalf”, is to demand that we be allowed to express our views and desires through direct democracy.

Direct democracy takes three forms:
- The referendum. This prevents legislators from amending the constitution without the permission of the people, and allows the people to reject new laws passed by the legislators. The referendum is “the people’s veto”. An optional referendum might, for example, require that 10% of the electorate sign a petition, forcing a direct vote on an issue. In other cases, a referendum might be automatic. If, for example, a proposed law requires a change to the constitution, in a special election a simple or two-thirds majority is needed to throw out the amendment or law.
- The initiative. This is exactly like a referendum except that it is used by the people to propose a law or constitutional amendment, or to repeal an old law. Again, persons wanting a law passed or repealed must get sufficient signatures on a petition to have their proposal put to a popular vote.
- The recall. This is used to call a special election to remove unpopular officials and judges before their term expires. If, for example, a newly elected town council one month into a four-year term starts passing offensive laws, the residents of the area don’t have to suffer for another three years and 11 months. Rather, they can petition for an immediate recall election, throw the offending councillors out, and replace them with new ones. Obviously, the threat of recall has a disciplining effect on politicians.

Most of the states in the US allow one or more forms of direct democracy, as do many counties and cities. As of 1980, every state except Delaware required a referendum on constitutional amendments, 24 states had introduced the optional referendum on new legislation, 23 had adopted the initiative, all allowed the recall of local officials, and in 15, state officials could be recalled. But while direct democracy flourishes at the local level, Congress remains a law unto itself. Concerted efforts were made in the 1930s to introduce the referendum on the national level, and in 1977 the initiative. Though polls indicated popular support for the proposals, both were blocked by Congress, which doesn’t like measures that reduce its powers.

The Swiss constitution of 1848 was based on the US constitution, but with two added features: the referendum and the initiative. These powers are so wide-ranging that officials at all levels of government, including the president, can be overruled by a majority of the people.

Federal referendums are common in Switzerland because the constitution sets explicit limits on federal power, so that any major act requires a constitutional amendment, which automatically requires a referendum. Under the careful watch of the people, the Swiss government has remained proportionately a fraction of the size of the American federal government. A crucial check is the right of the Swiss to dictate tax levels. The kinds of taxes the central government may impose and their maximum rates are stipulated in the constitution and may not be changed without the people’s permission. Consequently the Swiss pay the lowest taxes of any developed country.

On the other hand, not many bills passed by the central government are rejected by the optional referendum, which may be called up to six months after any law in Switzerland is enacted. Up until 1976, only 78 out of 1,141 federal laws were called to referendum, and of those only 48 were rejected. The reason the figures are so low is that the cabinet goes to considerable lengths to avoid an optional referendum. So the people enjoy an important check on government: the referendum threat. The threat encourages Swiss politicians to spend considerable time and effort in accommodating as many interest groups as possible – and redrafting legislation until no group is so unhappy that it will seek a referendum rejecting the law. Those consulted include labour unions, consumer groups, big business, small traders, language groups, religious and regional interests, and political parties.

Thus federal lawmaking in Switzerland consists of the government lobbying interested parties – the exact opposite of what happens in other western democracies. In the US, Britain, South Africa and elsewhere, interest groups lobby the government for special privileges.

On the local level, the Swiss also vote directly on a range of issues close to their hearts and pockets. For example, they decide who the local school principal should be, what languages should be taught in school, whether a new road or bridge should be built, and what time prostitutes should start trading.

An important advantage of direct democracy is that it enables people to repeal laws quite easily if they make an incorrect decision. For example, between 1972 and 1977 there were 19 initiatives in 13 Swiss cantons on increasing taxes for the rich. In all but one canton, the initiatives were defeated. The exception was Basel-Land. There, in 1973, taxes were raised sharply, up to 140% increase on incomes above 500,000 Swiss francs. During 1973, the wealth tax increased overall revenue by 25%. But within a few months of the higher taxes, 50 high-income earners left the canton, thereby cutting revenue by 8%. Voters had underestimated the downside of the tax, and in June 1974 they voted, in another referendum, to replace the tax with one more evenly distributed.

- The chief objection to direct democracy is that it transfers power from the educated to the ignorant. This objection is raised, perhaps not surprisingly, by both left and right. In Switzerland, ordinary people have been making decisions on difficult and contentious issues for hundreds of years, and their track record is better than anything achieved by governments formed by highly educated elites.
- Some see the referendum as a dangerous device for majority domination. But the results of referendums are generally moderate and reasonable. Predictably, people elected to political office tend to be more ideological, radical and “progressive” than those who elect them. Ordinary people tend to have traditional attitudes. One of the reasons people tend to vote sensibly in Swiss referendums is that benefits cannot be offered without revealing their costs. When the Swiss vote on the introduction of a pension scheme, for example, they are openly told what it will cost them in taxes.

Indirect democracy – voting for representatives who then vote on your behalf – was supposed to prevent majority tyranny. The representatives were supposed to tame the whims of the majority and, after studying all the facts and objections, pass the best laws for everybody. In fact, the elected officials began passing laws that satisfied one pressure group or another, leaving most people to suffer. South Africans have learned that the only time politicians pay attention to them is before elections. They should demand the right to express themselves more regularly and more clearly via direct democracy.

Author: Frances Kendall is author of The Heart of the Nation: Regional and Community Government in the New South Africa, Amagi Books, 1991. This article may be republished without prior consent but with acknowledgement to the author. The views expressed in the article are the author's and are not necessarily shared by the members of the Foundation.

FMF Feature Article / 07 April 2009

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