“Let the people rule” is a fine democratic principle. And it likely sounds more appealing to most citizens than the democratic alternative: let others decide for you (better known as representative democracy). But, in theory and in practice, direct democracy is too broad to provide the precise guidance needed for decision-making and the policies that popular preferences often produce.
Moreover, the effects of direct participation are not always as virtuous as their promoters claim.
So are there specific issues, mechanisms and times in which direct democracy can work to renew democratic accountability and people’s faith in democratic systems? Considering specific tools (i.e. citizen’s initiatives, mandatory referenda) the answer is yes… sometimes. However, as with regular elections (no need to mention outcomes of some recent ones), the best results are not guaranteed: democracy (generally) involves clear rules but also uncertainty regarding outcomes.
In practice, direct democracy is defined as a set of procedures that allow citizens to make political decisions directly through a vote beyond the regular election of representatives. These mechanisms of direct democracy (MDDs) have become a global trend. They include mandatory referenda on key issues of constitutional reform or legal changes (such as the Bolivian or the Italian referenda in February and December 2016, respectively, to ratify constitutional amendments—both were rejected), bottom up-generated referenda or recall votes sparked by popular demand (as in the now-failed constitutional right to convene a recall referendum on President Nicolas Maduro’s mandate in Venezuela), and top-down plebiscites or votes to decide on a specific policy or reform sparked by the government (such as the June 2016 “Brexit” vote in Great Britain or the October 2016 “peace plebiscite” in Colombia). These are often required or regulated by constitutions or laws or—as in the case of Brexit—they can be more ad hoc. And the results of these mechanisms can be either consultative or binding.
But even consultative referenda can lead to powerful consequences. Take, for example, the enormous complexity of sorting through Great Britain’s exit from the European Union, all of it based on a single consultative popular vote promoted by a leader who decided to take a big risk to resolve intra-party conflicts… and failed.
The recent book, Let the people rule? Direct democracy in the twenty-first century (edited by Saskia Pauline Ruth, Yanina Welp, and Laurence Whitehead), documents the history and recent proliferation of these direct democratic “fixes” to conventional structures of representation, asking, “to what extent have they met their promise of revitalizing and deepening democracy?”
Based on the contributions of thirteen authors examining cases from Europe to Latin America, and from the former Soviet Union to Sub-Saharan Africa, we reach a number of conclusions that largely point to the need for caution. First, however beneficial direct democracy provisions may be, they will prove less-than-democratic if they become substitutes for established processes of democratic representation.
The specialized nature of most tasks of modern government in complex mass societies requires direction from a full-time stratum of professional decision-makers. This will remain true and cannot be fully displaced by innovations in direct rule, no matter how imaginative or creative they are.
Second, various direct democratic innovations reviewed in the volume are similar to more classical processes of electoral representation and often can help support them. For example, a properly regulated “recall” procedure (as regulated in Japan, Poland and in some states in the U.S.) can be regarded as a useful modification of well-established election cycles that grant voters greater control over their elected officials. Furthermore, if we include the role of parties forming public opinion through their own internal processes of primaries and votes, we find that MDDs are less radical than expected and closer to, or strongly conditioned by, representative mechanisms and actors.
Third, the limits of legality merit special attention here. In a classical representative system, a parliament alone defines the law. Democracies need clear and neutral “rules of the game.” To prevent the manipulative use of MDDs, many modern democracies have charged trusted autonomous institutions like supreme courts, electoral commissions, and other monitoring agencies with supervising some of the more contentious aspects of these procedures. But these institutions need clear mandates, defined responsibilities, suitable oversight, and mechanisms of accountability, and the appropriate role for political officeholders needs to be agreed in advance. The latter appears to be crucial, particularly in referenda on self-determination and constitutional replacement.
Despite these political, institutional and legal challenges, MDDs are becoming increasingly relevant, not only because of the growing frequency of their use but also because of their expanded scope over more areas of decision-making and popular participation. In Latin America, the referenda, celebrated as a means to held to legitimize constitutional replacements, were portrayed by political leaders as means to carry out a “political revolution,” e.g. in Venezuela (1999), Ecuador (2007-2008) and Bolivia (2006-2009).
More broadly, MDDs have also become a means for self-determination (referenda on independence). They can help ease the exit of a distinctly oppressed minority from a difficult relationship, as occurred in Montenegro in 2006 when—through a popular vote supervised by international organizations—it separated from Serbia. But they are also challenging more consolidated state units, such as happened with the vote over Scotland’s independence from Great Britain, which was voted on, but ultimately rejected, in 2014.
MDDs are also now commonplace on the subnational level as well, as occurs in Germany. (Since the 1990s all German states have amended their laws to provide for a variety of direct democratic instruments at the state as well as at the local level.) A number of other EU member states have also adopted MDDs, demonstrated by the huge number of referenda activated in previous decades. In these cases, referenda have helped to resolve constitutional, territorial and political conflicts. But, in several occasions, those votes have produced the opposite result.
The polarized popular politics over the EU in member countries is a good example. Growing popular disaffection with the EU has stemmed in large part from the perceived deficit of democratic legitimacy of the EU, for which elections to the European Parliament simply aren’t enough. In the absence of other channels to mobilize against the EU, political opponents in many member countries have sought to call for referenda in their countries to halt the integration process and express “anti-European” sentiment. One (of many) crucial problem emerges from the extra-territorial impact of unilaterally deploying this type of referenda on the wider polity (i.e. one country deciding for the whole union). The issues embedded in these referenda are far too complicated to be dealt with through the existing mechanisms, as suggested by the Netherlands’ recent referendum on the EU-Ukraine Association Agreement and other potentially complicated cases of national referenda over broader EU policy, such as the Hungarian referendum on the refugee quota established by the EU.
The increased importance of MDDs is, in part, the result of a growing popular demand to hold unresponsive politicians and bureaucrats accountable to the interests of their citizens. Popular calls for direct democracy and the reinvention of democracy also stem in large part from the political discourse of new political leaders and parties on the left and right alike. Parties as diverse as Podemos in Spain, the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, UKIP in United Kingdom or Cinque Estrelle in Italy, the Partido Socialista Unidado Venezolano, the Movimiento al Socalismo in Bolivia and the Patria Altiva y Soberana coalition in Ecuador have all emerged as champions of more direct citizen intervention in the policy-making process.
Given the popular, global political sentiment, the call for direct democracy is only likely to grow. The promotion of tools like referenda and recall votes as a fix to democratic malaise demands that we seriously study their consequences for democracy. Those democratic benefits revolve around effective democratic governance—beyond immediate accountability—policy consistency, untangling and effectively balancing the trade-offs of policy complexity, the demands of direct democracy and protecting minority rights.
Starting the inquiry
Can they deliver on these multiple, pressing demands?
Our recent book, Let the People Rule? begins to address some of these subjects and trade-offs in comparative fashion. To do so, we seek to answer basic questions of democracy and governance: to what extent can such mechanisms help to solve the global crisis of representative institutions and reinforce democratic legitimacy? To what extent do MDDs resolve conflicts in situations of extreme polarization? Do mechanisms such as recall referenda strengthen or undermine democratic accountability and governability? How consequential are direct democratic decisions in specific policy areas in resolving the key questions of who is to implement them and how?
The first way of answering these questions is to examine the extent to which MDDs have legitimately resolved constitutional reforms and addressed sovereignty issues in different political contexts. For this we look across a range of country studies from the Andean countries in Latin America and the former Soviet Union to Scotland.
Later chapters shift from constitutional mechanisms and referenda over independence to the use of MDDs to resolve day-to-day political questions and their impact on political processes and policy outcomes in Latin America and Europe. Here we look at topics such as recall referenda to bridge the divide between the electorate and unaccountable representatives, as well as the role of MDDs at the local, national and supranational levels of government.
In our concluding chapters, we examine the comparative lessons and broader implications of this rich array of studies.
Taken together, the chapters argue that MDD innovations are not easy to integrate into existing systems. But highlighting the more constructive options and guarding against the foreseeable failures is a major task which this volume has aimed to set out.
This article draws from the forthcoming book: Let the people rule? Direct democracy in the twenty-first century (S. P. Ruth, Y. Welp, and L. Whitehead (eds.) Colchester: ECPR Press, 2017). Please click on the links for more information about the book and the table of contents.