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Direct democracy is back in the 21st century

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Direct democracy is back in the 21st century


The book entitled Direct democracies has just been published in French following several others is situated in the context of a broad demand for direct democracy in France since the end of 2018. It highlights two aspects of these demands that I contributed to formulate: on the one hand, the fact that direct democracy is part of a tradition of expanding political rights (and not just a new democratic tool) and, on the other hand, this expansion is only meaningful if it impacts constitutional norms (and not just ordinary law). I summarize this view in what follows.

Throughout history, democratisation waves have been marked by an expansion of rights. A political right restricted to a handful of people is then progressively extended to the whole population. This expansion significatively contributes to a dilution of political power and to a greater capacity of the governed to control the governors. This was the case for civil rights, and then for the right of suffrage. 

Introducing direct democracy is a new phase in the expansion of political rights: it consists in extending the right of initiative and veto on laws, held by a very small minority of people, to the whole electorate. 

The initiative of laws consists in having the formal right to submit a bill for consideration. In parliamentary systems, only the government and parliament have this right - a few hundred people in a society of several million. Direct democracy extends this right to the entire electorate. Each citizen can initiate a proposal if she manages to gather the support of enough fellow citizens. This right is called by different names in different countries: "popular initiative", "citizens' initiative" or "direct initiative". 

The right to veto is the right to review proposed legislation to then accept or reject it. In parliamentary systems, only parliamentarians have this right. In direct democracy, the entire electorate is entitled to do so, in the form of a referendum. This referendum can be triggered by a petition - in which case it is facultative - or it can be triggered automatically when the law passes through parliament and thus becomes obligatory. 

The first wave of democratisation by direct democracy took place between 1880 and 1930. In many countries this popular demand was channelled into influent political parties, sometimes socialist, sometimes liberal, sometimes christian, or already populist. In several countries direct democracy was born and has remained since then a central institution influencing the balance of power: Switzerland, several states of the United States, Uruguay or Liechtenstein. In other countries, its development was swept away by wars and their consequences, for example in Latvia or Germany. In Sweden, a direct democracy at the local level was traded for an extension of the right to vote. Despite the influence of Nicolas de Condorcet, who helped to introduce it in the constitution of the year I, as well as the publication in French of the influential manifesto of Moritz Rittinghausen in 1852, the French-speaking world (apart from French-speaking Switzerland) remained outside this first wave.

After the Second World War, the conflict between parliamentary and totalitarian regimes undermined direct democratic claims. It is no coincidence that after the fall of communism in the early 1990s, direct democracy became an important issue again. Most political systems in Latin America and Eastern Europe introduced direct-democratic procedures into their constitutions, followed by a few states in Asia and Africa. In almost all countries of the world, the introduction of direct democracy is supported by large majorities of citizens. Yet this second wave of direct democracy diffusion is not like the first. Where the procedures instituted between 1890 and 1910 quickly led to very significant political changes - among them major institutional, labour law and penal system reforms - the institutions set up a hundred years later failed to play a significant role in national politics, with perhaps the only exception being Taiwan. Why was the second wave so ineffective?

The answer is simple. All countries that have direct-democratic procedures from the first wave allow their citizens to directly change their constitution. However, almost none of the regimes that introduced these direct-democratic procedures after the Second World War allow their use at the constitutional level. The rare exceptions, such as the Philippines or Bolivia, set prohibitive thresholds for signatures and constraints on their collection. 

Direct constitutional control gives precedence to decisions taken directly by citizens over decisions taken by their representatives. This does not prevent MPs from doing most of the work, but it does allow citizens to have control over the rules of the game, the major orientations of the country, as well as over legislative adjustments that force parliament to remain close to the opinions of the governed. For these reasons, the direct control of the constitution produces a specific regime where, unlike parliamentary regimes, the parliament no longer has the last word. This regime produces consequences that are well known in the scientific literature: a more independent legal and administrative system, a reduction in public debt, more inclusive democratic institutions, and better-informed citizens who are more aware of their rights. These virtuous effects are absent when direct-democratic procedures focus only on ordinary legislation and the constitution remains under the control of parliament. The system then remains parliamentary. 

This distinction characterises the demands made in France over the past three years for a "constituent citizens’ initiated referendum". Things can change today, and this requires a better dissemination in French of what we know today about the functioning of direct democracy. 


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