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Referendum on Stuttgart 21: Unfair quorum

Referendum on Stuttgart 21: Unfair quorum


On 20 April the Greens and the SPD announced that they had agreed to hold a referendum on Stuttgart 21 this autumn. This case is a clear example of how damaging unnecessary quorums can be to direct-democratic procedures.

In Stuttgart, capital city of the German state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, two parties - the Greens and the SPD (Social Democratic Party) - want to form a coalition, but they hold different positions on a key issue. Thanks in part to their opposition to Stuttgart 21, the Greens made unprecedented gains in the state elections on 27 March 2011, taking 24.1% of the votes against their previous share of 11.7%. The ruling CDU party, which had governed since 1972, lost support and was unable to form a majority government - leading to the new Green-SPD coalition.

Now the Greens want the controversial "Stuttgart 21" building project to be scrapped. For months protest demonstrations against the project have been taking place every Monday evening. Last autumn, images of a completely over-the-top police action against the protesters sent shock waves throughout Germany; hundreds of demonstrators were injured when the police used water cannons, pepper spray and batons against peaceful protesters. And the clashes continued even after an arbitration process led by veteran politician Heiner Geissler. That process resulted in a decision to have a “stress test” - a computer simulation to determine whether the planned underground station can actually handle the expected traffic. The test will be carried out in the summer. If the test fails, additional construction work will be necessary and the final cost would be significantly higher. An upper cost limit of 4.5 billion Euro was set on the project. At a press conference on 20 April, the new Green-Red coalition stated that if the projected cost exceeded that limit the state would not cough up the extra money.

The tricky referendum

During the negotiations for the coalition it took a long time for the leaders of the two parties to agree on holding a referendum. One factor in this is the very poor design of direct democracy in Baden-Württemberg. There is a 33.3% approval quorum for a referendum to be valid i.e. a minimum of one-third of the total registered electorate has to vote for the proposal. Past experience has shown that this requirement is almost unachievable, with the result that even if a majority of those who vote are against continuing with the Stuttgart 21 project, the referendum outcome will not be legally binding.

Consequences of an ‘improper’ failed vote

If the approval quorum is not reached, there are then two possibilities. The state parliament can accept the will of the majority and pass an appropriate law (to halt the project). Or the parliament allows the project to continue, despite the majority “no” vote - in which case it can be expected that the protests will continue, and with increased intensity

Lowering the approval quorum

In order to overcome this problem the Green-Red coalition will attempt to bring in a constitutional amendment to either lower the quorum or abolish it altogether. But it can be expected that the CDU - which still holds 39% of the seats - will vote against the change, which requires a two-thirds majority in parliament.

This is a strikingly clear example of the negative effects the unnecessary referendum quorums can have. There are rarely any such quorums for elections; especially with the low election turnouts now common in many states, few ruling parties would ever have secured the required percentage.

At the same time, the case also shows the potential of direct democracy. It means that parties which hold differing views on specific issues can still form coalitions - because the final decision can be left to the people, the ultimate sovereign power. The Stuttgart case is not unique. On 5 May, voters in the U.K. can vote in a national referendum on a proposal to change the existing FPTP (‘first-past-the-post’) electoral system to a form of proportional representation (the AV - alternative vote - system). Britain also has a coalition government - the first for more than six decades. The Tories and Liberal-Democrats are divided on the issue - but now the electorate will decide.

Modern representative democracy needs the assistance of well-designed tools of direct democracy.

Translated by Ronald Pabst & Paul Carline

 Article in German

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