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modern democracy is mainly basedon the premises that voting in an election of representative body is sufficient to fulfill the ideal ofco-determination. the people leave their decision making rights for a certainperiod of time to an assembly, which in principle, ought to be a cross sectionof the people and which, therefore, ought to reflect the opinion of the people.in practice we have very little of such representative character. in india, thecandidates are selected by party leaders; they are elected by the voters on theprinciple of first past the post which means that they may not represent themajority of even those who voted; after elections they are controlled by partywhips and are not able to reflect the views of the those who elected them.there is no mechanism by which they can ascertain the views, on particularissues, of their areas which sent them to the assembly nor do they attempt tocreate any such mechanism.
it is to overcome theseshortcomings of representative democracy that it was proposed and accepted bymany countries around the world that important decisions should be subject tothe popular vote. further the citizens should have right to instruct or torecall their representatives. we have, in this essay, termed it as directdemocracy.
we intend to examine the relationbetween direct and representative democracy and how they can coexist in amutually, reinforcing way. direct democracy may be the path for involving thepeople in decision making at the highest level. there have been instances when ithas also been used to manipulate the electorate and to bypass the legislature, rulesand regulations. direct democracy is in addition to the routine elections whichare held at periodical intervals. time which elapses between these electionsmay be agonizing long. some of the decisions taken by the representativesbecome so ingrained in the national life that subsequently electedrepresentatives cannot undo them even if the electorate feels like throwingthem out. direct democracy increases the accountability of the government andthe representatives in real time.
the DD can be defined as thepublicly recognized institution where the public can decide or emit theiropinions on issues other than through legislative and executive elections. suchvoting may be called referendum or plebiscite, recall, or initiative. thevoting has to be through the secret and impartial ballot box. the decision madein such referendum can be binding on the executive and the legislature or itcan be only consultative. another method of classification can be whether thereferendum is proactive or reactive i.e. to introduce a new system or vote on preservationof old system. another way of categorising can be whether the decision to havethe referendum is top down or bottom up i.e. whether it is initiated bylegislature or by the citizens. in other words, who initiates, what its purposeis, and whether it is the final word are the three aspects which we shouldconsider in discussing the efficacy of direct democracy.
who initiates can be three waychoice. it is started by a signature campaign of the citizens; it is ordered bythe executive or the legislature; or it is built into the constitution. thepurpose can be to introduce a newprovision; or merely the preservation of the existing one. finally it is to be examined whether it isthe last word on the subject; or whether it can be modified or even simply ignored.there is always a case where the ruling party can initiate a sponsoredsignature drive to make it appear to be citizen initiative. on the other hand thereare mandatory plebiscites ordained by law. no individual initiates them. afacultative plebiscite is more common, especially in latin america where thelegislature or the executive or both submit a proposal to the voters. dependingupon their view, it becomes law immediately. such referendums are used toformalize the policies, at variance with the earlier policies. this is alsoused sometimes to bypass the legislature, a direct appeal to the citizens.another instance can be the drive by some organizations to collect signature toforce a referendum (student unions in colombia, in 1990, succeeded in getting areferendum done for amendment of constitution though this was only consultativeand not binding). the percentage of voters signing the petition for referendumdiffers from country to country. in hungary, slovenia, and switzerland it is 2to 3 percent. while in uruguay, it is 25 %.
a special provision is regardingrecall of a representative. some people do not consider it as part of DDbecause it relates to a person and not an issue. the recall may be for simplyterminating the tenure of the elected official or, simultaneously, electing anew representative. an example in recent year is the recall of californiagovernor joseph graham davis and simultaneous election of arnoldschwarzenegger. at national level, recall of president hugo chavez in venezuelain 2004 may be the recent example (the recall did not succeed).
in federal countries, anotherfeature intervenes. the change should not only be supported by majority ofvoters but also by the majority of the states (or units) which makes it alittle more difficult preposition. a peculiar feature in some states is thatfor a referendum to be valid, a minimum percentage of voters must record theirpreference. in uruguay, it is 35 %. but in lithuania, it is 75 % forconstitutional issues. a boycott call (resorted to in italy when defeat isexpected) may be a way to defeat the proposal. a noteworthy example was in 1926in germany when communists and socialists wanted confiscation, withoutcompensation, of the property of nobility. a boycott call by others resulted in voting percentage of 39.1 whereas quorum was 50 percent. of thosewho voted 96.1 % were in favour and just 3.9 % against.
another hurdle is theconsideration of the rights of minorities or of a significant proportion ofsection of voters. in switzerland, the right of women to vote was thwartedbecause the men would not vote for such a change. the attempt was made firsttime in 1958 but was rejected..they finally got the right in 1971 though somecantons continued to exclude women till late eighties. in 1990, the last cantonfell in line with the federal law.
an important point to be noted isthe list of subjects on which referendum can be held, or rather, those on whichit cannot be held. in hungary, referendum is specially barred in 18 subjects.one is the electoral law. others include the central budget, taxation, customtariffs, conditions for local taxes. of course the international treaties,dissolution of parliament, declaration of war or emergency are not subject toreferendum.
it goes without saying thatdirect democracy, just like representative democracy, has to be accompanied byfair voting pattern, by freedom of expression, freedom of association and a transparentdecision making and its implementation. direct democracy instruments may bestate induced or may be on the initiative of the citizens, but the mechanismhas to be a settled part of constitution, convention and practice. it isimportant that in direct democracy, the majority cannot be impervious to theviews or the welfare of the minorities. all instruments have their ownweaknesses and it should be the endeavour to ensure that these weaknesses arenot allowed to damage the cohesion which must be present in a nation. on the otherhand, as with other instruments, we should not discard DD just because it ismisused sometimes.
direct democracies in the pasthave proved certain points and have also exposed their weakness. in india, wehave vaishali often quoted as an ideal direct democracy effort, notwithstandingthat a king presided over the territory but the decisions were taken by thecitizens collectively. in greece, athens and some other cities are quoted asexamples of direct democracy. but it must be noted that all these examplesdealt with a small compact territory, and the joint meetings could be managed. what we are now concerned with are statesmuch larger in size and more varied than before.
democracy has had a gradualwidening of its sphere. in the twentieth century the emphasis was onregistering more and more voters who would participate in the elections. alsothe levels at which the voters can choose their representatives havemultiplied. in india, we have village level panchayats, block level panchayatsand the district level panchayats. besides we have irrigation panchayats,forest development panchayats, and many others. in cities we have nagarpanchayats, municipal committees and municipal corporations. we have loweredthe voting age to eighteen to bring in more citizens to the polling booths.
another recent trend is that decentralisationhas come to the forefront. due to this decentralization and the growingawareness about the rights of the citizens, the challenges have shifted to a differentlevel, viz. the need for transparency.access, and accountability. high level of civic disaffection, distrust ofpolitical parties, in fact the animosity towards the entire democratic game hasincreased. the representatives, once elected, do not have to contact the voterstill the next election. exercising the rightto vote once in five years does not bring democracy to voter level. cityrepublics were the political milieu which demonstrated the equality andsovereignty of the its members. the four pillars of democracy continue to befreedom, equality, sovereignty, and control. seen from this angle the democracy in indiatoday is more of oligarchy with a façade of democracy. the corridors of power,the kitchen cabinet, the control of political party high command on the electedrepresentatives are hallmarks of the present situation. it is as rousseau said,"the english falsely consider themselves to be free. they are free onlyduring the elections. as soon as members are elected, the people isenslaved".
direct democracy has now enteredthe field in many countries. in some of them, they are in conflict withrepresentative democracy. their role, even where it exists, is considered to bemarginal. but it is a matter of satisfaction that the instances of DD are growing.in united states, the issues are put before the voters along with the normalelection of the representatives every four years. the practice started in 1894and till 2008 there were 5,342 such direct votes. of these 3,285 were on theinitiative of the legislature or the executive and 2057 by the citizens. however,switzerland is the most prodigious employer of DD. it had 228 direct votes in25 years between 1984 and 2009.
in india, the idea of directdemocracy is still in its infancy. the constitution makers did not consider itnecessary to go to the people for small issues or major policy decisions. infact there are some important aspects of governance where even the consent ofthe representatives is not necessary. these include treaty with other countries.changing the rules for the atomic energy, introduction of FDI in retail arerecent examples. though they involved fundamental changes, yet the people or theirrepresentatives had no say in these decisions. direct democracy has entered thescene recently and only marginally. it has taken the form of decentralizationof constitutional authorities. the views of the citizens on specific issues arenot sought.
the 73rd and the 74thconstitutional amendments have laid down the basis of decentralization. but it providesfor direct democracy in the form of gram sabhas for the villages. the gramsabha can deliberate on matters concerning their villages. similarly in thetowns and cities, ward committees are provided for. the exact composition isnot prescribed and it is for the states to make suitable provisions.
some states have taken theinitiative to enact laws which provide for recall of the elected sarpanch (inrural areas) and of mayor and president (in urban areas). madhya pradesh and chhattisgarhinitiated this movement and recently bihar has joined it. but the mechanism isstill imperfect. the initiative for recall has to come from the members of thegram panchayats, municipal committees and corporations. three fourth of themembers of these bodies can propose a recall which will then be put to vote. inmadhya pradesh between 2000 and 2011, there were 27 such attempts out of which 14were successful while in 13 the incumbent retained his seat. signature campaignby the citizens has not yet been introduced.
where does the concept of swarajof mahatma gandhi or of kejriwal fit in this analysis. mahatma gandhi said,"my idea of village swaraj is that it is a complete republic, independentof its neighbours for its own vital wants and yet interdependent for manyothers in which dependence is necessary".regarding the institutional set up, he says, "the government of thevillage will be conducted by a panchayat of five persons annually elected bythe adult villagers, male and female, possessing minimum prescribedqualifications. these will have all the authority and jurisdiction required,this panchayat will be the legislature, judiciary and executivecombined to operate for its year of office".
we do not get any idea of how thevillage republic would be linked to other village republics or the centralauthorities the question of recall or the modalities of getting the views ofthe villagers are not discussed. perhaps the recall would not be necessary ashe talks of annual elections. the organization of state is not discussed ordisclosed. but then it was written in 1929 when the main question was aboutgetting the british to leave (and it could justifiably be said that indiaresided in villages). it just mentioned village republics and left it at that.the above quotations are from his newspaper 'harijan' in 1942 or thereaboutwherein he explained what his concept was.
kejriwal has his book swaraj published80 years later. unfortunately it is all a description of what is wrong with thepresent system and just a few anecdotes of work done where gram sabha or ahonest sarpanch is in control. what emerges is a general concept that gramsabha should have control over all government personnel, schools, hospitals,land, forest produce etc. but when it comes to relationship with others, itsays, "in the system that we are proposing gram sabhas will be able totake all decisions which will be within the purview of the law. they will notbe given right to take decision beyond the constitution and the law under whichthey operate". about the direct democracy, the reference is that if fivepercent of gram sabhas propose a specific law, the legislature will refer it toall the gram sabhas in the state. if more than fifty percent gram sabhasapprove the proposal, it will be enacted as a law. presumably, in the city andtown areas, the resident welfare association will also have similar say but ithas not been spelled out. the question of recall or of referendum on a lawaffecting the citizens as a whole are not deliberated upon.
there can be another instance ofreferendum in which the popular will of the people force the legislature toorder a new law. one can point out the anna hazare agitation on creation of janlokpal. there was such an upsurge of popular demand that the measure, postponedfor decades on one pretext or other, was taken up and enacted (though with somedelay). in many countries. where DD is practiced, this would have triggered areferendum on the issue. this can be called legislative popular initiative.
coming back to our theme ofdirect democracy, it is noted this should not be at the cost of therepresentative democracy. the acceptance of issues posed in referendum dependsupon the mobilization by the organized partisan groups operating outside theconventional legislative arena while accepting the political game within theformal representative units. some of the important issues which have a nationwiderepercussions have to be left out. the formal elected representative bodies willremain and carry on with routine administration and legislative work including formulationof budget and general superintendence of the executive.
before we close, we must cast alook on the negative aspects of DD. one thing to be considered is whether theelectorate is mature enough to take a decision on an important issue. how surewe can be that they are not misled by extraneous issues. again how stable canthe electorate be in its views. otherwise a subsequent referendum may upset adecision taken just a short time before. such a situation will lead to instability.the third point to be considered is how the 'tyranny of majority' can beavoided. all these are weighty questions which should be discussed and debatedupon before we launch our own version of direct democracy. in short how toavoid direct democracy becoming monocracy. we have an enviable record of free andfair polls and it should not be difficult to lay down systems for direct democracy.
direct democracy is reasonablebarometers for society, even where the democratic institutions are weak (andprobably india comes in that category). they force a tuning between theprofessional politicians and the citizens. they can work as the safety outletsfor political pressures while allowing normal government to be carried on. forthis it is necessary that mandatory provisions should be made in theconstitution wherein, based on experience of other countries, suitable safeguardscan be provided. suitable mechanism should be created for conducting thereferendum or the plebiscite it would be necessary to lay down how these shallbe held and how the results shall be treated. having said all this, we can endwith the disclaimer that direct democracy is not a panacea for all the ills ofdemocracy. nevertheless it a step towards better democracy.
Democracy is a function of "MOB". If MOB is GOOD democracy will be better. Enietre process of democracy is to transform its MOB from worst to better to practice better democracy.
Thank & Regard.