The following article from Malta makes great arguments in favor of direct democracy and maintains an optimistic perspective regarding the possibility of instating it. However, it fails to accurately assess the conditions under which most of the worlds inhabitants currently live. There is still a huge income gap between rich and poor, educated and uneducated, complacent and desperate. While it is easy to say that all people are created equal, reality does not support that idea. Of course we need direct democracy to help us reconcile the dichotomy between scarcity and excess that divides the world, but the first step is acknowledging that these major differences between people do exist. Both theorists and activists must be capable of frequently removing themselves from the ideological world to take on the realities of the street, realizing practical solutions while inching towards idealistic goals. -Editor
by J. G. Vassallo
For the third time, the Maltese electorate faces a situation where its affairs are to be handled by a government propelled by a one-seat parliamentary majority. This time round, the ruling government has been propelled into office by less than half of the voting electorate. And, for yet another time, the politicians in office are raising the issue of constitutional amendments to save them from future embarrassment.
In Malta, parliamentarians put their heads together and take a vote in the House to change the Constitution.
On paper, Maltese electors are “masters in their own house”. In fact, they have no means of exercising what ought to be their prerogative: namely the endorsement or rejection of changes to their own Constitution.
Merits of direct democracy
This highlights the difference between today’s politics, which are becoming outdated, and the politics of this new century, which favours a shift from “representative democracy” to “direct democracy”
Modern democracy is giving more and more weight to the proposition that every adult person’s judgement about the conduct of public affairs is entitled to be given equal weight with that of every other person. All men and women have – or ought to have – an equal right to say how they wish to be governed. This is what the ancient Athenians meant by democracy.
Unfortunately, in most countries democratic development has been arrested, with every adult person exercising his or her political right every few years. Voters send their representatives to an elected assembly but, in the intervals between elections, which, in our case means anything between five years or so, it is these representatives who take all the decisions.
There are a few strong, convincing arguments why this must change. Among them is the growing inadequacy of representative democracy. There is a growing realisation that holding an election every few years is not only an imprecise way of expressing the wishes of voters (electors have to approve a package of proposals on a take-it-or-leave-it basis) but, to cap it all, voters have little control over their representatives in between elections.
The political agenda in democratic countries has been diluted with the triumph of pluralism over totalitarianism. The political scene is no longer dominated by a do or die confrontation between incompatible political and economic systems. The difference between the ‘Right’ and the ‘Left’, whether in the US, Italy, the UK or Malta, is about economic management, public spending, the environment and things like pensions and the health services. The contest between grand ideas and social classes is over, and the new politics are, relatively, about details, however discerning.
Another reason militating for change is the fact that there is no longer so much difference, in wealth or education, between voters and their elected representatives as in the past, when illiteracy was widespread.
There has been a relatively even distribution of prosperity with the middle class now forming the critical core of the electorate
The new democracy
Latter-day democracies will increasingly apply to themselves the argument they directed against totalitarian regimes. As people become better educated and better off, they will not be willing to let a handful of people from a party politburo take control of their destiny. It will be difficult to go on persuading people that they are fit only to put a tick on the voting paper every few years, and that the handful of MPs they elect are to take all the decisions.
More importantly, the reduced ideological confrontation will weaken the chief source of opposition to the emergence of the new democracy. This opposition comes from the political party machines that grew up under the system of representative democracy. These machines will be reduced down to size when direct democracy will gain its rightful foothold.
It has been rightly said that political parties are indispensable for the holding of elections when public opinion has to be mobilised. They are the building blocks of the parliaments chosen by the electorate. The introduction of direct democracy would, in a sense, diminish the importance both of elections and of parliaments, since the people through referenda would take most of the significant decisions. Parliaments and parties would not cease to exist. But the “representatives of the people” would perform the function proper to a legislature in partnership with the referendum.
Post-Cold War climate
In the post-cold-war politics, there is no cause for crusades in the name of ideologies. Class divisions have lost their meaning and most matter-of-fact issues are incapable of stirring excitement. This will make it excessively harder for political parties to resist innovation towards direct democracy.
This does not means that politics are about to become homogeneous. There will still be differences about how the economy could be best made to work, how to give expression to social solidarity at home and human solidarity overseas. In the less developed democracies, religious and ethnic issues will remain in the forefront. Once these issues cease to be dominant factors, it should be possible to organise politics in a less party-controlled, less vote-once-every-X-years way, and in a more directly democratic way.
Direct democracy has strong roots in Switzerland, and Australia. Some of the states in the US also resort to a vote by referendum every so often.
In Europe, Italy, Ireland, Denmark and France have all consulted their electorate.
The shift from representative to direct democracy calls for a knowledgeable electorate, well served by the communications media, and for a modicum of responsibility that goes with electoral maturity. The Swiss example proves that this change presents no insuperable difficulties.
Decision by universal vote is not a flawless process. The electorate may find some burning questions too complicated – but there is no saying that politicians in Parliament are wiser than the mass. Lobbyists and the artillery of the media would subject the electorate to many a barrage. Individual electors are less vulnerable to this sort of pressure than politicians, because lobbyists cannot subvert the whole voting population
The decisive argument in favour of direct democracy is that a vote by referendum tells unambiguously what the people want on a particular issue, whereas one could not be sure, on a given issue, whether a parliamentary majority really reflects the wishes of the electoral majority. Moreover, it has been well said that direct democracy sharpens the ordinary elector’s sense of responsibility. It has also been well said that that the voter is the foundation stone of democracy – representative or direct. Anything that raises the elector’s level of political efficiency deserves the support of every democrat.
Direct democracy is the purest form of self-government, even though it may still rank as “the least bad form of government yet invented by man”.
Aristotle one said, “Democracy is the form of government in which the free are rulers.” All the foregoing is encapsulated in this last sentence.