We as citizens of the United States observe politics from afar and the vast majority of us may participate in the political process only to the extent that we go to the polls once a year to vote. We may endeavor to follow the news accounts of our nation's politics as they unfold, and of the consequences those political actions yield, but we have little power to influence our "democratically" elected officials. Perhaps we write an occasional letter to our senator or representative, but we almost inevitably receive a vague and impersonal response explaining why they will vote in our opposition.

Over the decades, our representative democracy has been systematically undermined and has ultimately failed in preserving the well being of the people of this nation. The system that the founding fathers painstakingly devised in order to best serve the interests and the will of the people has been corrupted and the systems of checks and balances on power that they instituted have been stripped away. Most of us accept this reality as being beyond our control and continue to observe, comment, and complain without aspiring to achieving any real change, without any hope of instituting a new system of governance that would instead take directly into account your views, and the views of your neighbors, and would empower you to make real positive change possible in your communities.

This site will attempt to explore in depth the places in the world where people are successfully bringing about that type of change in the face of similar odds, where an alternate form of democracy, which is called participatory or direct democracy, is taking root. Initiative, referendum & recall, community councils, and grassroots organizing are but a few ways in which direct/participatory democracy is achieving great success around the world.

Our system of representative democracy does not admit the voice of the people into congressional halls, the high courts, or the oval office where our rights and our liberties are being sold out from underneath us. Our local leaders and activists in our communities, and even those local elected officials who may have the best of intentions are for the most part powerless to make real positive change happen in our neighborhoods, towns and villages when there is so much corruption from above.

In places like Venezuela, Argentina, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Brazil, South Africa, India, and the Phillipines, new experiments in grass roots community based governance are taking place. There is much to be learned from these and other examples of participatory democracy from around the world when we try to examine how this grass-roots based governance could begin to take root here in our own country in order to alter our political system so that it might better serve the American people.

In the hope that one day we can become a nation working together as a united people practicing true democracy as true equals, we open this forum…


Thursday, May 29, 2008

Swiss Immigration Referendum: Should Direct Democracy Determine Naturalization Case by Case?

Switzerland has a longstanding tradition of direct democracy, but a debate is currently raging in Switzerland over just how that direct democracy should apply when the result may be in violation of Switzerland's constitutional provisions. A referendum has been introduced by the right wing Swiss People's Party aimed at reducing the influx of foriegn immigrants into the country. The move would allow individual communities to decide naturalization cases on a case by case basis locally rather than by the central government using constitutional guidelines which attempt to eliminate discrimination. It is the opinion of this editor that the measure, if passed, would clearly allow discrimination to occur, and that that practice would be unconstitutional. Therefore, in order for these local votes on naturalization cases to be a valid exercise of direct democracy, the constitution itself would have to be amended by a nationwide referendum so that it would allow such discrimination to be an accepted part of the fabric of the Swiss nation. - Editor

Who Decides Who Is Swiss?

Tuesday, May. 20, 2008 By HELENA BACHMANN/GENEVA


Walking along Rue de Cornavin, near Geneva's main train station, Nesim, a 34-year-old immigrant from Turkey, stops to look at a poster plastered to a wall. It shows five dark-colored hands grabbing a stack of Swiss passports above the phrase STOP MASS NATURALIZATIONS.

The message is not lost on Nesim, whose dream of becoming a Swiss citizen is turning into a nightmare. Although he has fulfilled all the criteria necessary for naturalization — a 12-year residency requirement, fluent language skills, solid employment record as a mason, and good cultural integration — "I feel ostracized," he says. "I wonder whether I'll ever be 'good enough' to become Swiss."

The answer to Nesim's question may come on June 1, when the voters will decide who should have the final say in naturalization procedures: the authorities or the local people.

The controversial initiative was forced by the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), which put up the poster that unsettled Nesim and has collected the obligatory 100,000 signatures required under Swiss law to put a constitutional amendment to a national vote. It seeks to overturn a 2003 Federal Court ruling that deemed ballot box votes on naturalization an infringement on the rights of would-be citizens. The decision was handed down after residents of the town of Emmen in central Switzerland repeatedly voted to reject citizenship applications from non-Western European nationals living in their midst.

A staunch proponent of tighter immigration policies, the SVP says Switzerland naturalizes more foreigners than any other European nation, and official figures seem to support that claim. The party charges on its website that more than half of all citizenship requests — in 2006, approximately 50,000 were granted in this country of 7.5 million — go to immigrants from the Balkans and Turkey. The SVP claims those immigrants commit a disproportionate number of violent crimes and abuse Swiss social and welfare benefits. Some official statistics do attribute the rise in serious infractions to resident foreigners, but the numbers are not clear. For example, official statistics show that in 2007 nearly 70% of all prisoners in Switzerland were foreigners, but some experts say that is because foreigners are considered a flight risk and are more likely to be sent to prison than local criminals.

The SVP argues that in a country based on grassroots democracy where voters can challenge any legislative decision by launching a referendum, the people, not what the party considers to be lenient government authorities, must approve each citizenship request. Each community must pick a competent panel to decide who among the local applicants is eligible for naturalizations, with the final decision left to the voters, the SVP says. While this system may be more difficult to implement in large cities, in small towns and villages, says Francis Matthey, a former socialist parliamentarian and currently President of the Federal Commission on Migration, "it would play right into the SVP's hands, because of the party's strong agrarian base." Under the current system a rejected candidate for citizenship has the right to appeal; the SVP wants any such decision to be irrevocable.

To Nesim, who is planning to apply for naturalization at the beginning of 2009, direct democracy is a double-edged sword. He worries that the new law might open the floodgates to subjective and harsh judgments. "What if someone doesn't like the fact that I am a Muslim?" he asks. "He or she will vote against me based on their personal bias."

Not so, says Christian Girard, a 19-year-old high school senior who is the vice-president of SVP's youth section in Geneva and supports the initiative. "Direct democracy has been a Swiss tradition for 150 years and we know how to vote responsibly," he says. "Naturalization must be a political, not an administrative process. And in a political process, people should be the ones to decide."

This stance does not resonate with Matthey, who says the system proposed by the SVP is flawed and open to discrimination. "It would give the voters in each community the power to decide, arbitrarily, another person's future, without so much as justifying their reasoning," he argues. "In a democracy, the voter should have a say in the issues relating to laws or principles, not to other people's lives."

Matthey says that the SVP neglects the fact that Switzerland needs immigrants to boost its labor force, and, in fact, the country has a long tradition of opening its borders to immigrants and refugees; at present, some 22% of the population is foreign-born, one of the highest rates in Europe.

"Naturalizing these people is not a matter of simply doing them a favor," he says. "A person who becomes a citizen will be more involved and respectful of our laws and values."

Girard insists that he — and his party — is not against granting citizenship to foreigners who are assimilated. "But we should be more selective in this process, rather than just handing out Swiss passports like candy to anyone who asks."

As the debate rages on, Nesim ponders his future. It is of some relief to him, he says, that the government as well as Switzerland's other parties, are urging voters to reject the SVP's initiative, deeming it unconstitutional and difficult to apply in practice. He hopes that, come June 1, the people will heed the advice. "I have waited a long time to be able to apply for citizenship, but the thought of townsfolk weighing in on it scares me. Should this initiative be accepted, I just won't apply for naturalization. Still," he adds, "whatever happens in the end, I will always love this country. It's a paradise."

Soon enough Nesim will find out if his love is reciprocated, or whether he's destined to remain a stranger in paradise forever.

No comments: