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…


Sunday, June 1, 2008

Germany: Germans Discover Direct Democracy

This article sparked by a recent referendum in Germany illustrates how direct democratic practices are on the rise in many parts of Europe. Initiative and referendum and participatory budgeting are spreading rapidly, including in the newer democracies of Eastern Europe. As this article points out, citizens are becoming more and more frustrated with the failures of representative government, and using the power of direct democracy to decide what is best for their own communities. - Editor

Germans Discover Direct Democracy

By Markus Deggerich


While political parties are losing members and voter turnout is sinking, Germans are discovering direct democracy. Their referendums, such as this Sunday's on Tempelhof Airport, are beginning to make life difficult for politicians and the business community alike.

The mayor seemed flexible on the evening of his greatest defeat to date. The outcome of the referendum represented "a clear commitment" by residents in the eastern German city of Leipzig to city-owned businesses, said Leipzig Mayor Burkhard Jung, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). "Ultimately, the citizens delivered a resounding no to all unscrupulous privatizers," said Jung, whose comments came as a surprise to his rivals. It was Jung himself who had wanted to sell a 49.9-percent minority share of the city's public utility company to the French company Gaz de France.

In Leipzig's first-ever referendum, 149,000 people, or about 87 percent of votes cast, voted in late January to block the partial privatization. In Leipzig, a city known for its trade shows, the controversy brought 40,000 more people to the voting booths than for the mayoral election two years earlier. Mike Nagler, 28, was one of those who organized the citizens' initiative called "Stop Them from Selling Off our City," and he still gushes over the day the referendum triumphed. "It was a great success for democracy," he says.

The Leipzig citizens' uprising is part of a trend. While parties are losing members and voter turnout is declining, citizens all across Germany are taking matters into their own hands with petitions and referendums. Next Sunday, the will of the people could cause problems for Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a Social Democrat, when Berlin residents vote in a referendum on the closing of the city's Tempelhof Airport. Close to 200,000 Berliners have already ordered letter ballots.

Are the complaints of many pollsters about political apathy unfounded? And what is suddenly driving so many people to the polls?

Citizens' Participation and Direct Democracy, a research group at the University of Marburg, has studied the phenomenon and come up with statistics to corroborate the trend toward citizens taking matters into their own hands. In the mid-1990s there were fewer than 100 referendums a year in Germany. Last year there were about 300, with half of them ending in victory for the rebels.

The Appeal of David-versus-Goliath

The Marburg researchers also examined the issues behind the protests, and discovered a noticeable shift. For a long time, people collected signatures mainly to protest mobile phone towers, bypasses and parking meters. Nowadays, however, the goal of most petitions for referendums is to secure general public services. One in three citizens' efforts today involves privatization plans, major transportation projects or the basic supply of water and energy. In the southwestern city of Freiburg, for example, citizens blocked a proposal to sell public housing. In Meissen, in the former East Germany, a decision to privatize the city's municipal hospitals had to be revoked. And in the western state of Hesse, citizens flexed their muscles to stop energy giant E.on from building a new power plant.

This David-versus-Goliath pattern is not only effective, but also seems to hold great appeal for many citizens, fascinated by the notion that getting their own back at the authorities is easier than they had believed. The people are saying a big "No," and yet they are not the ones left dealing with the consequences or having to search for alternatives. Leipzig Mayor Jung has now been forced to severely tighten his administration's belt. Because of the referendum, his proposed budget, which was to be approved in early February, is no longer worth the paper it is printed on. And the next time Leipzig citizens go to the polls, they could very well be voting against the cost-cutting measures that resulted from the first decision.

Captains of industry often -- or at least more often than politicians -- complain about the annoying intervention from below. "We have noted this growing resistance with concern," says Michael Feist, the president of the Federal Association of Energy and Water Industry (BDEW). Citizens' initiatives directed against energy providers seeking to build new power plants or just power lines are currently underway in seven cities. Energy conglomerate RWE had planned to build a coal-burning power plant in Ensdorf in the western state of Saarland, at a cost of more than €2 billion ($3.2 billion), but a referendum forced it to scrap the project. Stories like these explain why the German Institute for Economic Research is calling the referendums part of a "citizens' wave" that could hurt German economically in the long run.

All kinds of tricks are being devised to put citizens back in their place. In Stuttgart, for example, city officials decided to stand up to a popular movement intended to prevent a planned expansion of the main train station, a project that would cost billions. A meeting of the Stuttgart city council has rarely been as chaotic as the one held shortly before Christmas, when officials were forced to call in security. "We are the people," the audience shouted from the overfilled visitors' gallery. Boos and whistles accompanied a heated, two-hour debate among council members. Nevertheless, a clear majority of the council used a legal loophole to reject a referendum on the controversial project. The right to a referendum, opponents argued, had already expired in this case.

The options for referendums are quietly being restricted in some German states. Saarland and Thuringia have set the bar for the conditions of approval so high that very few citizens' initiatives stand a chance of collecting enough signatures. In some states, there are so-called off-limits issues. For instance, if a project relates to urban land use planning or government budgets, citizens are not permitted to have their say. And the Federalism Commission is quietly trying to bury the voices of citizens in another respect: In the future, when states decide to merge, it would no longer be necessary to poll their citizens first...

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