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

More on the Swiss Naturalization Referendum Debate

The author of the following article from the U.K appears to agree with the principles of the Swiss referendum on immigration procedures, albeit not for the same motives as the right wing party that introduced the referendum. The party sought to use the referendum as a tool by which to limit immigration by discrimination. The comments that follow the article indicate that many are not in agreement. - Editor

The political uses of Swiss-ishness


Tony Curzon Price (London, oD): A friend of mine tells this story of a first encounter with a French scientist, met under the building-sized replica of the DNA molecule in Crick and Watson's laboratory: English Scientist: "Beautiful, isn't it ?... " pointing at the bobbles and wire. French Scientist: "Not like Fermat's theorem". English Scientist: "Of course, I speak from Anglo-Saxon empiricism". French Scientist: "I know. You should never have burned Joan of Arc".

These are the coded short-cuts which, with enough depth to the relationship, speak loudly. Helvetiophiles will know this kind of short-cut well: Helvetiophile: "Democracy can be distributed, look at Switzerland". Party Animal: "Don't you miss the strong leadership, the direction, the re-alligments and historic moments?" Helvetiophile: "I meant for everyday democracy, for an informed citizenry, for people responsible for their collective decisions". Party Animal: "Ah yes. Cuckoo clocks, Nazi gold, gnomes and sanatoria ..."

Time Magazine is running the latest episode in this rapid reduction. (Hat tip to the enthusiasts at Direct Democracy). The populist anti-immigrant Volkspartei (SVP) has organised a referendum aiming at returning the power to bestow citizenship to the lowest level of government, the Communes. This is where the power lay until 2003, when a Supreme Court ruled that the repeated refusal of citizenship by some German-speaking rural Communes was against the federal constitution. Naturalisation became a centralised administrative procedure.

So is the SVP referendum to add to the litany of abuse: "... sanatoria and anti-immigrant referenda"? I am not sure. The Volkspartei holds plenty of nasty opinions, and it wants this referendum to reduce the rate of naturalisations. But I think it is right, and for legitimate reasons that are far from the considerations of the Volkspartei, to keep the decision at the most local level possible.

Naturalisation is not asylum; it is a request to join a group for the long haul, to participate in a future. It is quite right for asylum and sanctuary to be universal rights, protected by international law. But not naturalisation. Naturalisation engages everyone, and responsibility for it should be active and positive on all sides. A bureacratic Britishness test does not politically engage either the host or the potential subject.

Before 2003, it was always known that the French-speaking cantons, and especially Geneva, were an easy touch for naturalisation. There is no reason to think that these open political cultures would become closed if the power to naturalise were returned to them. Many London local authorities would similarly be open if naturalisation decisions were so-devolved here. Switzerland taken as a whole naturalised more people per head of population in the decade before 2003 than any other European country.

Of course, giving localities the right to naturalise imposes an "externality" on the other localities within the state. This is the same for citizenship of the EU---whoever Sweden naturalises also has residence permission in Poland. There is the danger that "rogue liberals" will become extra-soft on naturalisation knowing full-well that some of the cost will be borne by the xenophobic autarchies of the union. Decentralised naturalisation seems to have an automatic bias in favor of openness---anyone naturalisable by the most liberal is naturalisable by the group.

The Volkspartei, it hardly needs to be said, is not championing states rights for this reason. There is a danger that "rogue openness" will stretch the federation to breaking point, but if it does not get that far, then it offers a wonderful compromise: all the benefits of a liberal naturalisation policy while the xenophobes can continue to feel that the foreigners in their midst are not there with their blessing.

Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will point to us and say: "How could you have done it? how could you have excluded so many, so systematically, from your protected gardens?" We should have an answer that does not involve the excuse that these decisions were taken by an impenetrable central bureaucracy that we trusted to do the right thing. Localising naturalisation would be a good place to start.

MarkZ said:
Mon, 2008-05-26 15:10
You're making an interesting point here. However you seem to ignore why this initiative is so highly disputed here in Switzerland. It's not because we're taking power away from the communes as the SVP wants everyone to believe. It's because the SVP wants to bypass our constitution and basic human rights. The main point about this initiative is that the decisions made by the communes are irrevocable and not subject to a need for explanation. Basically this would mean that the commune could decide "We don't like your skin colour, so go away" and no one would be able to do something about it. However it is a basic right, from our constitution, that you are allowed to know the reason for such a decision.
Thanks anyhow for motivating me to register and post at openDemocracy. MarkZ

opendemocracy said:
Mon, 2008-05-26 16:24
Thanks, MarkZ for the clarification.

Can you explain the pre-2003 situation --- did that have the rights of communes subordinated to Federal over-ruling? Or is the SVP essentially asking for a return to the status quo ante?

I am also interested in the notion of "reason" in democracies. Is it not a reason to say: "you were refused naturalisation because your demand was voted down"? And if you were told: "your demand was voted down because this commune is full of nasty xenophobes", then would you have been given a reason or a motive? The first is a better reason, it would seem to me.

But I suppose this just delays the fundamental point. While sanctuary and refuge ought to be rights, administratable by courts, I am less sure about naturalisation. Pretending that it is not political pushes xenophobes into anti human rights positions.

paul.carline said:
Mon, 2008-05-26 21:17
Very interesting. We (members of IRIE - Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe which specialises in direct democracy) were discussing this very issue last weekend in Marburg.

The discussion became quite heated - especially between two Swiss members: one who lives in Switzerland, the other now living in Finland. The first was defending the pure principle of popular sovereignty on which the Swiss system is supposed to be based i.e. a local direct-democratic decision by simple majority in a referendum has the highest level of legitimacy and should not take second place, even to the national constitution or the Constitutional Court.

The second believes that there must be some limitations on popular sovereignty - that it cannot be allowed to infringe fundamental human rights and that in this case the Constitutional Court was right to ban the practice of deciding on applications for naturalisation by secret ballot.

It's important to remember the precise circumstances which led the court to make its decision. On 12th March 2000, 56 applications for naturalisation were decided on by referendum in the Emmen local authority (commune) are of the canton of Lugano.

48 of the 56 were rejected. The 8 people accepted were all Italian, the others Jugoslavian, Hungarian, Turkish and Polish-Dutch. One of the initiators of a popular initiative to allow these decisions to be made by local referendum stated: "The voters [in Emmen] made the right decision by rejecting all the applications of those people who are not in harmony with our central-European way of thinking".

The court decided that this was a clear case of discrimination based on ethnicity and was therefore unconstitutional.

Tony Curzon Price takes an easy route by setting the (in principle admirable and enviable) direct-democratic rights of the Swiss against the centralised, opaque and undemocratic decision-making by Whitehall we have to suffer here.

But surely the issue deserves a more in-depth consideration. It forces us to face up to one of the limitations of democracy - even in the best-case scenario of Swiss direct democracy. To repeat: can popular sovereignty come before fundamental human rights?

It's an important question, because a decision in favour of local democracy opens the door to other potential 'breaches' of human rights. It also forces us to confront the dilemma of the "tyranny of the majority" and ask: is Swiss-style direct democracy the ultimate, the gold standard - or must we not find an even better solution?

It should also make us think about the need for such rituals and such tokens of 'belonging' - and whether we must not move beyond the nation-state and the identity it claims to confer. Why not plan for European citizenship - or ultimately global citizenship and an end to all forms of discrimination?

Paul Carline (Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe)

Anthony Barnett said:
Tue, 2008-05-27 10:24
Tks Paul - this discussion is now touching one of the most basic and familiar issues but is now all the more important thanks to President Bush's attempt to impose 'democracy' by force.
The key, surely, is that we favour "rights based democracy" (see an earlier discussions about this in OurKingdom; for example, here.
This means that the majority do not have a tyrannical sovereignty and cannot remove the fundamental rights of minorities (eg to liberty or freedom of speech).
The issue becomes more complicated here as the issue is who should be allowed into the political community. Is this a political question that the majority has got the right to decide (whether you like it or not)? Or is it a question of fundamental human rights that has to be decided according to universal rules however inadequately interpreted by human judges?
I think Tony has it right: if the issue is asylum, ie flight from torture and violent repression, it must be decided by human rights law whatever the views of the majority. But if the issue is economic and practical then long live politics.
But what, will come back the objection, if the majority acts in a way that is discriminatory? Well, this needs a longer debate but can here be life without any discrimination?

MarkZ said:
Tue, 2008-05-27 11:34
It depends. Some communal rights are, some not. However, in the case of naturalization, the law (as far as I know) didn't state explicitly whether it was subordinated or not. The federal court simply made clear that the communes had to give a reason for a rejection.["Voted down" is not a reason in my opinion. It should be more along the lines of: "You've never had more than a temporary job, and we feel that you're not trying enough, so we believe that you'd be a burden to our social security."] If the commune did not give a reason, the court would force them to go over it. So all the court can do, is to tell the communes that their decision as it is now doesn't count. The court CANNOT naturalize someone on its own. The commune can reject someone several times. If the court doesn't accept it the first time, they just have to explain why they decided on a "no" and say so the second time.

The court did not ban the practice! It simply made an amendment (I think that's the most appropriate word) to it, namely, the need for an explanation. Additionally it stated that the right to complain applies also to the decision about naturalization. (I hope this is understandable, I'm Swiss and English isn't my mother tongue...)

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