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…


Monday, July 7, 2008

Direct Democracy in Germany: When Voters Have Their Say

This is a classic debate regarding direct democracy. Who will show up to vote? Will referenda remedy the indifference of the youth and the apathy of the general populace? Germany brings an interesting example to the table with a state reluctant to relinquish power, and a population on the edge of demanding it. -Editor

Direct democracy in Germany
When voters want a say

May 1st 2008 BERLIN
From The Economist print edition


If you thought Germany did not do referendums, think again

CAMPAIGNERS for Tempelhof airport lacked neither enthusiasm nor cash. Sky-blue posters urged Berliners to vote yes in a referendum to keep open the airport, a symbol of the Berlin airlift of 1948-49. In vain: too few voters turned out on April 27th to make it valid. Though 60% of those who voted said yes, at least a quarter of eligible voters had to give their approval. So Tempelhof will probably close in October. On the same day the citizens of Schwerin voted to oust their mayor for mishandling an investigation into the starvation of a five-year-old girl. And the Bavarian branch of the trade union confederation plans to start collecting signatures on May 1st for a referendum on a minimum wage. Direct democracy, it seems, is becoming part of Germany's political scene.

Germans lag behind the Swiss, who routinely take law-making into their own hands. Referendums and plebiscites still carry a whiff of Weimar and of Hitler's exploitation of public emotion. The constitution permits them at national level, but the Bundestag has never enacted further laws to make them possible. Yet in states and municipalities, direct democracy has taken off. Since unification in 1990, referendums in these two tiers have become possible in all 16 states. The number of local initiatives has jumped from a handful in the early 1990s to 300 a year.

To German business, this looks like a threat. Around 14% of initiatives seek to block private-sector investments, often mobile-phone towers or shopping centres. Power projects are also targets, increasing fears of a possible energy crunch. In November voters in Ensdorf, in the Saarland, blocked the construction of a €2 billion ($2.9 billion) coal-fired plant. In Brandenburg voters threaten to phase out lignite mining. “Almost every power project faces opposition from citizens' initiatives,” complains Michael Feist, president of BDEW, a club of energy and water companies.

Enthusiasts think direct democracy is spreading because the traditional type is ailing. Membership of political parties has slumped, as has trust in politicians. Nearly half of Germans think elections give them no say over government policies, according to one 2006 survey. Some 80% want referendums at national level. The young are indifferent to party politics but mobilise over single issues, says Gerald Häfner of Mehr Demokratie, a lobby group. In municipalities that may mean swimming pools and pedestrian zones. State-level initiatives deal mainly with education and culture (a referendum in Schleswig-Holstein rejected German spelling reform) or the mechanics of democracy (Bavaria voted to abolish its Senate in 1998).

Loth to share power, politicians argue that ordinary citizens cannot be trusted with too much. Most states do not allow votes on such issues as spending and taxation. The type of quorum that doomed Tempelhof exists only in Germany, says Mr Häfner. The minimum number of signatures required to launch a referendum has been cut, but it is still a tenth of the electorate, on average. Even victory is no guarantee of success. Legislatures can sometimes overturn referendum results, as Schleswig-Holstein's did for the spelling reform, and courts have modified them.

Defenders of direct democracy insist that it improves decision-making. Switzerland's taxes and spending are lower than otherwise, and its labour productivity higher, because the Swiss can vote on fiscal issues, says Lars Feld of the University of Heidelberg. Resistance may be ebbing. The Christian Democratic Union, the most sceptical big party, was an enthusiastic backer of the Tempelhof referendum, notes Volker Mittendorf of the University of Wuppertal. Hamburg, where the party is forming its first state-level coalition with the Greens, will seek to make referendums binding on the legislature. Bavaria's ruling party, the Christian Social Union, credits direct democracy with giving citizens a way to disagree with the government on single issues without voting for the opposition. Tempelhof may close, but direct democracy will soldier on.

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