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, August 4, 2008

TAIWAN: Referendum Process Needs Strengthening

Although a Referendum Law was passed in Taiwan in 2003, it has yet to take hold as a common form of participation. While referendums have been held on important issues, participation has been weak and the legal validity of each referendum was compromised because of low turnout. The lack of public participation may be a symptom of an over-worked population, or it may be the result of little confidence in the veracity of efforts by untrustworthy public officials, but the ultimate consequence is a perpetual cycle of disconnect between government and people that must be addressed in order to make the referendum process an effective mechanism for direct democracy. As the author states, all players should be making a concerted effort to strengthen the process. - Editor

Working to strengthen the role of plebiscites

By Chen Lung-Chu

Sunday, Jun 22, 2008, Page 8


Before the Referendum Law was passed in 2003, Taiwan had already held referendums at the local level. Since a committee protesting the construction of a fifth naphtha cracker plant by CPC Corp, Taiwan in Houchin, Kaohsiung City, held the nation's first referendum in 1990, there have been other referendums on various public issues.

In 1994, a referendum was held on the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant in Kungliao Township in Taipei County. In 1995, another referendum on the construction of the Fourth Nuclear Power Plant and a referendum on road construction in Sijhih (¦Á¤î) were held in Taipei County. Other referendums that year included another on nuclear power in Taipei City, one on the construction of Yongkang Park in Taipei City and one on the exploration of Daliao Township in Kaohsiung County.

In 1997, a referendum was held on the reconstruction of Liaoting Community in Chiayi County and in 1998 a major investment project proposed by Bayer AG was put to a referendum in Taichung County.

The same year, a plebiscite was also held in Tainan City on Taiwan's future.

All of these referendums lacked a legal basis, however, so the results were not legally binding. The results of the referendum on the construction of Yongkang Park, however, were recognized by the Taipei City Government as binding.

Since the Referendum Law was passed, six nationwide referendums have been held. In 2004, two plebiscites were held, one on increasing the nation's purchase of anti-missile weaponry and one on negotiations with China on the establishment of a peace and stability framework. In January, two referendums were held in tandem with the legislative elections: the Democratic Progressive Party's referendum on recovering the Chinese Nationalist Party's (KMT) stolen assets and the KMT-proposed referendum on giving the legislature investigative powers.

Two more plebiscites were held in conjunction with the presidential election in March, both on seeking UN membership.

Although the results of each of the six referendums were affirmative, all were invalid because the total voter turnout fell below the legally specified minimum.

Before the Referendum Law became reality, it was impossible for the public to directly communicate their opinions on important issues to the government. It was not easy to pass this law. Without the efforts of academics, experts, civic organizations and the general public, legally binding direct democracy would never have been possible. However, the referendum system has repeatedly fallen victim to vicious political power struggles, which has led to boycotts that have taken advantage of the high threshold for valid results.

This has shown the deficiencies in the legislation, which must be amended in order for the act to serve its purpose: allowing the public a vehicle to communicate their will on crucial matters.

The government, political parties and the public each have an important role in deepening the nation¡¦s democracy. The government has the obligation to promote referendums and inform the public about them in a fair and transparent manner. Political parties need to throw their weight behind an amendment to the legislation rather than boycotting referendums for their own ends. The public, meanwhile, has a duty to exercise its rights when there is a plebiscite.

Together, the government, political parties and the public should strive to expand the role of referendums in the nation's democracy.

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