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…


Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Direct Democracy in Taiwan and China

Taiwan needs change in parliamentary majority

By Dennis Engbarth
Taiwan News, Staff Writer
Page 4
2008-10-14 12:59 AM


A researcher in the development of referendums, initiatives and other methods of direct democracy since the 1970s, Professor Theo Schiller of the department of political science at Phillips University in Marburg, Germany, is chairman of the supervisory committee for the Initiative and Referendum Institute (IRI) - Europe.

After convening a major conference on "World Direct Democracy" in Aarau, Switzerland, Schiller discussed the potential and the problems of direct democracy methods for "democratizing democracy" in Europe and Asia, including Taiwan.

Q: Some proponents say that direct democracy can do everything that representative democracy does and does it better. Do you agree?

A: Representative democracy must provide the foundation for any democratic system. Direct democracy cannot replace representative democracy, but direct democracy methods can improve and supplement the political processes in representative democracies; and inject new life into representative systems by providing procedures which allow citizens to raise issues on decision-making agenda without the mediation of political parties through "popular initiatives" that may become referendums; or to settle an issue by a direct popular vote through referendum instead of parliamentary procedures. In representative democracies, there are always some areas that are overlooked or neglected so there is always a certain lack of responsiveness in representative systems. In these neglected areas of political life, direct democracy methods can help to articulate the interests of minorities or neglected groups of people, and such people can use direct democracy to push for improvements and innovations.

Q: Most European countries incorporate some forms of direct democracy, but is there any potential for the use of direct democracy at the EU level?

A: The European Union political system is not yet a complete representative democratic system, but a deficit or a secondary representative democracy that is far less representative than the systems of EU member countries. At present, we cannot see how the European political system can develop toward full-scale representative democracy and therefore there is even more need for direct democracy in Europe on the European level than in the individual national democracies. Ideally, we would need direct democracy on the European level in two forms. First, we need the right of popular or people's initiative and the institution of "optional referendum" through which EU citizens would be able to affirm or reject legislation on a EU level. However, at the current phase of political development in the EU, we will not get these rights. However, the proposed "European Citizen Initiative" which is contained in the proposed Treaty of Lisbon is a very first step. The ECI will be only a kind of "agenda initiative" through which one million people can put an initiative on the political agenda through their signatures on an initiative petition and is a very small first step to begin a development toward more direct democracy on the European level. I believe it is very important to get the Treaty of Lisbon, which has been stalled by its rejection by referendum in Ireland in June, ratified and the ECI implemented so that citizens in the EU will be able to use this first truly European transnational instrument of direct democracy.

Q: What lessons can we learn from the experience of the Swiss system of direct democracy?

A: Switzerland is a special case with a long history of direct democracy. In most other European countries and other parts of the world, we are still a long way from formulating the rules and to have the courage to give access to these methods of direct democracy not just to majorities or large minorities but also to small groups so they can initiate and put new issues on the agenda and stir up new debates and deliberations. And there must also be much time for discussions by citizens on initiatives or referendums in society because only on the basis of thorough discussion and debate can the quality of direct democracy methods be developed.

Q: What is your assessment of the prospects of direct democracy in the new democracies in Eastern Europe?

A: Instruments of direct democracy were introduced in Eastern Europe, especially in those countries which strived for independence such as the Baltic nations of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia as well as Slovakia and Slovenia. In connection with gaining independence, they had a concept that democratic transformation was a process of the whole nation and therefore they set the rules for using people's initiatives very high because they felt that initiatives or referendums should only be used by large majorities so as not to allow any small group the right of initiative. But this belief has proven to be wrong. These high thresholds now block the use of direct democracy instruments which cannot have any utility beyond consolidation of power. Unless these countries lower or eliminate unreasonable thresholds on petitions and turnout quorums, it will be impossible for direct democracy methods to realize their most important function, which is to give the right of people's initiative to minorities so that they can articulate neglected interests and values.

Q: What is your evaluation of the experience of Asian countries with direct democracy methods?

A: In a general way, the experience in most Asian countries has been similar to that of Eastern Europe, but in Asia, there are also several countries with rather authoritarian systems in which the transformation of the power structures has not even begun, including places like Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, not to mention China or Burma. Other countries, such as Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines, have instruments of direct democracy, but the context of the transformation of the whole power system has yet to be developed further.

Q: Does this pessimistic evaluation hold for Taiwan as well?

A: If you look at Taiwan comparatively in terms of democratic development, what is surely necessary is one or two changes in the parliamentary majority. So far, we have had two periods in which the president and the executive branch were controlled by a different party than the traditional power but in which the parliamentary majority did not change. What is very important is that there should be a change in the parliamentary majority because such a change in the parliamentary majority is a necessary condition for a genuine democratic transformation. In that period, it may be possible to deal with some issues in the reform of direct democracy and the current referendum law, but direct democracy may even be a factor bringing this process forward. However, changes of power in the Executive branch are not enough. Unless there is a change in the parliamentary majority, the democratic transformation will remain incomplete. However, it is clear that external factors and external relations can greatly influence the internal chances for such a transformation.

Q: Taiwan had two referenda together with the January legislative elections and the March presidential election that were nominally initiatives but promoted by the then governing Democratic Progressive Party. How do you evaluate their significance?

A: People's initiatives from the bottom that lead to referendums are in the last analysis more important than plebiscites or other referendums from the top down in securing democratic transformations. Even if referendums initiated by the people from the bottom up lose, they are very valuable as they activate participation of the citizens. Even if the two referendums earlier this year did not gain valid passage, they still have a legacy of having activated citizen participation and so they can contribute to the process of the development of democracy in Taiwan.

Q: What are the prospects for direct democracy in the People's Republic of China?

A: Before anything else, China needs to have guarantees of fundamental human and political rights and the rule of law and guarantees that citizens who are molested by the government or other authorities can gain redress in court. These conditions are not fulfilled in the PRC but if they do not exist, you cannot really begin to act politically as a free citizen. Until guarantees for the free expression of opinion, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly in public places, freedom of forming political associations and other basic rights are realized, there will be no room for having any meaningful democracy.

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