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…


Friday, October 24, 2008

TAIWAN: First Civil Referendum to be Held

Kaohsiung to hold island's first civil referendum

Publication Date: 10/16/2008 Section: National Affairs
By Ellen Ko

For the first time, a referendum initiated by a civil group rather than a political party will take place Nov. 15 in Kaohsiung City. Voters will be asked whether to cap primary and high school class size at 25 students, according to the Kaohsiung City Election Commission.

The referendum, initiated by the Kaohsiung Teachers' Association, aims to reduce the average number of students in primary and high school classes in the city from the current 30.8 and 33.8 respectively to 25 by 2011. As the first referendum held by a local government and initiated by a civil group rather than a political party since the passage of the Referendum Act in November 2003, this event is considered a landmark in Taiwan's history of direct democracy.

Three national referenda on six proposals have been held since the Referendum Act was first passed. All were highly political issues proposed by the two major political parties, and none achieved the 50-percent threshold of participation to validate.

At the "World of Direct Democracy" global seminar organized by the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe Oct. 1-2 in Switzerland, Hwang Jau-yuan, professor of law at National Taiwan University, called the case a good start of direct democracy in Taiwan. "The referendum in Kaohsiung is a demonstration of bottom-up democracy, which is a good sign for its development in Taiwan," he said. It is worth observing whether the referendum can pass the threshold of 50-percent turnout, he added.

The teachers' association began its campaign in January 2006. It first submitted the collected signatures in January 2008 in the hope that the referendum could be held in tandem with the presidential election in March. But the Kaohsiung City Election Commission reviewed the names and concluded that the association failed to garner enough valid signatures to meet the requirements for public endorsement--54,643 names or 5 percent of the eligible voters in the city.

The association quickly re-submitted a new list of signatures. On May 23, the commission announced that the case had officially qualified for a referendum.

By law, a turnout of 50 percent of registered voters, around 570,000 in Kaohsiung, is required to validate a referendum, and half of the votes need to be favorable for the proposal to pass. The association's referendum is expected to cost the city government an estimated US$855,000.

Kaohsiung's Education Bureau has voiced its opposition to the proposal, saying it will increase the city's financial burden. If the proposal is passed, it would mean adding 281 classes and providing 490 more teachers, as well as spending another US$984,600 per year on staff, not to speak of the money needed to build another 874 classrooms, said Chen Chin-yuan, deputy chief of the Bureau. Furthermore, it was argued that the referendum was pointless because the goal of 25 children per class would eventually be achieved through the declining birth rate.

Renn Hwai-ming, director of KTA Education Policy Center, said that the referendum is significant in terms of grassroots democracy as well as educational reform. However, he also admitted that the association is rather pessimistic about the prospects of the referendum. "We missed a great opportunity by not holding it jointly with the 2008 Presidential Election. Though our campaign gathers momentum each day, the interest for public issues and the drive to vote are simply unparalleled during election times," he said. Furthermore, limited by budget, the number of polling stations for the referendum is set at 203, far less than the 848 provided for the 2008 presidential election and the 839 for the last city mayor election, he added, stressing that the turnout would be seriously affected by the commission's arrangement.

"Should the referendum fail, by law we will not be able to raise the same issue again for the next three years. But we think it is still worth trying. At least, we have demonstrated to the public a constructive way of discussing public issues and the real essence of democracy," Renn said.

Write to Ellen Ko at

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