Idea of direct democracy travels around the world

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People’s initiatives are a tool to amend the Swiss constitution. Men have been able to use this since 1891; for Swiss women it took until 1971. The idea, which was born in the late 18th century, has gone around the world, as Bruno Kaufmann, democracy expert and editor-in-chief of the people2power platform, reports.

This content was published on July 5, 2016 - 11:00
Bruno Kaufmann, editor-in-chief people2power,

“I’m very pleased to see that the fantastic idea of having people make laws is now also gaining traction on the other side of the world,” said the editor-in-chief of a Social Democratic Swiss newspaper in response to letter sent in by an emigrant from overseas.

This was in 1894. A pamphlet by New York journalist John W. Sullivan about the introduction of initiatives and referendums in Switzerland, both at a nationwide and cantonal level, caused quite a bit of a stir in the United States.

The “Swiss system” as Sullivan called it, was an inspiration for farmers, trade unionists and workmen to call for similar rights in the new Pacific states of the US.

In his letter to the Swiss newspaper, the emigrant hopes to learn more about the impact of direct democracy. He lives in Oregon where the people’s initiative was introduced in 1902 following a public ballot. More than 300 votes have taken place in Oregon since – even more than in Switzerland where the June nationwide ballot brought the total number of initiatives voted on to 206.

The “Swiss system” became the “Oregon system” across the Atlantic, leading to 23 other US states granting their citizens such participatory rights.

Oregon suffragists visiting New York City before meeting in Washington with President Wilson Library of Congress

The republican movement, and with it the “Oregon system”, which successfully introduced women suffrage, also reached the former Kingdom of Hawaii – the Pacific islands half-way between Asia and North America.

The movement had a member - a certain Sun Yat-sen who was later to be elected the first president of the Republic of China. The idea of people’s initiatives was enshrined in the country’s constitution in 1912. Despite political upheavals in the 20th century it has remained as the basis of Taiwan’s (also known as Republic of China) constitution.

Minority, majority

This is just one example of how the idea of the people’s initiative - introduced 125 years ago at a nationwide level in Switzerland - began its triumph across the world. In Switzerland, this direct democratic right includes mandatory votes on constitutional amendments and the optional referendum on changes to the law.

The underlying principle of this political instrument is as simple as it is plausible: it allows a minority group to ask a political question and commits the majority to give an answer and address the issue.

If the demands of the initiative are implemented in a binding form and a citizen-friendly manner it can help realise democracy, including a broad public debate ahead of a popular vote.

Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t the Swiss who came up with the idea of people’s initiatives 125 years ago. The origins date back another century to the French philosopher, mathematician and revolutionary, Marquis de Condorcet.

After the overthrow of the French king, Condorcet was elected as speaker of the Constitution Committee. It was his idea to enshrine the mandatory constitutional referendum – a sort of control instrument – and the “progressive” citizens’ initiative right.

Spreading fast

But Condorcet became a victim of the political turmoil and was found dead in his prison cell in 1794.

Under France’s current centralist political system, the presidential plebiscite – a form of citizens’ participation which primarily benefits the ruling political forces – is the only remnant of those revolutionary democratic ideas from the 18th century. Still, they began to flourish in neighbouring Switzerland – a country with a decentralised structure.

Most cantons began granting direct democratic rights to their citizens from 1830 onwards, paving the way for the introduction at a nationwide level.

Worldwide, citizens in 22 countries, including Hungary, Uruguay, Kenya, Taiwan, Mexico and New Zealand, are entitled to launch and vote on people’s initiatives similar to the Swiss model.Citizens in another 14 states, notably the Netherlands or Italy, can challenge parliamentary decisions to a nationwide vote.

Local to transnational

The people’s initiative has spread even faster at a local, regional and transnational level over the past 25 years.

In Germany’s more than 75,000 communes and its 16 Länder (states), citizens can use the people’s initiative. The same goes for hundreds of thousands of associations and cooperatives around the globe.

The European Union was the first to introduce the direct democratic tool at a transnational level in 2012.

A particularly fascinating aspect of the people’s initiative is the possibility to form and review this political instrument.

In Switzerland alone, voters decided on ten proposals which aimed at changing citizens’ rights in the past decade.

This text is part of #DearDemocracy,’s platform on direct democracy.

In a nutshell: Switzerland is not the cradle of the people’s initiative but has merely been an important launching pad for the spread of this direct democratic tool.

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Swiss initiatives and the Brexit referendum

Following the June 23 vote in Britain on leaving the EU, the debate about the rights of citizens to decide on political issues has gained momentum. Never before have there been such broad and intensive discussions about direct democracy.

But the forms of popular votes differ around the world. In Switzerland it takes at least 100,000 signatures to force a vote. Both parliament and the government also discuss the proposal and issue recommendations or launch counterproposals.

The result of the popular vote is binding and approval of the initiative leads to an amendment to the country’s constitution.

The Brexit vote in Britain, however, was a plebiscite called by the outgoing Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron. It is legally not binding.

Observers say this raises additional legal questions and is a recipe for political games of all sorts.

For more information, click hereExternal link.

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How do you see the people’s initiative continuing its progress around the globe? Tell us what you think in the comments.

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