To many people, direct democracy can mean different things. Some picture the classical/pre-modern (Athens) style of direct democracy where citizens meet in the town square and decide on important issues. Others see it as an opportunity to rid the world of devious self-serving politicians, where we can all sit at home and make all necessary political decisions via our laptops. Whatever it means to you, direct democracy has certainly become a much discussed topic over the last twenty or so years even though it has had numerous critics.
Direct democracy would appear to offer citizens more control over controversial and polarizing issues that directly affect their lives. That is not to say that direct democracy is a replacement for representative democracy, only that it can be an adjunct to it. One definition has direct democracy as, “A form of state in which the sovereign power is held by the People, i.e., national sovereignty belongs directly to the People. The People also exercise their sovereignty directly, for example by means of popular legislation.”. My own definition would be: the right of citizens to initiate referendums on any issue, to veto legislation, and for these decisions to be binding on parliament.
There are a number of parts to direct democracy: general elections, citizens' initiatives, referendums, recalls, and plebiscites. A lot of misunderstanding and confusion could be avoided if these issues were all clearly distinguished from one another, along with their procedures. Of course, there are also many forms of election systems but these will not be discussed here.
The Citizens’ Initiated referendum allows for one or more citizens to put their own proposal on the political agenda once the required number of signatures have been collected to trigger the citizens’ initiative. It is interesting to note here that only about 10% of citizens' initiatives actually pass in Switzerland, the birthplace of direct democracy. The signature requirement range is from as low as 2% and sometimes as high as 15%.
An Obligatory referendum is triggered automatically by law, usually by a constitution which requires that certain issues must be put before the voters for approval or rejection.
A Veto referendum (Facultative or optional referendum in Switzerland) is when new laws, or changes to laws which have been passed by parliament, can be subject to a referendum if the required number of citizens demand it. The new law becomes effective if the majority of the votes were in favour of it. It is worth noting that of the more than 2,200 laws passed by the Swiss parliament since 1874, only 7% have been subjected to a Veto referendum.
A Recall referendum can be launched to remove corrupt elected officials, or to remove elected representatives whose policies and performance are found wanting. A high profile example of this was when Governor Grey of California was replaced in a recall by actor Arnold Schwarzenegger. The recall operates in a similar fashion to the citizens' initiative where citizens collect the required amount of signatures, and once this has been achieved, a referendum is held to decide if a certain elected official will retain their position. The recall has two components, a 'yes' or 'no' vote for recall and the names of the replacement candidates. The recall measure is successful if it passes by a simple majority. In that case, the replacement candidate with the largest vote wins the office. If the recall measure fails, the replacement candidate votes are ignored.
Referendums are often referred to as Plebiscites. However, Plebiscites really are quite different to referendums and are controlled by authorities; they are not referendums or initiatives and therefore arguably are not part of direct democracy. A plebiscite is a public consultation controlled from above by those in power (e.g., President, Prime Minister, and Parliament) who decide when and on what subject the people will be asked to vote or give their opinion. They are a way for those in power to manipulate citizens and have power over them. They are used to give some form of legitimacy for decisions that those in power have already taken. In Switzerland, for example, it is quite different from Nazi Germany during 1933-1945, where there were three manipulated plebiscites.
In Switzerland, direct democracy means that a referendum process takes place either because a group of voters demands it, or because it is stipulated in the constitution, but the government cannot call the referendum, so therefore Switzerland does not have plebiscites and direct democracy in Switzerland cannot be controlled by the government.
With citizens protesting around the world about corporate greed, a lack of government direction, poor fiscal management and party political agendas, along with the lack of trust citizens appear to have in their political representatives, one might expect the discussion about direct democracy to snowball even further. It might be expected that citizens around the world will eventually demand this political tool to reign in their political masters. New Zealand has toyed with direct democracy since 1993, but to date, governments here have mostly ignored the will of the people in the referendums that have been held.