Direct democracy and its centrepiece — the referendum — seduce radical democrats as well as authoritarian politicians. Even dictators from Napoleon III to Hitler and Pinochet introduced people’s votes and misused them for their dictatorships. Consequently, calling on citizens to go to and vote in a referendum is not a virtue in and of itself. A “plebiscite” can be misused as an instrument in bending power and democracy and a bad alternative to efforts to democratise democracy.
In 1851, the French ruler Napoleon Bonaparte III organised a coup, dissolved parliament without any constitutional right to do so and asked the people to support this illegal act by allowing him to draft a new constitution. With this dictatorial move, he set in motion two ideas which later became part of the European political language: Bonapartism and plebiscites.
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Bonapartism means the total control and centralisation of power in one man’s hands without any checks and balances or separation of powers between an independent judiciary, press and parliament. Plebiscites are “referenda”, people’s votes, in which an authoritarian ruler invites the people to answer an often ambivalent, suggestive question, which he formulates himself. Using such plebiscites, a ruler bypasses and ignores his elected parliament and tries to claim direct legitimacy from the people. In this he is wrong, because he does not respect or follow parliament which has indeed been elected by the people and expresses their diversity and different interests.
Although it was a French philosopher and mathematician, Condorcet, who in 1791 invented a way to enable citizens to participate more directly in writing laws and amending constitutions, the coup of Napoleon III 60 years later discredited the idea of referenda by showing that such popular votes in an authoritarian system could reinforce the interests of strong, undemocratic rulers against the real interests of the people.
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Condorcet's original idea to design direct democracy and referenda as a way to democratise democracy in order to enable more freedom and serve as a buttress against authoritarianism was taken up in the 1860’s by Swiss democrats and between 1890 and 1914 by US Populists and Progressives. These activists wanted to reform systems in which parliaments and legislatures were totally corrupted and occupied by business interests who sacrificed the will and the interests of the people for their own profit.
In both countries, broad “people’s movements” mobilised critics in such a way, that in just two years, in four referenda (Zurich, 1867-1869 and the new Governor of California, 1911) the people accepted totally revised constitutions giving citizens the ability to launch legislative and constitutional initiatives and referenda, mostly killing the power of the oligarchs in the parliaments of Switzerland and elected bodies on the United States' west coast.
But the design of direct democracy was carefully crafted and the lessons of Napoleon were learned. This means that parliament can never be sidelined or ignored by a referendum. Every constitutional change proposed in Switzerland by a citizens' initiative must be discussed and reflected upon by parliament before it goes to a referendum by the people. Another litmus-test for the quality of the design of direct democracy is that the amount of signatures which must be gathered by citizens in order to ask for a vote, has to be small (2-3% of the electorate) in order to allow it to become a way to share the power, to control the established powers and to prevent referenda from becoming an instrument for those who already have too much financial, administrative or economic power. And in every referenda-proposition citizens can only propose one constitutional change in order to prevent manipulation and incorrect interpretations from resulting after a referendum.
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Other conditions necessary to ensure referenda serve freedom and allow the real participation of all citizens, not only the rich and powerful, concern the supervision of the signature-gathering process (the state must make certain that people only sign a petition once and that each signature is truly authentic) and the existence of an independent media, where an initiative can be discussed in a open manner and be argued from all sides in order to allow citizens to make up their minds in light of all possible relevant information.
This short insight into the history of direct democracy might serve all those Ukrainian democrats who want to prevent the new “referenda-law” from being used in a plebiscitairian and bonapartistic way. When one knows history, he or she is better able to prevent the worst from happening again in the present. Further, history might show how good ideas are misused by those who do not want to serve the people but would rather enrich their own financial and political interests.
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