Most elections today ultimately result in small changes in the life of
the ordinary citizen. The faces of the politicians may change, some
egos will be bruised while some will be boosted but in the end the big
questions related to the cost effectiveness and quality of government
services will not be answered in any conclusive fashion.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who questions the viability of
the current system of representative government which is an ineffective
parody of democracy.
Once every few years the citizen is asked to participate in a box-ticking
exercise and select one option among a very limited and never-changing
menu of political parties. The voter is basically expected to give carte
blanche to a party to do as they please during the term in office.
Electoral promises are treated as an inconvenient hindrance and the only
check on government tend to be the media (who often also follow an agenda
of their own).
Voting on individual issues rather than nebulous party programmes or
Before elections one can often find surveys that allow the voter to check
which of the party programs most closely reflects his opinions on a wide
range of issues. By filling in the (usually online) questionnaire the voter
gets a result that tells him which party would be the one he should vote
for. The problem arises when he favours certain policies of party A and
others from party B etc. Voting in a referendum on each individual issue
would make it possible to align government policy much closer with the
preferences of the electorate.
limits the power of individual politicians
Election campaign more and more depend of the personalities of the leading
candidates and the voters are goaded into expecting messianic miracles from
backing one or the other candidate. No wonder that sooner or later most of the
successful candidates start to believe their own propaganda and become more and
more dictatorial and remote from the realities faced by ordinary citizens.
The election promises usually are not worth the paper they are written on as
soon as the election results are in.
All these problems - excessive dependence on personalities, useless election
promises, too much importance given to marginal issues and
lobbies would be contained if the electorate would have a say in the
decision of all policy issues. As referenda would be held specifically to decide
single issues the debate would become much more objective and rational.
Who instigates electoral reform?
Electoral reforms are usually instigated at the behest of politicians who do
not like to listen to the voters and try to manipulate the results of
upcoming elections. In Austria the two major parties want to reinforce their
dominance by extending the legislative period from four to five years, in
Turkey the largest party wants to push through its Presidential candidate by
changing to a system where the President is elected directly instead of by
the Parliament and in Italy the discussion about the electoral system is
threatening to become the equivalent of a political soap opera. Sometimes
these efforts backfire as in the case of the recent Scottish parliamentary
elections. Without reference to the wishes of the ordinary citizens a
complicated new election system was introduced that led to almost 142,000
ballot papers becoming declared invalid - 10 times the number spoilt when
these elections were last held in 2003.
Direct Democracy allows focus on the real
The more things change, the more they stay the same one could say when
surveying the results of recent elections or contemplates the alternatives that
are on offer to the Public in upcoming elections.
Does it really matter who has won the French Presidential election, the
recent Italian, German or Austrian elections or who will be the next President
of Turkey, Russia or the USA?
One thing is noticeable in all the election campaigns: the candidates make a
litany of election promises that are often incompatible and nearly always have
not been costed properly or will have to be supported by more state borrowing or
higher taxes that are not mentioned in the election programs.
One box-ticking exercise every few years will do nothing to solve the real
problems and concerns of the majority of citizens and at best satisfy selected
vociferous lobbies and minorities whose votes are needed to swing the usually
narrow vote one way or another.
Polarisation - Direct
consequence of box-ticking democracy
In many countries elections leave a clear division between two main
political grouping, usually called left and right.
Elections often lead to very close results and changes in government are
precipitated by a small swing in the relative share of the popular vote gained
by the respective parties.
A system of direct democracy compensates for the tendency towards the
development of two dominant parties - or groups of parties - that take turns in
power. As every major decision would have to be approved by the electorate the
influence of the established political party machines would be reduced and
Direct Democracy creates substitute for separation of powers
present system of parliamentary 'democracy' has degenerated into an elective
dictatorship that makes a mockery of the separation of powers.
Giving the voters the last word in any decision will be an essential safeguard
against the abuse of powers by any party that holds a majority in Parliament. At
the same time we should not forget to reform the present political system that
links the formation of government to a majority in parliament (which should
supervise and control government not just be herded into cowardly submission).
Electoral Law - Does it matter?
From time to time politicians, academics or the media call for a change in
the electoral law as a solution. We would argue that the introduction of full direct democracy
would - after a period of transition - lead to a more stable political culture
under any form of electoral law. As the parties would be aware that - whatever
they agree or don't agree on - the citizens would have the final say on any
policy, they would tend to converge on views that are likely to be supported by
the majority in any referendum.