The Challenges of Direct Democracy

Posted by Shyam Ponappa at Jul 24, 2011 09:45 AM |
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India must weigh the pros and cons of various approaches to direct democracy and develop one of its own.

Direct democracy is alluring. The dangers to our society and economy from reckless governance as well as confrontational activists, however, are the undermining of institutions, and the unintended consequences.

Our governments have a carry-over of feudal and colonial attitudes and do not communicate unless they must. Change is accepted only under duress, and is not initiated through leadership. Mismanagement is tolerated, resulting in various scams such as the 2G spectrum scam and associated problems.

The current anti-corruption drive by Anna Hazare et al and their well-intentioned cohorts uses tactics that echo a righteous, anti-authoritarian and non-collaborative pattern of “us” versus “them”, combined with an insistence on their way alone. Yet, collaboration is essential for solutions that lead to an equilibrium, recognising the legitimacy of all stakeholders – the government and civil society – as well as the criticality of credible institutions and processes.

We in India are not alone in being drawn to direct democracy. Switzerland’s success in citizen participation combined with its federal structure is the epitome of a workable system. But this model cannot simply be transplanted without regard to cultural contexts. Consider the sobering example of California.

California's Predicament

California has been in a state of financial crisis for several years. In 30 years, the Golden State’s credit rating fell from among the best of the 50 states to the worst. Despite everything from Silicon Valley to agriculture, defence, aerospace, biotechnology and Hollywood, why can this state not manage itself? Why does The Economist quote labels like “dysfunctional”, “ungovernable”, even “failed” for this El Dorado (April 20)? To understand what happened in California, we must start with its direct democracy model imported from Switzerland.

The Swiss Model

Since the 14th century, Switzerland has had a tradition of citizens participating in assemblies. Coordination among different sets of delegates, e.g. for building roads and bridges across different valleys, had to be approved by respective assemblies. On this canvas, Switzerland grafted America’s Constitution in 1848. It worked and still works because of its design, and Switzerland’s collaborative approach. Constitutional amendments require a referendum as well as a majority of votes by the cantons (states) in the legislature.

Thus, over half the cantons can overrule the popular majority in a referendum, because of the rule taken from America of two votes per state, even if they represent a minority of voters. After being approved in a referendum, the amendments go back to the legislature for redrafting. This enforces George Washington’s principle of “cool” debate outlined at the time of drafting the US Constitution, and embodied in Senate deliberations for dispassionate lawmaking. Initiatives for new laws by direct democracy go through the same process, but the legislature has the option to draft a counter-proposal. This process of engagement and negotiation is designed to avoid extreme outcomes and promote dispassionate solutions. As with America’s Constitution, this prevents two kinds of abuse: James Madison’s1 concerns regarding minority factions and their “swing vote” capturing outcomes (as in India, where minority factions become king makers), or a tyranny by the majority.

The California Variant

About 100 years ago, the Progressives in California brought in direct democracy from Switzerland. As in India today, the purpose then was to attack corruption, specifically, “The Octopus” of the Southern Pacific Railroad with its tentacles everywhere. California’s direct democracy was designed to achieve the opposite of the Swiss model. Switzerland emphasises compromise and consensus; California encourages confrontation, and the winners impose their will. Starting new initiatives (“propositions”) is easy; calling referendums on existing laws is difficult. In effect, California’s propositions are irreversible, because a retraction or reversal needs a two-thirds majority, which is virtually impossible because of minority factions and special interests.

For over half a century, there were no major problems. Then, in 1978, the anti-tax proponents initiated a property tax cap, Proposition 13. It limited state revenues (placing a ceiling on all property taxes at one per cent of the 1975 value, which could grow at no more than two per cent annually unless sold, thereby establishing a new value). There are contradictory views on the benefits of Proposition 13, with the defenders blaming opportunistic individuals, not the system, for problems. It is the old divide between tax-and-spend liberals versus cut taxes-and-services conservatives. The outcome, however, is that California went from being a liberal showcase with excellent infrastructure and services to a bankrupt state, cutting back on both.

What India Can Learn

India’s polity (at central, state, and local levels), at least now, must start creating systems that harness participation through all means available, so that the voice of popular assemblies is heard within the framework of our representative democracy, and acted upon.

The government needs to move away from the paradigm of “The Administration” against “The People”. Instead, the government must lead a process of collaborative stakeholder engagement for equitable resolution, like the one based on a lifeboat concept of shared interests and survival. As individuals, we need to move away from blaming routines (the government/everyone else is at fault, and I am a victim) to accepting the responsibility and discipline of institution building and processes.

What India Requires

  • Discarding feudal/colonial notions of the durbar in political parties, among politicians and in government.
  • Channeling righteous public anger into the constitutional process with competence and discipline. Currently, there seems to be no effective way of demonstrating dissatisfaction except by taking to the streets.
We need institutionalised incentives and penalties to steer towards these effective means, and to abandon arbitrary and angry ways.

Technology allows this on an unprecedented scale, with perhaps 100 million Internet users in India already. To harness and channel this capacity, systems need to be developed on the lines of the Obama campaign2, vastly extended with the expertise and support staff to inform citizens and channel their participation constructively within an institutional framework. These systems will need to cover everything, from issue-based analysis and presentation to spelling out responsible choices with the foreseeable consequences, and collating individual inputs and preferences. If executed with vision, imagination and commitment, this could reduce the instances of people taking to the streets.

This article by Shyam Ponappa was published in the Business Standard on July 7, 2011. Read the original here
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