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Published: June 2012
There’s talk of change but views differ on how much we need and how to bring it about. Catharine-Sophie Eibl asks whether direct democracy could be the answer to all our woes.
“WE FACE A once-in-a-generation opportunity to empower people in our changing world.” These were not the words of a protester on Tahrir Square, Puerta del Sol or Wall Street, although they could have been. They were the words of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
On February 16, Ban Ki-moon took to the red carpet podium in the Hofburg’s imperial reception hall, cautioning Austria’s political elite to listen more carefully to the protests that had filled the streets of Cairo, Athens and New York in recent months. The United Nations, he promised, would support the young protesters’ demands for change.
A momentous statement, coming from the Secretary-General of the UN. Yet the protesters might disagree: when it gets down to how to do bring about “change” their views differ from those of Ban Ki-moon.
Ban Ki-moon described the Arab revolutions and protest movements in Europe as the struggle of a young generation for political and economic “empowerment”. More specifically, for jobs, democracy and political participation.
So far, so good. However, it is important to keep in mind that the protesters on Tahir Square or Wall Street were not only “young people”. The revolution in Egypt was successful partly because young, middle class protesters were soon joined by other groups of society, notably the influential Muslim Brotherhood. Turn on the television these days and you will see that the people protesting against their governments’ austerity packages on the streets of Madrid and Athens include not only students, but also older generations who see their economic resources dwindling. The movement has become bigger and broader than the epithet “young” makes out.
The crux is how democracy is defined. Comparing the Arab Spring to the Occupy Movement has become a commonplace, but obliterates differences. It is true that both the protesters on Tahir Square and the campers outside St Paul’s Cathedral in London were frustrated about political corruption, the lack of involvement in political processes and a bleak economic situation with rising unemployment, prices and rents. However, they differed with regards the political remedies.
Cairo underscores the power of the masses
Photo: Martin Rose
Judging by the outcome of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, “democracy” for the protesters in these countries meant representative democracy based on free and fair elections. Both countries have placed their hopes in their newly elected parliaments. Tunisia held parliamentary elections in October, Egypt from November to January. Tunisia already has a President, the veteran dissident Moncef Marzouki, elected by the constitutional assembly. Egyptians returned to the voting booths June 16-17.
The governments have taken charge of countries in a difficult economic situation. Noting a slow rate of progress, voters complain that their elected representatives have failed to deliver. In fact, conditions have worsened since Ben Ali and Mubarak were ousted. Unemployment in Tunisia has spiked from 13% before the revolution to 19%. Mhedi, a young finance graduate interviewed by the BBC, who has been out of work since leaving university two years ago, stated his opinion that the new government hasn’t changed anything. Prospects are just as bleak for young Egyptians. 21 year old business graduate Salma said that the “job market is squeezed”. Out of 100 applications she sent off, she received only 5 replies.
People feel increasingly disillusioned with the political system they have put in place. This is something they have in common with the protesters in the West’s well-established representative democracies. For the Occupy Movement, the representative model is not a solution. Rather it is part of the problem and complicit in upholding economic and political inequalities.
True democracy, in their eyes, means something different. Occupy’s ideal is a leaderless direct democracy where decisions are made purely by consensus. The likeminded Spanish group Democracia Real YA (Real Democracy NOW) makes the clear point in its manifesto. The document interprets the Ancient Greek word demokratia as meaning that “government is made by everyone of us”.
Occupy has practised this form of decision making on a small scale. A YouTube video, uploaded by Wall Street occupiers, shows the procedure in action: motions are announced by a spokesperson and repeated in chorus to ensure that everybody in the square can hear them – the now legendary “human microphone”. Objections are discussed, and decisions are made only once everyone has signalled their approval by a show of hands.
“The beauty of direct democracy,” a young woman from Occupy Wall Street says in a YouTube video, “is that it adjusts to get everyone on board with what’s happening”. It’s the 99% making decisions rather than the 1% who hold power in the existing system –goes the argument.
While the political establishment might find Ban Ki-moon’s support of the protesters meaningful, perhaps even radical, Occupy protesters will consider his proposals (creating jobs and appointing a UN Adviser on Youth) woefully inadequate. To them, true equality can be achieved only by a complete overhaul of the existing political system.
It is not surprising that the UN does not subscribe to all of Occupy’s demands. International organizations are at odds with the direct democracy model because decisions are made by delegates on behalf of their people, rather than by the people themselves. As such, the UN, proponents of direct democracy argue, lacks legitimacy as the world’s organ for peace keeping and conflict resolution.
Indeed, Ban Ki-moon’s speech revealed ambiguous feelings towards the protesters’ power to challenge governments. Although he stressed that the world’s three billion young people were “not a threat”, but an “opportunity”, he also issued a warning: Ben Ali was forced out of office because he had refused to listen to his people’s demands; the same might happen to political leaders elsewhere. In a direct democracy, it certainly would.
You must accommodate the protesters in the very power relations they are attacking - such was Ban Ki-moon’s advice; a sound strategy, if the aim is to contain revolutionary change.
Is direct democracy efficient in running a country? No, some say. While it works well for Occupy assemblies, direct democracy is impractical on a larger scale. Lengthy and cumbersome, it makes it impossible to take the decisive action necessary, for example, to stop Europe from slithering further into recession. Ban Ki-moon’s speech is a more realistic assessment of what works; namely a representative system that takes its task seriously and actively engages with the people’s concerns.
Switzerland, where direct democracy has become political routine, makes a case to the contrary. Through referenda, citizens can challenge laws and constitutional amendments proposed by parliament. Voters make use of this tool. Since 1848, when the system was introduced, 550 referenda have been called; that is roughly a quarter of all recorded national referenda.
Yet, direct democracy has its perils. For one thing, it will not necessarily make the world more democratic.
In the Occupy model, politics relies on people actively coming forward with proposals. In such a situation, decision-making will be dominated by those who shout the loudest. Charismatic speakers or well-organized interest groups with a clear agenda will find it easy to lobby their positions and capture policies; the danger being that the 1% rather than the 99% direct politics.
On the other hand, there is the danger of installing an ochlocracy, or mob rule, where the 99% tyrannize the 1% and dispersed minorities struggle to protect their interests. “Although there is a lot of direct democracy in Switzerland”, says Austrian political scientist Anton Pelinka, “minorities are not better represented. In a direct democracy the majority is in the advantage.” It becomes then, the tyranny of the majority. While in recent years Swiss petitions have sought to improve health care they have also threatened minorities’ rights by enforcing the deportation of foreign criminals and banning the building of mosques with minarets.
Pelinka finds Occupy’s idea of democracy “unreflexive” and “naïve”. He has a point. Yet, the protesters’ radical idealism is important because it draws our attention to persisting inequalities which have inspired movements worldwide.