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Germany

German Parliament Considers Referendum Bill

Democracy in Germany is up for debate, but not if the politicians can help it.

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The Upper House of Parliament in Berlin, where democracy is conducted.

A decision in the German Parliament in the coming weeks will determine whether the country's sixty million eligible voters should be able to participate directly in the political process.

On Friday, Parliament will begin debating whether to amend the Constitution to allow for popular referenda.

A draft Bill was introduced in the Lower House this week by
the ruling Social Democrat-Green coalition, in response to a demand by the group 'Citizens for a Referendum'.

Germany has no provision for popular participation through referendum at a national level. Germans elect their Parliamentary representatives, but cannot vote on separate questions between elections.

Democracy from below

The SPD/Greens Bill proposes to replace the top-down system with one which allows citizens to initiate and then vote in referenda on questions excepting those that concern the budget or introduction of the death penalty. In the first stage of the process, the Lower House of Parliament is required to address any initiative presented by the citizenry, provided at
least 400,000 signatures have been collected.

If the question is not addressed within eight months, the citizens can demand a plebiscite.

The signatures of five percent of eligible voters (approximately three million people) must be collected within six months. Once the signatures have been presented, a referendum must take place within six months, and at least twenty percent must turn out to vote. If the question concerns an amendment to the Constitution, at least forty percent have to vote.

Lobbyists and loopholes

While Germans do have the right in principle to hold referenda, no law exists to regulate them.

Citizens for a Referendum says its proposal to amend the Constitution could eliminate a legal loophole. But although the group believes a majority in Parliament will support the Bill, it is likely to face opposition from the conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU), its Bavarian sister-party the Christian Social Union (CSU), and the Liberal Democratic Party (FDP).

The Bill's oponents say the introduction of popular referenda would endanger the democratic system and threaten the
Parliament's legitimacy. They also argue that complex questions debated in the German Parliament cannot be reduced to a simple 'yes' or 'no' vote.

Changing Germany's Constitution requires a two-thirds majority in both houses of Parliament, which means the Bill needs the support of the CDU/CSU to be passed.

Ironically, if the question were put to a popular vote, the result would be a clear 'yes'. Citizens for a Referendum spokesperson Claudine Nierth says an overwhelming majority of the Germans want to have a say in their country's future.

That's supported by opinion polls which show more than seventy percent of people want the right to vote on important questions as well as participating in elections. Citizens for a
Referendum, which is an initiative of 'More Democracy', has widespread support across Germany.

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