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More initiative

Heiner Kiesel / sadSeptember 7, 2012

It's usually political parties which decide policy. But initiatives emerging from direct democracy are becoming ever more popular, particularly at the local level.

People signing a petition Photo: Roland Weihrauch dpa/lnw
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Local politicians don't always do what their constituents want - whether it's about building bypasses, power lines, wind turbines or setting the level of local taxes. Citizens used to have to wait until the next election rolled around to do anything about it. But in 1956, one German state made it possible for citizens to submit petitions to hold local referendums. Since then, they've spread across the country and have influenced many local government decisions.

Ralf-Uwe Beck, spokesperson of the organization Mehr Demokratie (More Democracy), believes "it's worth getting involved in such initiatives." A study by the group, produced in conjunction with the universities of Wuppertal and Marburg, showed that about 40 percent end up winning what they campaigned for.

The report examined nearly 6,000 cases in which grassroots political initiatives wanted to influence local policy. About 300 such processes get started every year. Beck describes them as a second route to political participation.

Difficult requirements

Grassroots initiatives are becoming ever more popular, while traditional parties are losing their attractiveness as factors in the process of making political policy. However, some German states set high hurdles.

A windpark at Schlalach Photo: DW / Fuchs
Wind parks are often unpopular: this one is owned by the peopleImage: DW / Fuchs

Sometimes it's not allowed to question public building projects, or there are complicated rules which make it difficult to submit a valid petition. And even if, in the end, there's a clear majority in the referendum, that doesn't mean the campaign has been won.

"Many of the initiatives fail despite receiving a majority of votes," Beck said, "because some state laws require at least 30 percent of the eligible voters to agree - which is incredibly high."

Bavarian citizens account for 40 percent of all such initiatives in Germany. Beck says the laws there are exemplary - barriers are low, and citizens gladly use the opportunity. In order to attain a quorum in Bavaria, from 10 to 20 percent of citizens must participate, depending on population.

Criticism of citizen initiatives

Direct participation of citizens is not always welcomed - conservative political parties often oppose it, arguing that political issues are complex and not easily boiled down to a yes or no vote.

It's often feared that citizens act in their own interest, while blocking efforts for the public good. In this case, the talk is of "enraged citizens" who effectively put the brakes on social and economic development. The study also indicates that well-educated and networked people are the ones most involved in citizen initiatives.

Electricity overland power cables Photo: CC/Matti Frisk
We all want electricity, but where should the lines go?Image: cc-by:Matti Frisk-nc-sa

Volker Mittendorf, who researches direct democracy in the Citizens' Participation Research Unit at the University of Wuppertal, does not see these referendum petitions as self-centered. "We've examined such petitions dealing with energy issues," he told DW, "and we found that individual interests are successful only on rare occasions."

The citizens' initiatives often support the search for alternative solutions and stimulate discussion, Mittendorf said. This might mean that an unpopular wind farm could eventually be accepted if it were turned into a cooperative project, or that an electricity power line might be moved slightly. "Grassroots processes often help to calm a difficult situation," Mittendorf said.