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The people's choice

Anna Peters / mllNovember 19, 2013

In the current coalition talks, there's support for the introduction of national referendums. That would increase public interest in politics, say some - others say the wrong people could profit.

A voter puts a voting slip in a ballot box Photo: Kay Nietfeld/dpa
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

An unexpected coalition has arisen in Germany between two parties which normally never see eye to eye on anything. The Christian Social Union (CSU), Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, and the Social Democratic party (SPD) are proposing that there should be more opportunity to use plebiscites and referendums in Germany.

Of course they don't agree on everything: the CSU wants to allow the people to vote "if an issue involves German payments at the EU level," while the SPD goes further. It would allow voters to reverse laws which have already been passed, although it would require a million signatures on a petition before such a referendum could take place.

The Social Democrats have also adopted direct democracy in their own party, and they'll be seeking the approval of their membership for the coalition agreement before they're prepared to sign it.

The Christian Democrats reject the idea of federal referendums out of hand, but Michael Efler, spokesman for a German organization called "Mehr Demokratie" ("More Democracy"), thinks that, as the three parties negotiate a coalition agreement, there could be movement on the issue.

"The CDU is strongly opposed," says Efler, "but if the other two remain firm, something might be possible."

Referendums in the news

Everyone is interested in referendums right now, since the people of Munich and three other Bavarian towns rejected proposals in early November (10.11.2013) to let their area compete for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Their decision shocked the local politicians, who were mostly in favor, but Efler was impressed: what he found interesting was "that the people did not let themselves be impressed by a strong 'Yes' campaign." The people thought it was too risky and they voted accordingly.

A view of Munich with the Alps behind Photo: Garmisch/Kneffel/Farthofer dpa/lby
The people have spoken, and Munich will not host the Winter Olympics 2022Image: picture-alliance/dpa

More Democracy lobbies for more opportunities for people to decide directly. Germany is a representative democracy, in which the people vote for their representatives, who then decide for themselves how they vote. It's possible to hold referendums at state and local level, although they are not often used, but there is no provision for asking the people at federal level.

Efler thinks that more is needed: "I don't think that elections are enough for most people to be able to express their political wishes," he says. "Even if you vote for a political party, that doesn't mean that you agree with all their positions on individual issues."

'The people are not happy with their parties'

Those who support the idea of referendums say that it increases the democratic awareness of the citizens.

A view of the coalition talks with the large number of participants sitting at a square table. Ohoto: Hannibal/dpa pixel
The coalition talks will have to consider the issue of referendums at the federal levelImage: picture-alliance/dpa

"Citizens are increasingly dissatisfied with their representative organizations, especially with the parties," says Frank Decker, a political scientist at the University of Bonn. "They want other means of participation." That's why there's increasing support for direct democracy, and Decker is convinced that it would increase satisfaction with the political system: "There's reliable scientific information which says that, where such possibilities are available, people's satisfaction with the political system is greater."

California warning

But there are risks, especially where people can decide whether they want to vote on a law, since, says Decker, that would stop the government from being able to govern. Whenever the opposition was unhappy with a law, it could try to mobilize the voters against it: "I ask myself whether the Agenda 2010 and Hartz laws [which reformed the German welfare system] could have gone through. People would certainly have started a campaign against them."

Decker has an example which serves as a warning: California. He says there's a "referendum industry" there, run by organizations which pull together campaigns for specific interest groups. He argues that such political decisions are by no means representative, but "merely in the interest of well-organized political minorities."

Hard work studying legal texts

Direct democracy requires citizens to study the law closely before they vote, to see what the consequences will be. That's not easy - in their spare time alongside work, family and the stress of daily life - but Elfer is optimistic and thinks most people will manage it.

But Decker doesn't approve of referendums at the federal level: "Direct democratic procedures make sense at the lower levels, where people are directly affected." That applied to the Winter Olympics referendum. There are many other Olympic sites where the people were never asked, and they're still having to live with the consequences of bad decisions.