Petition to petition: Berlin fights to save referendums | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 16.05.2016
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Petition to petition: Berlin fights to save referendums

A Berlin group has launched a campaign to strengthen the city's referendum law. Campaigners say politicians have too much power to weaken referendums when the results don't suit them.

Campaigners in the German capital have launched a petition to safeguard direct democracy from government interference - and to make it easier to launch new referendums in the future.

The Volksentscheid retten (Save the Referendum) campaign has been collecting signatures across the city for several weeks, partly in reaction to the Berlin government's decision to allow construction on the much-loved Tempelhofer Feld despite a successful referendum banning it in 2014.

If the campaigners get their way, the government cannot simply change a law that has been agreed by a referendum - instead, officials have to give the people four months to collect 50,000 signatures to stop such overrides.

Key changes

Mietenvolksentscheid Berlin

Direct democracy enriches representative democracy, according to the campaign

Other changes being demanded have also been inspired by past disappointments and government interference - in 2013, for example, the Berlin authorities moved a referendum on the re-communalization of the city's energy supply to two weeks after a general election, hoping for a low turnout. The trick worked: The vote failed to meet the 25 percent quorum, even though the over 80 percent of those who turned out favored the measure.

Under the rules being demanded, all Berlin referendums would have to be held on the same day as elections. Not only that, the required quorums and the numbers of signatures will be lowered: Instead of having to get 175,000 signatures in the second phase of the petition (7 percent of the Berlin population), petitioners would only need 125,000 (5 percent), to force a referendum. And, in the referendum itself, they would only need a 20 percent quorum (500,000 people) and a simple majority to win.

"There's definitely a trend in government against direct democracy, and we have to stop that," campaign spokeswoman Kerstin Meyer told DW. "Because, if you want to do a referendum now, people will say, 'Why should we bother if it can overridden after a year?' If we don't do this referendum, we don't really need to do any other referendum."

Modest plans - for a reason

The changes being proposed are relatively modest compared with some other examples of direct democracy - for example, some major German political parties, such as the Left, have even proposed introducing Swiss-style referendums on all major legislation. And there are no plans on the table to give some of the 620,000 non-German Berliners a vote in referendum.

Meyer said there was a good reason why the targets were relatively low. "We need something that half of the electorate can agree with, because this is a constitutional amendment," she said. "Constitutional change you cannot do so radically: You have to do it step by step."

Deutschland Unterschrift Unterschriftenaktion in Berlin

The hurdles for a successful campaign are high in Berlin

It certainly is an ambitious campaign. As this is a constitutional issue, campaigners have until the end of the month to collect the 50,000 signatures they need to force a second-phase petition, which will require 175,000 signatures. There will only be a referendum if that is successful - and if all goes to plan, it will be held on the same day as Germany general elections, in September 2017.

Supporters believe that they will only have a chance of success if the vote is held on that day, because the referendum needs a two-thirds majority as well as a 35 percent quorum to pass. "People want a say in which way this city is going to go," Meyer said. "And you realize that this is a strong motivator - this brings democracy alive again."

Precedents elsewhere

The pioneer of direct democracy in Germany is the city-state of Hamburg, which has faced the same problem that Berlin does now: In 2004 a successful referendum to stop the privatization of hospitals was simply overridden by the government, which then went on to toughen the law to make referendums harder to implement and less binding.

After a long campaign, that was successfully overturned in 2008, and now the Hamburg parliament is no longer allowed to overturn laws passed by referendum without allowing three months for a petition to stop it from doing so.

Direct democracy is still a tough sell in Berlin: According to the campaign group Mehr Demokratie (More Democracy), only two citizens' initiatives out of 40 have turned into successful referendums since 1998.

But Meyer thinks that citizens' initiative should take time - she criticized Greece's bailout referendum last summer because Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras announced it barely a week before it was to be held. "That's very ambiguous," she said, "because there is no time for political debate or decision-making."

"We go out on the street every time, collect signatures," she said. "We discuss, with 10, 20, 50, 100 people a day for months. That's democracy. And, even if you're proposal doesn't win, people have discussed it, and have taken the responsibility to decide. It also forces the parliament to be accountable. This is a complement to representative democracy, and enriches it."