How four countries practise direct democracy today

Article by Bruno Kaufmann: “We are the people,” protesters on the streets of East Germany shouted back in 1989 as a challenge to the then-communist one-party state. One year later, they had succeeded in overcoming half a century of dictatorship and establishing a united democratic country with West Germany.

Since then, hundreds of millions of people around the world have demanded the fulfilment of a fundamental human right, set out in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 21.1): “Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives.” 

“The idea of having ordinary people capable of governing themselves is much older than the UN Human Rights Declaration”, says John Matusaka, a finance professor at the University of Southern California and the author of several books on the role of modern direct democracy in representative government systems. “Popular self-government is an experiment that continues to shape the modern world.” 

Although this experiment has sometimes ended in a populist or even autocratic backlash, a growing number of political communities – cities, regions, nation-states and even continents – have been able to establish and implement a large variety of people-led initiatives and referendums in recent years. Some countries, like Switzerland and the United States, have been practising citizen-lawmaking for more than a century. Others, like Taiwan, are relative newcomers to the field and showcase the breadth of participatory democracy tools being applied today…

The island of Taiwan (36,000 km2, population 23 million) has moved from a democracy on paper to a functioning democracy run by the Taiwanese people, through a process that has accelerated since the 1980s. Today it is a vibrant multiethnic society with 18 official languages.

In 2003 Taiwan introduced its first law on initiatives and referendums. In the last 20 years, the text has undergone improvements and amendments that include a relatively low threshold for forcing a popular vote on proposed legislation. These changes mean that today the people of Taiwan are able to have a genuine say in politics – both at the local and national levels. 

In November 2018 alone, more than ten citizen-led proposals, on issues ranging from environmental protection and marriage equality to the international status of the island, were put to a general vote. In 2021 the Taiwanese decided to amend their direct democracy law in a way that voting on candidates in elections and on issues by referendum were separated. 

One weakness in the process, however, is the legal requirement for a minimum 25% approval rate among the whole electorate for a proposition to pass. This  allows opponents of a proposal to influence the outcome of the vote by simply not participating. In 2021 four referendums were invalidated as they did not reach the approval of 25% among all voters…(More)”.