The Case for Direct Democracy

Joshua McCormack considers the arguable merits of introducing a more engaged, responsive, and participatory vision of democratic politics to Ireland, based on the Swiss model.

Ancient Athens is often described as the cradle of Western democracy, informed by the great philosophers of the age - Aristotle, Plato, Cleisthenes. The branch of “democracy” that we have in Ireland, and indeed the system most “democracies” are shackled to is known as ‘Representative Democracy’. By the standards of the great minds of antiquity, this system bears more in common with dictatorship than their politics: ‘Direct Democracy’.

Sad to say that democracy as it was originally conceived is all but extinct in the modern world, the only exception being a small European nation not dissimilar to our own: Switzerland.

In Switzerland, the public wields the power, not the politicians; there, instead of the creeping demagoguery and party politics that is on the rise in countries like the US, UK and Italy, politicians have more in common with civil servants.

But first, what is ‘Representative Democracy’?

 At its core, RDs involve citizens electing representatives who will - hopefully - shape policies and vote according to their constituent’s best interests. Voting is a rare act; limited to general elections and the odd begrudged referendum, wheedled from government after years of grassroots campaigning. Brief flurries, between yawning chasms of political inactivity.

We have Citizens Assemblies: shiny on paper; toothless talk-shops in practice. We lack strong recall mechanisms; once elected, it would take a hurricane to dislodge a politician before their term expires. And the keys to referenda are locked in the hands of government.

Switzerland embraces a federal system, whereby the voting blocs are split in three: communities, cantons (counties) and the nation – communities could vote on building a new hospital, cantons on power grids, the state on taxation. The Swiss need only 100,000 signatures to launch any legally-binding referendum, and they can overturn any laws through grassroots referenda as well. 

And it’s a vision that would fit Ireland like a glove; cantons substituting for counties, divesting power from Dublin into local councils and authorities; granting Citizens Assemblies the powers they, by rights, should already have. The infrastructure exists, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t succeed, but ultimately it would be an uphill battle. 

Contrary to popular belief, governments aren’t cackling cabals hell bent on ruining lives; however, they do have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. Case in point, the UK 2011 AV referendum in which the ruling Conservative Party fought against the introduction of a transferable voting system, despite its arguable merits. Power and prestige are sacrosanct, after all, and while Ireland arguably isn’t as hierarchical as the UK-due to the fact that the UK is a monarchy with a state-sanctioned aristocracy, in stark contrast to Ireland's more egalitarian (albeit flawed) republican constitution- I find it doubtful that any incumbent Irish politician would campaign for a swiss model; a system that would diminish their importance and, eventually, their salaries.

So, don't hold your breath.