How do we ensure people’s power?

Last week I described village participatory democracy. This is the simplest kind, where everybody has a voice in the dare so people can really exercise power.

As human societies grew bigger this became unworkable because of the numbers of people involved. When numbers get too large, it is not possible to hold meaningful discussions. So participatory democracy is usually replaced by a form of representative democracy. For example, in Europe, most of the cantons that make up Switzerland used to make all major decisions at an assembly of all the adult men. That is now only done in the smallest canton, Appenzell – I think women have been allowed to join in recently.

And so we have our system. We can’t all gather, so we elect a number of people to represent us and decide issues in our name. They are supposed to present their proposed programme to us at election time, so that we can vote for or against major policies. In fact, in many parliaments, MPs often find that changed circumstances make it impossible for them to keep their election promises – or so they say. So there is a problem: how do we ensure that our representatives truly represent what we want? Another problem arises because the older parliaments in Europe, e.g in Iceland and England, did not develop in precisely this way. They originated as gatherings of those who ruled local communities; clan chiefs or lords of some sort. Those became a ruling class who often used parliament to promote their own interests and this created another problem. This raises the same question: how do we ensure that our representatives really represent us and not themselves, even if they have evolved into an elected parliament?

One answer is to bypass the representatives. All really big issues can be put to the people to decide in a referendum. Then the people do decide directly – in theory. We see here in Zimbabwe that it is difficult to reduce a new constitution to a single question on which the people can vote yes or no. This will need discussion later. Switzerland holds more referendums than any other nation. The Swiss define what is an important issue very broadly, so they have national referendums several times a year.

This should ensure that the final decision is not too far from the people’s wishes. Many people would find the Swiss system to burdensome. Ask everyone to vote too often and they lose interest. If we are not prepared to take this responsibility for ourselves, or we don’t have the means to organise frequent referendums, we must try to control our representatives.

Some say that having to face another election in a few years will keep MPs on their toes. We know that doesn’t always work. One answer is to give voters power to recall their MP at any time. If enough people propose it, the MP is called to account to his constituents and can be voted out if they are not satisfied. The first Soviet constitution provided for this, but the Communist leadership soon decided they didn’t wanted to be voted out just because the people disagreed.

Another solution was proposed by the Chartists, who campaigned for all adults to get the vote in 19th century Britain. They wanted parliament to be elected afresh every year. Something similar was supposed to happen in Gadafi’s Libya. That seems to have gone wrong when the Guardian of the Revolution decided he was indispensable.

But then, however good a system we devise, people will find ways of bending it to suit themselves. When that happens, the people need to find new ways of saving democracy. The price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

Post published in: Opinions & Analysis

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