Direct democracy

Theory of direct self-government.

Democracy is rule by all the people, and thus requires direct participation in the making of decisions and the passing of laws. Such a form of government is only possible in small communities such as the city states of classical Greece, though it is aspired to in the arguments of Swiss philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778).

Direct democracy is contrasted with representative democracy.

David Held, Models of Democracy (Oxford, 1987)


In a representative democracy people vote for representatives who then enact policy initiatives.[2] In direct democracy, people decide on policies without any intermediary. Depending on the particular system in use, direct democracy might entail passing executive decisions, the use of sortition, making laws, directly electing or dismissing officials, and conducting trials. Two leading forms of direct democracy are participatory democracy and deliberative democracy.

Semi-direct democracies, in which representatives administer day-to-day governance, but the citizens remain the sovereign, allow for three forms of popular action: referendum (plebiscite), initiative, and recall. The first two forms—referendums and initiatives—are examples of direct legislation.[3] As of 2019, thirty countries allowed for referendums initiated by the population on the national level.[4]

compulsory referendum subjects the legislation drafted by political elites to a binding popular vote. This is the most common form of direct legislation. A popular referendum empowers citizens to make a petition that calls existing legislation to a vote by the citizens. Institutions specify the timeframe for a valid petition and the number of signatures required, and may require signatures from diverse communities to protect minority interests.[3] This form of direct democracy effectively grants the voting public a veto on laws adopted by the elected legislature, as in Switzerland.[5][6][7][8]

citizen-initiated referendum (also called an initiative) empowers members of the general public to propose, by petition, specific statutory measures or constitutional reforms to the government and, as with other referendums, the vote may be binding or simply advisory. Initiatives may be direct or indirect: with the direct initiative, a successful proposition is placed directly on the ballot to be subject to vote (as exemplified by California’s system).[3] With an indirect initiative, a successful proposition is first presented to the legislature for their consideration; however, if no acceptable action is taken after a designated period of time, the proposition moves to direct popular vote. Constitutional amendments in Switzerland, Liechtenstein or Uruguay go through such a form of indirect initiative.[3]

A deliberative referendum is a referendum that increases public deliberation through purposeful institutional design.

Power of recall gives the public the power to remove elected officials from office before the end of their designated standard term of office.[9]


The earliest known direct democracy is said to be the Athenian democracy in the 5th century BC, although it was not an inclusive democracy in that it excluded women, slaves and non-Athenians. The main bodies in the Athenian democracy were the assembly, composed of male citizens; the boulê, composed of 500 citizens; and the law courts, composed of a massive number of jurors chosen by lot, with no judges. There were only about 30,000 male citizens, but several thousand of them were politically active in each year and many of them quite regularly for years on end. The Athenian democracy was direct not only in the sense that decisions were made by the assembled people, but also in the sense that the people through the assembly, boulê, and law courts controlled the entire political process, and a large proportion of citizens were involved constantly in public affairs.[10] Most modern democracies, being representative, not direct, do not resemble the Athenian system.

Also relevant to the history of direct democracy is the history of Ancient Rome, specifically the Roman Republic, traditionally beginning around 509  BC.[11] Rome displayed many aspects of democracy, both direct and indirect, from the era of Roman monarchy all the way to the collapse of the Roman Empire. Indeed, the Senate, formed in the first days of the city, lasted through the Kingdom, Republic, and Empire, and even continued after the decline of Western Rome; and its structure and regulations continue to influence legislative bodies worldwide. As to direct democracy, the ancient Roman Republic had a system of citizen lawmaking, or citizen formulation and passage of law, and a citizen veto of legislature-made law. Many historians mark the end of the Republic with the passage of a law named the Lex Titia, 27 November 43 BC, which eliminated many oversight provisions.[11]

Modern-era citizen-lawmaking occurs in the cantons of Switzerland from the 13th century. In 1847 the Swiss added the “statute referendum” to their national constitution. They soon discovered that merely having the power to veto Parliament’s laws was not enough. In 1891 they added the “constitutional amendment initiative”. Swiss politics since 1891 have given the world a valuable experience-base with the national-level constitutional amendment initiative.[12] In the past 120 years, more than 240 initiatives have been put to referendums. The populace has proven itself conservative, approving only about 10% of these initiatives; in addition, they have often opted for a version of the initiative rewritten by the government. (See “Direct democracy in Switzerland” below.)[5][6][7][8]

Modern Direct Democracy also occurs within the Crow Nation, a Native American Tribe in the United States of America. The tribe is organized around a General Council formed of all voting-age members. The General Council has the power to create legally-binding decisions through referendums. The General Council was first enshrined in the 1948 Crow Constitution and was upheld and re-instated with the 2002 Constitution.[13]

Some of the issues surrounding the related notion of a direct democracy using the Internet and other communications technologies are dealt with in the article on e-democracy and below under the heading Electronic direct democracy. More concisely, the concept of open-source governance applies principles of the free-software movement to the governance of people, allowing the entire populace to participate in government directly, as much or as little as they please.[14]

Direct democracy is the basis of anarchist and left-libertarianism political thought.[15][16][17] Direct democracy has been championed by anarchist thinkers since its inception with direct democracy as a political theory has largely been influenced by Anarchism.[18][19]


Early Athens

Athenian democracy developed in the Greek city-state of Athens, comprising the city of Athens and the surrounding territory of Attica, around 600 BC. Athens was one of the first known democracies. Other Greek cities set up democracies, and even though most followed an Athenian model, none were as powerful, stable, or well-documented as that of Athens. In the direct democracy of Athens, the citizens did not nominate representatives to vote on legislation and executive bills on their behalf (as in the United States) but instead voted as individuals. The public opinion of voters was influenced by the political satire of the comic poets in the theatres.[20]

Solon (694 BC), Cleisthenes (608–607 BCE), and Ephialtes (562 BC) all contributed to the development of Athenian democracy. Historians differ on which of them was responsible for which institution, and which of them most represented a truly democratic movement. It is most usual to date Athenian democracy from Cleisthenes since Solon’s constitution fell and was replaced by the tyranny of Peisistratus, whereas Ephialtes revised Cleisthenes’ constitution relatively peacefully. Hipparchus, the brother of the tyrant Hippias, was killed by Harmodius and Aristogeiton, who were subsequently honored by the Athenians for their alleged restoration of Athenian freedom.

The greatest and longest-lasting democratic leader was Pericles; after his death, Athenian democracy was twice briefly interrupted by an oligarchic revolution towards the end of the Peloponnesian War. It was modified somewhat after it was restored under Eucleides; the most detailed accounts are of this 4th-century modification rather than of the Periclean system. It was suppressed by the Macedonians in 322 BC. The Athenian institutions were later revived, but the extent to which they were a real democracy is debatable.[21]


In Switzerland, with no need to register, every citizen receives the ballot papers and information brochure for each vote and election and can return it by post. Switzerland has various directly democratic instruments; votes are organized about four times a year. Here, the papers received by every Berne’s citizen in November 2008 about five national, two cantonal, four municipal referendums, and two elections (government and parliament of the City of Berne) of 23 competing parties to take care of at the same time.

The pure form of direct democracy exists only in the Swiss cantons of Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus.[22] The Swiss Confederation is a semi-direct democracy (representative democracy with strong instruments of direct democracy).[22] The nature of direct democracy in Switzerland is fundamentally complemented by its federal governmental structures (in German also called the Subsidiaritätsprinzip).[5][6][7][8]

Most western countries have representative systems.[22] Switzerland is a rare example of a country with instruments of direct democracy (at the levels of the municipalities, cantons, and federal state). Citizens have more power than in a representative democracy. On any political level citizens can propose changes to the constitution (popular initiative), or ask for an optional referendum to be held on any law voted by the federal, cantonal parliament and/or municipal legislative body.[23]

The list for mandatory or optional referendums on each political level are generally much longer in Switzerland than in any other country; for example, any amendment to the constitution must automatically be voted on by the Swiss electorate and cantons, on cantonal/communal levels often any financial decision of a certain substantial amount decreed by legislative and/or executive bodies as well.[23]

Swiss citizens vote regularly on any kind of issue on every political level, such as financial approvals of a schoolhouse or the building of a new street, or the change of the policy regarding sexual work, or on constitutional changes, or on the foreign policy of Switzerland, four times a year.[24] Between January 1995 and June 2005, Swiss citizens voted 31 times, on 103 federal questions besides many more cantonal and municipal questions.[25] During the same period, French citizens participated in only two referendums.[22]

In Switzerland, simple majorities are sufficient at the municipal and cantonal level, but at the federal level double majorities are required on constitutional issues.[12]

A double majority requires approval by a majority of individuals voting, and also by a majority of cantons. Thus, in Switzerland, a citizen-proposed amendment to the federal constitution (i.e. popular initiative) cannot be passed at the federal level if a majority of the people approve but a majority of the cantons disapprove.[12] For referendums or propositions in general terms (like the principle of a general revision of the Constitution), a majority of those voting is sufficient (Swiss Constitution, 2005).

In 1890, when the provisions for Swiss national citizen lawmaking were being debated by civil society and government, the Swiss adopted the idea of double majorities from the United States Congress, in which House votes were to represent the people and Senate votes were to represent the states.[12] According to its supporters, this “legitimacy-rich” approach to national citizen lawmaking has been very successful. Kris Kobach claims that Switzerland has had tandem successes both socially and economically which are matched by only a few other nations. Kobach states at the end of his book, “Too often, observers deem Switzerland an oddity among political systems. It is more appropriate to regard it as a pioneer.” Finally, the Swiss political system, including its direct democratic devices in a multi-level governance context, becomes increasingly interesting for scholars of European Union integration

3 thoughts on “Direct democracy

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