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Procédure de démocratie directe

Sciences politiques
Institut de Sciences politiques Université catholique du Chili

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Définition de l'entrée
MDD is a publicly recognized institution where citizens decide or emit their opinion on issues—other than through legislative and executive elections—directly at the ballot box through universal and secret suffrage.

Pour citer cet article

David ALTMAN, « Procédure de démocratie directe », in CASILLO I. avec BARBIER R., BLONDIAUX L., CHATEAURAYNAUD F., FOURNIAU J-M., LEFEBVRE R., NEVEU C. et SALLES D. (dir.), Dictionnaire critique et interdisciplinaire de la participation, Paris, GIS Démocratie et Participation, 2013, ISSN : 2268-5863. URL :


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Startingfrom this definition, it is important to distinguish between three classes of MDDs: (1) those that are “citizen-initiated” (through the gathering of signatures), hereafter CI-MDDs, (2) “top-down” MDDs (triggered by the sitting legislative assembly, the executive power, or both), hereafter TD-MDDs, and (3) constitutionally mandated MDDs. Citizen-initiated mechanisms of direct democracy include popular initiatives (new laws or constitutional amendments initiated by citizens and the put to a popular vote) and referendums (which concern either the rejection of a recently approved law or a bill discussed in parliament). Top-down mechanisms of direct democracy include measures placed on the ballot by the legislature or the executive (or both). Finally, mandatory referendums are those where citizens participate deciding directly at the ballots on constitutional matters or basic laws as convened by the very same constitution or basic law. For example, neither in Switzerland nor in Uruguay for that matter a single comma of the constitution could be changed without popular direct ratification.

Therefore, a sine qua non characteristic of all MDDs is the vote itself, and from this perspective, MDDs are composed of those mechanisms through which, after the representatives and the government are elected, the citizenry continues to be – voluntarily or involuntarily, explicitly or implicitly – a potential veto actor or a proactive player in the political process. Yet, it is important to note what is not included in the definition offered here, for example legislative popular initiatives such as the recently approved European Popular Initiative. An LPI exists when the citizenry forces the legislature to consider a proposed action or a bill (though the legislature will not necessarily accept it), which represents control over the agenda rather than a tool for political change. Given that there is no a popular vote unavoidably, LPIs are not considered as belonging to the realm of direct democracy. Moreover, it is important to differentiate between direct democracy and other institutions of deliberation, political leverage or participation, such as the mechanisms of participatory budgeting used in several cities in Latin America (e.g., Porto Alegre, Rosario, etc). In these cases, despite the fact that citizens might participate in public deliberations, there is not necessarily a universal and secret vote on such agreements, if a vote even occurs. Needless to say, no informal mobilizations of people (e.g., the Piqueteros in Argentina or the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra in Brazil) are considered here. To be sure, I am not stating that these forms of civic participation are not important enough to be studied, the entire contrary: I am stating simply that they do not fulfill the operationalization of the concept of direct democracy offered here. It has to be said, however, that sometimes researchers and experts fall prey to the temptation of describing as direct democracy anything that does not fit perfectly into the regular institutions of participation and representation. Though understandable, it is crucial to provide clear substance to direct democracy and not referring to it as a simple residual category.

Though it has not traditionally been a major topic of contemporary democratic theory, the debate between supporters and detractors of direct democracy has been extensive, and is of increasing theoretical and practical relevance. Part of the discussion lies on the fact that scholars are looking at different institutions of direct democracy. Thus the differentiation between CI-MDDs and TD-MDDs is crucial because habitually, from a cross-national perspective, the latest usually represent plebiscitary means either for bypassing other representative institutions, disengaging from the responsibility of tough policies, or simply as mobilization/legitimization populist tools. In other words, plebiscites only rarely represent a genuine intention of increasing civic participation, citizen enlightenment, or strengthening democratic institutions.

These discussions have fostered numerous themes for exploration; one of these critical points refers to whether an active use of mechanisms of direct democracy fosters or undermines the representative game through enlightening citizens or alienating them from participating at representative elections. On the intimate relationship between direct democracy and participation, two evident questions arise: does an active use of mechanisms of direct democracy impact electoral participation?  If so, what does this relationship look like? For some, if citizens’ concerns and demands can be addressed (and solved) directly by them at the ballot box, then why bother electing authorities? For others, an active use of direct democracy not only bolsters representative democracy through enhancing electoral participation, but also increasing citizens’ political awareness, making them virtuous, and in some way, emancipated. If this is so, then direct democracy could serve as the “medicine” needed to cure the presumed current maladies representative democracies face nowadays (civic disaffection and alienation, low trust in government, and so forth). Nonetheless, if frequent uses of direct democracy “burn” citizens, we must reconsider the claims for further expansion of direct democracy.

As it is already evident, direct democracy is not a monolithic concept and therefore any assessment of the relationship between direct democracy and political participation must be undertaken with extreme caution. I claim that an active culture of direct democracy has a significant effect on electoral participation. Yet, this effect is dissimilar across types of MDDs (citizen initiated v. top-down), and is not necessarily linear—as previously demonstrated by the literature. While I expect CI-MDDs to foster electoral participation in general elections, I also anticipate finding a “saturation effect” after a certain threshold of use is reached. In other words, the use of citizen-initiated mechanisms of direct democracy fosters citizen participation but crossing certain thresholds, direct democracy becomes inimical in bringing citizens to the ballot box in elections for authorities. Therefore, an inverse U-shape relationship is expected. Simultaneously, frequent uses of top-down mechanisms of direct democracy (i.e. plebiscites) may alienate citizens from the electoral game in general elections. In other words, when authorities systematically call citizens to the ballot box it may erode the quality of participation.

No doubt that the impact of MDDs on electoral participation in general elections is clearly context-sensitive. On the one hand, the American literature tends to show that an active use of MDDs have a positive effect on civic participation in other type of elections. On the other hand, Swiss studies then to show that the saturation effect does in fact exist. This proposition, however, has not to be read as a call for halting the use of mechanisms of direct democracy whatsoever. To the contrary, while the use of top-down direct democracy seems to reduce participation at elections, the use of a citizen-initiated mechanisms of direct democracy may have other positive effects, which might overwhelm the participation dimension; for instance, greater majority rule, improvement in economic performance, or better provision of public services, and even an increase in human happiness. Of course, all these works also rely on single case studies and therefore much more research is needed before any conclusive evidence is proposed.

Even within a single type of MDD (e.g. popular initiative) there exist important differences at the procedural level as well as among the available possibilities for their deployment. These differences are crucial for assessing the degree of potential penetration of direct democracy in a given society and its relationship with civic participation. For example, any CI-MDD must fulfill some requirement before reaching the ballots. Promoters of a popular initiative or referendum must show the authorities a predetermined portion of citizens endorsing their objectives (and this foundation is universally achieved through signatures); once checked by the competent authorities, the measure is triggered. This proportion of the electorate oscillates between 2 and 3 percent of the electorate for popular initiatives (e.g., in Hungary, Slovenia, or Switzerland) to 25 percent for a referendum as in Uruguay. This phenomenon can be classified as an entry hurdle. The more “expensive” the entry hurdles are, the less the probabilities of exercising MDDs.But there are other critical aspects to take into account: participation quorums, approval quorums, time limits (or circulation time for triggering an MDD), decisiveness of the MDD (whether binding or not), and qualifiers (exclusion of potential issues to consider).

Another critical aspect that many times goes underscrutinized is the fact that the very same architecture of a MDD works in miscellaneous ways contingent to the institutional arena where is activated. In other words, the very same popular initiative (in terms of circulation time, amount of signatures, etc, etc) will have different effects if it is activated in the context of a parliamentarian or presidential regime, in a two or multiparty party system, and the like. From a worldwide perspective, evidence tends to show that size of the population of a country has no effect on the use of MDDs, as theory would assume. As a general rule, we can affirm that the institutional inheritance of a country has important consequences on the uses of MDDs, as former British colonies resort less to these institutions and former communist states resort to them more, regardless of subtype of MDDs. It is clear that CI-MDDs are positively associated with the level of democracy and regime age and are more likely to be used in times of economic hardship. Contrary to theoretical predictions, federalism has a negative impact on the uses of this type of MDDs.

One of the critical features of institutional design that has a blunt effect on participation are the participation quorums. In some countries, the decision at the polls is contingent on a minimum number of citizens participating in the procedure (such as in Italy or most of the member of the Commonwealth of Independent States), which is concomitant with the existence of compulsory voting for certain measures (such as in Uruguay). For example, in some countries, MDDs are approved by simple majorities, yet differences persist in whether the simple majority relates to all votes or only to all valid votes. In other countries, an MDD is approved only if a qualified majority of all enrolled citizens endorse the MDD. 

The debate on the necessary requirements for approval of an MDD opens the door for other discussions. One is related to the imputed preferences of passive citizens (those who do not participate). Assume, for example, that there is a participation quorum of 50 percent (as it is in Italy and many Central European countries). About 70 percent of the electorate is willing to vote. Among those willing to vote, a significant majority, about 70 percent, support “A” (the objectives of the MDD) and about 30 percent support “B,” opposing its objectives. A superficial perception of the situation is that the “B” option is likely to be overwhelmed by “A,” but a more cautious view provides an alternative interpretation. If “B” voters stay at home on the decision day, their opinion will prevail because the 50 percent quorum will not be obtained. Thus, the literature suggests that the existence of a participation quorum has at least one perverse potential outcome and it is known in the literature as the “No-Show paradox”. It is possible that the quorum is not reached precisely because of its existence or, paradoxically, participation increases when no quorum exists.

The political implications of these findings are relevant in an era when more often than not we hear cries for more direct democracy coming from rather diverse origins (even from the antagonistic left-right political extremes). Many politicians and advocates who are concerned with the increasing disaffection and cynism of citizens call for the re-invention of government through a more intense use of direct democracy as a way to address, at least in some small way, the ‘democratic deficit’. Paradoxically, if the findings of this research are solid enough, an intense use of direct democracy, when triggered “above,” could increase citizen alienation from the electoral game, and maybe from the whole representative game of democracy. Thus, serious consideration is essential before engaging in any attempt to mobilize citizens to decide on topics that, maybe, should have decided in the legislature or the executive by themselves.

Finally, it is important to note that decisions taken through MDDs do not preclude high quality decisions. The fact that a decision was taken by the citizens directly and by majority rule does necessarily mean a better or wiser decision. Nor am I arguing that decisions taken by CI-MDDs are necessarily efficient, good, just, or that there is no tension between these decisions and representative institutions. Rather, I am claiming simply that such decision-making is more democratic. Actually, a simple view on several of the last MDDs held in Switzerland (e.g. banning of construction of new minarets, limits to immigration, deportation of criminals, and freedom to carry guns) or in the United States (bans on same-sex marriage, prohibition of the use of marihuana for cancer patients, or the amendment that prohibits government from discriminating or giving preferential treatment on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national originetc) push as to think on the quality of such decisions. Of course, the normative evaluation on the quality of these MDDs will be contingent to each person’s political stand; it is hard to defend the idea that they are “good” because they were taken just by majority rule.

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