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Democratic Dispatches

Ongoing coverage of the 2016 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy, an international conference about the role of citizen power in today's world. 

By Veronica DeVore
SWI swissinfo.ch

That's a wrap

Learnings and next stop: Turin

 (swissinfo.ch)
(swissinfo.ch)

That's a wrap for our coverage of this year's event; the next Global Forum for Direct Democracy is expected to take place in Turin, Italy in 2017. 

For ongoing, year-round direct democracy coverage, follow #deardemocracy on Twitter and on swissinfo.ch/directdemocracy

Some top takeaways from the 2016 Global Forum, from participants' point of view:


Participant profile

The Los Angeles experience

Grayce Liu is the general manager of the department of neighborhood empowerment in Los Angeles, also known as Empower LA.  At the Global Forum, she says she's found that grassroots citizen involvement projects all struggle with many of the same issues and that "we need to exchange methodology to promote an international network of democracy cities."

Here is her take on the work Empower LA has done so far, what remains to be done and what a new presidential administration in the US could mean for the project.


A Swiss evening

Learnings from Switzerland's system

 (swissinfo.ch)
(swissinfo.ch)

At San Sebastian's historic La Perla seaside restaurant, Switzerland played host to conference attendees with a panel discussion on its system of direct democracy. Participants were Stefan Klauser of the ETH Zurich,  Global Forum organizer Bruno Kaufmann, Swiss political scientist and democracy expert Andi Gross, and swissinfo.ch journalist Belen Couceiro.

Key quotes from the evening:

"Never vote on the rights of minorities, don't let money get too involved and don't limit direct democracy to the nation state" - Andi Gross on lessons Switzerland has learned and continues to struggle with in direct democracy

"Is it necessary to have a common language for a democracy? The Swiss example says no, and the work that is required to understand each other with all those languages makes the democratic process more effective." - Bruno Kaufmann

"Data is the oil of our times, and we have to ensure democratic access to it." - Stefan Klauser

"Switzerland's direct democracy isn't perfect, but it can be a source of inspiration for others" - Belen Couceiro

Ongoing coverage of Switzerland's direct democracy and the stories and challenges behind it is always available on swissinfo.ch's special website dedicated to the subject. 



Day 3 live stream

From San Sebastian to the world

The live stream of the final day of the conference can be watched below.

Session 6: digital media and democracy

The digital divide: does it exist?

Are we leaving certain groups of citizens out of the discussion by turning to digital democracy movements? Pablo Soto, a citizen participation activist in Madrid, says that the whole question of a digital divide is the wrong one to be asking.

"The digital divide doesn’t exist," he argued. "Voting by mail doesn’t create a postal democracy. It’s just an alternative channel go allow people to participate in democratic process."

Fellow panelist Geza Tesseny agreed that digital methods of participation like e-voting "are just an enabler to participate, a tool" and don't automatically create a divide.

However, 70-year-old Silvia asked the panel what they planned to do about educating herself and other non-digital natives for whom, she argued, a digital divide does exist. 

"As you know, our society is ageing," she said. "For us, it is difficult." 

Soto responded that the city of Madrid plans to take a similar approach to that question as to its recent issue of including homeless and unregistered citizens in its discussions: speak with people directly and find alternative ways to get them involved.

Session 6: digital media and democracy

Breaking through 'filter bubbles and echo chambers'

Stefan Klauser is lead strategist for the Digital Society project at Zurich's Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). In a discussion on digital media and democracy at the Global Forum, he said it's no secret by now that "democracy is under attack" because "in times of digital media and in particular social media, there is a lot of polarization."

The reason is the "filter bubbles and echo chambers" that digital media consumers often find themselves in. 

Is there hope to break through those polarizing feedback loops? Here's what he had to say. 


Session 5: movements and governments

Government of the people, or above the people?

This debate about how democratic movements can work within existing political structures began with an example from Tunisia's Mehdi Mimoun. It's a grassroots alliance of date farmers in the southern part of his country who decided to band together as an association and fund themselves, against the wishes of the government. A conflict ensued where the government froze the group's bank accounts and the accounts of members wanting to pay their dues to the organization. 

But the story didn't end there, Mimoun says, arguing that there's hope for governments and grassroots movements to work together. Civilians put so much pressure on the government to change its tune that, he says, a meeting is scheduled to take place next week to try to find solutions. 

In Spain, Jose Ignacio Urquizo says that social movements like Podemos came about because "citizens don’t feel that the government represents their interests" and there's a "crisis of representation". 

Not unlike what happened in the US with the election of Donald Trump, but Spain "went to the left instead of the right in response to dissatisfaction".

Are political parties or politicians themselves responsible for that distance between citizens and their governments? Alicia Lissidini of Uruguay mostly lays the blame at the feet of individual politicians who "evade their responsibilities".

Session 4: citizens' movements and media

Money, money, money

Getting money out of politics - it's a oft-heard battle cry, and many direct democracy activists argue that it should be left out of the process as much as possible.

But attitudes towards the nuances of that question differ among parts of the world. Paul Jacob of the United States, for example, finds that some funding is needed for direct democracy to work properly, such as for those who gather signatures.

"I think it’s fine if people are paid to collect signatures," he said. "If someone is collecting signatures all day, at night they have to eat too."

Overall, he still feels that "one of the benefits of direct democracy is that money isn’t as powerful as it is in candidate elections."

But across the Atlantic in Iceland, Salvör Nordal says that paying people to gather signatures probably wouldn't work out and would send a bad signal about direct democracy. 

"I don’t think we would agree wth people being paid, because it’s a smaller country and I also think we need to have limited money [involved]," she said, adding that strict laws about political funding came about after the 2008 financial crisis. 

In the end, though, both Jacob and Nordal agree direct democracy has to lead to results. 

"It undermines democracy if we are trying to engage the public and things don’t happen," Nordal said.

Session 4: Citizens' movements and media

Technology enables practical democracy

Panelist Pablo Soto, a councillor for citizen participation in the city of Madrid, said that technology was crucial to Spain's 15M anti-austerity movement since it allowed for fast organization and mobilization. But it didn't have to be fancy.

Technology such as Facebook or even Google Docs allowed movement organizers to apply what Soto called "swarm logic" - going to a specific place to address a specific problem, such as evictions that were taking place all over Spain which he says members of 15M were able to stop with their presence.

Paul Jacob, speaking from his experience in the United States, said that there are certain issues that can only be addressed through direct democracy, such as term limits for politicians, which he has been fighting for for a long time.

"This was a movement with tremendous public support but the possibilities were somewhat limited because politicians hated it," he said. 

But in all direct democracy issues, the result is what people care about, not the process, Jacob said. 

"They don’t so much think of democracy as a wonderful process, but that democracy might allow me to get something."

That means technology has become more important than ever in mobilizing people who are busier and don't have time to take on leadership roles or physically attend meetings, Jacob points out.

US and beyond

The media's role in elections

American Paul Jacob hosts an online, radio and print opinion programme called Common Sense, aired daily by more than 150 stations in the United States. He shared his thoughts on a topic on many people's minds after the US election last week: the role of the media and social media in the election of Donald Trump.

The question of media's increasing digitization and the influence on democracy was also the topic of a debate last night at the Global Forum, sponsored by Zocalo Public Square:

Day Two Live Stream

Citizens' Movements and Media

The live stream of the second day of the Forum is available to watch below-


Session 3: Democracy as a human right?

Deep discussions

This was the question driving the discussion in the Global Forum's third session:

Panelists took the opportunity to delve deep into the human impulses behind democracy and wanting to participate. 

"People don’t want to replace those in power, this isn’t their major impulse," said Fernando Pindado of Spain's Catalunya region (Barcelona). "People are not tired of not having power, but of not being able to be themselves." 

In South Korea, Jung-Ok Lee does view direct democracy as a sort of right, since she says that it's directly linked to protesting. In her country, she finds that "our only form of direct democracy is going out into the streets". 

And local Koldo Santiago of Donostia/San Sebastian gave an impassioned speech about how the motivations for direct democracy require us to look inward. 

"Do we want direct democracy for better democracy, or more power?" he challenged. 

"Why does representative democracy disappoint us? How can direct democracy correct that?"

And, for the voters who chose the new American president last week, "What is there of Donald Trump in me? What’s flourishing inside ourselves?"

Santiago's speech can be viewed in English here.

Session 2: Democracy City

Voting on everything: potential pitfalls

While voting on issues like the creation of a pedestrian street has worked for Vienna, there are other things that are a no-go for direct democracy, argues Maria Vassilakou. First of all, there are legal considerations: the Austrian Constitution stipulates that no direct votes may be held on issues of taxes and fees because "no one wants to pay for anything". Then, there are special interests and fairness to consider.

"We can't have old people voting on whether children should be able to play in the neighborhood – some topics aren’t right for direct democracy," Vassilakou says. 

Same thing for issues such as topics that directly affect a specific population: "I don’t want to live in a society where people can vote on women’s rights, like in Poland a few weeks ago," she added.

In the end, she finds the question of whether to put an issue to a direct vote down to a few questions that can be difficult to answer: Who is affected directly? Who profits from a certain measure, and who has something to lose?

Session 2: Democracy City

On the streets: going to the people

How can cities get all citizens involved in decision-making? Some dos and don'ts, according to Maria Vassilakou of Vienna and Grayce Liu of Los Angeles who have been working on the issue in their cities.

Do conduct test phases of proposals - for example, during a highly contested vote over whether to turn Vienna's main shopping street into a pedestrian zone, the city tested what it would be like without cars. In the end, the initiative narrowly passed.

Do give citizens a way to design their own neighbourhoods. Vienna gives small subsidies to people who want to conduct small projects on their street corners, as long as those are free and accessible to all. So far, the city has transformed 120 neighbourhoods in this way.

Don't ask yes or no questions on questionnaires or in opinion polls, but ask qualitatively what people want and need.

Do engage with citizens in different places at different times of day to get a range of opinions.

Don't put too many limits on how and when citizens can get involved: "A lot of time we expect people to come to city hall on a work day at a certain time. We have to be flexible," says Liu.

Don't expect that everyone will participate, Liu adds. "There are just some people who don’t want to be involved, and that’s their choice."

In the end, she says, it comes down to a few question for city citizens: Do I matter? And if I wanted to participate, could I? 

Session 1: Types of Democracy

How to communicate with voters?

From the North American point of view, Michael B. Salerno of San Francisco and Cindy Hanson of Regina, Canada both pointed out the importance of considering how information is being given to citizens participating in referendums and initiatives. 

Salerno pointed out that information about a recent ballot initiative in California only reached voters about two weeks before the election and that the issues were explained in too-complex legal terms.

"The law is complicated, but the challenge of direct democracy is how it is structured," he said. "It’s the genie in the bottle and before you uncork it you had better figure out the method you’re going to use [to communicate with voters]."

Hanson agreed that "using a language people don’t understand doesn’t help" and that it's important to "think of the tools we’re using to solicit citizen engagement". For example, she asked, how do you engage a largely illiterate population and make sure they're properly informed and involved?

Session 1: types of democracy

Switzerland: the gold standard?

In the first panel discussion about types of democracy and what they can do for societies, Switzerland was referenced by representatives from other parts of the world as a "gold standard" for direct democracy. Adrian Schmid, a former parliamentarian from Lucerne behind more than a dozen initiatives and referendums, says that the key to success is finding ways for representative and direct democracy systems to work together.

One such way is the so-called "double yes" vote, which gives voters more options than yes or no and introduces an "if/then" statement to add nuance to vote options. That was introduced in Switzerland in 1987. Another mechanism to make the systems work together, says Schmid, is seeking partners in parliament when launching a citizens' initiative. 

Finally, there's the question of public opinion influencers and how much power they have. One issue that the Swiss will vote on later this month - whether to get rid of nuclear power - saw an unusual increase in support at first, thanks to the influence of large interest groups.

"The backers used big organizations like Greenpeace to fight for this initiative, with a lot of power behind them," he explains. "We need to find more ways for smaller groups to have the same kind of influence."

More on the nuclear vote below, which is now expected to be close:



Day one live stream

From local participation to global coexistence

The live stream of the first day of the Global Forum can be viewed here:


Powerful performance

The Basque bullfight

At the Forum's opening evening, the basque performer Mursego took the stage to share traditional music with a twist - layers of sound that she uses to turn herself into a one-woman band.

Mursego is not a democracy activist or politician, but she did say she thinks there's still "a lot of work to be done" in the Basque country when it comes to citizen participation and consulting with the people before making laws. 

She performed a version of a traditional Basque song called, called "Zezenak Dira" - or "there's a bull fight" - fitting for the democratic hot topic in the Basque country of whether bull fights should continue to be allowed:




Opening words

'Bridges between islands'

In their opening remarks to participants, Global Forum co-presidents Bruno Kaufmann and Joe Mathews emphasized the focus of this year's event: "local love and global commitment", as Mathews put it.

Kaufmann spoke of cities' roles as "islands of democracy", acknowledging that "democracy can also be a great challenge and dangerous. We have to struggle to build islands for democracy and bridges between those islands".

"Donostia/San Sebastian is one of those islands that is able to build bridges between people," he added. 

Islands visible from San Sebastian (swissinfo.ch)

Islands visible from San Sebastian

(swissinfo.ch)

The Basque moment

'Swimming against the tide'

Eneko Goia, the mayor of Donostia/San Sebastian, officially opened the Forum by acknowledging the protesters outside as a sign that his is "a vibrant city with people expressing their opinions". And with a nod to a difficult past among groups including Basque separatists, the city leader declared that "we are swimming against the tide, making a commitment to peaceful co-existence which is difficult to achieve in so many parts of the world today".

Later, his colleague Duñike Agirrezabalaga of Donostia's city council said that the region had been able to shake off the threat of terrorism and "do away with the use of violence to achieve political objectives". She also echoed that those demonstrating the metro project outside have the right to protest decisions made by her council. However, she pointed out that she "never saw many of those outside now protesting when one of their adversaries was assassinated" in the past.

swissinfo.ch recently spoke with Agirrezabalaga about San Sebastian's democratic path in the article below. 


Democracy in action

Protesters greet the Global Forum

 (swissinfo.ch)
(swissinfo.ch)

At the event's official opening on Wednesday, Global Forum attendees were greeted by protesters gathered in front of San Sebastian's city hall in opposition to a project to build an underground subway line that they feel was forced upon them. 

They used the Global Forum's presence in their city to argue that their democratic rights had been crushed by the city's plans. 

From Tunisia to Spain

Where we left off

The last Global Forum for Modern Direct Democracy was held in Tunis, Tunisia in 2015 amid fundamental conversations about democratic movements in that country. Since then, the National Dialogue Quartet, a team advocating for democracy in Tunisia, has won the Nobel Peace Prize, and the work continues. Here's where things stood at the end of the last Global Forum.