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International symposium The different faces of direct democracy

Demonstration in Bratislawa gegen die slowakische Regierung nach dem Mord an einem Journalisten und seiner Verlobten.

Protesters in the Slovak capital, Bratislava,  call on the government to launch a probe into the shooting of the investigative journalist, Jan Kuciak and his partner, Martina Kusnirova. The killing is considered an attack on democracy


Switzerland has the strongest direct democracy in the world but it is not unique as the example of Uruguay in Latin America shows. In eastern Europe, on the other hand, this political system is under pressure, a recent international conference in Germany has heard.

The Swiss are said to be proud of their democracy. Indeed, no other country in the world offers a similar number of options for political participation and these citizen’s rights are used frequently.

With its more than 720 nationwide votes over the past 150 years, Switzerland is way ahead of any other country.

Yet there is no reason for Switzerland to fall into the trap of complacency

Votes take place in many other countries although for quite different reasons as an international expert meeting on Political Culture and Active Citizenshipexternal link in Wuppertal, Germany, earlier this month showed.

Crushed hopes

There have been high hopes for more democracy have in eastern Europe, but many the former Soviet states in the region struggled on their way to a stable democratic system, as Zoltán Tibor Pállingerexternal link from Hungary and Peter Spáčexternal link from Slovakia explained during the three-day symposium.

Pállinger says direct democracy in Hungary has been hiajcked by political parties 

(Andrássy Universität Budapest)

The reasons given by the two democracy experts are manifold. It is naïve to take for granted a general yearning for more democracy worldwide. They argued it’s time to give up such a false notion as it would allow a better understanding of the situation and the direct democratic tradition in Eastern Europe.

Pállinger, professor of political science at the Andrássy University of Budapest, described the absence of an active and critical civic society as the main reason for the difference. He said the government of Viktor Orbán was trying stop citizens’ initiatives in their tracks by imposing rigorous formal rules. In practice, it unwelcome political moves can fail because a comma is put in the wrong place of a written proposal.

Mass mobilisation

Compared with Switzerland, the hurdles that need to be overcome for citizens’ participation in Hungary are high. Pállinger’s conclusion: Direct democracy in Hungary has been “colonised” by political parties and is merely a tool for the mobilisation of citizens.

This is an article in the series #DearDemocracyexternal link, the direct democracy platform of Contributors, including outside authors frequently share their views. The opinions expressed here are not necessarily those of

Sandro Lüscher studied political science at the University of Zurich and runs a blog on political life in Switzerland (in German).

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A similar general trend is noticeable in Slovakia according political scientist Spáč from the Masaryk University in Brno. His country undergoes a serious political crisis in the wake of the murder of an investigative journalist and Spáč says virtually nobody has any hope that participatory democracy could help improve the situation.

Initiatives often fail at an early stage because there not enough signatures are collected or because of a high turnout quorum demanded for ballot box decisions.

Only eight initiatives have succeeded in passing the quorum according to Spáč. He also mentioned cases there the initiatives were simply ignored by the authorities which refused to implement them.

He said referendums were often abused to achieve other political goals, not to challenge a decision.

Swiss model in Latin America

There is a silver lining at the horizon in Latin America, the participants of the Wuppertal meeting heard. Uruguay is not only the country with most nationwide votes on the South American continent, it also has a very lively culture with diverse political parties. These two elements form a unique mix according to Rafael Piñeiroexternal link, a professor for political science at the Catholic University of Uruguay in Montevideo.

He pointed out that citizens’ initiatives in Uruguay are often mooted by party grassroots. In some cases, these proposals were formally launched against the explicit recommendation by the party leaders and following a party-internal vetting process.

“There is no such thing as cheap political propaganda in Uruguay’s direct democracy. The highly democratic political parties don’t allow this,” he told in an interview.

His optimistic view was in stark contrast to other findings presented at the symposium in Wuppertal.


The importance and the development of direct democratic systems depends from one country to the next due to its specific and cultural context.

In some countries, direct democracy is used by the opposition to challenge the government while elsewhere it is an instrument of the government. 

There are also cases where active and critical citizens use participatory rights as a well-established tool, and others where direct democracy plays no part at all.

 In a nutshell: it is not possible to give a brief overview of the global development of direct democracy.

Despite all the disparities, the researchers at the Wuppertal meeting agreed that a direct democratic system can only work properly if many conditions are fulfilled.

They include strong institutions, which guarantee the rule of law and legally binding statutory rights as well as a civil society willing to actively shape policy changes.

Not least of all, it takes a sound relationship between the electorate and the authorities and the hurdles for citizens’ participation must not be inhibited by turnout quorums.

Otherwise direct democracy remains an empty promise.

Adpated from German/urs,

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