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Opinion Direct democracy is the solution not the problem

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By Renat Künzi

A model of participatory democracy for Vienna's deputy mayor Maria Vassilakou: The Mariahilferstrasse, a former major traffic artery, was turned into a car-free promenade   


Meeting in San Sebastián last week, experts from more than 30 countries discussed ways to fend off attacks against participatory democracy. An international conference in Spain’s Basque Country provided some answers both in a local and global context.

Set against a series of ballot box upsets – notably in the United States, Britain and Colombia – activists, state representatives and academics exchanged ideas about granting citizens a direct say in political decisions.

“2016 has been a very intense year for direct democracy. But has it also been a good year?” asked David Altman, professor of political science in Chile.

Andreas Gross, a leading Swiss expert on direct democracy, said it was crucial to make a clear distinction between elections, votes on people’s initiatives and ballots on government-sponsored decisions, such as in Britain, Colombia or Hungary.

Salvör Nordal, director of the Ethics Institute at the University of Iceland and former chairwoman of the country’s constitutional council, said people’s initiatives were the best way to bridge the gap between the people and the political elite. It could also help stop the rise of populist leaders, she believed.

Opportunities and risks

Representatives from Spain’s Podemos (“We can”) movement as well as from Italy’s Cinque Stelle (Five Stars) group stressed the importance of digital tools to promote and develop direct democracy in their countries.

Are the social media a threat for democracy? A panel of experts from the US, Sweden and Germany, led by's deputy editor in chief Reto Gysi (second from right), discuss the issue at the 2016 Global Forum on Direct Democracy in San Sebastán


Vienna’s deputy mayor, Maria Vassilakou, and Grayce Liu of the department of neighbourhood empowerment in Los Angeles shared their experiences as city council officials, linking local participation and global co-existence.

Several experts also highlighted opportunities and risks for democracy from the growing impact of social media.

Read the report by’s Renat Künzi in the original German versionexternal link.

Urs Geiser,

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