35 years ago, eight people had one goal: the introduction of direct democracy at all political levels, especially at the German federal level. To this end, they founded Mehr Demokratie. 35 years later, our association has over 10,000 comrades-in-arms. Together with them, we have come a long way - but where do we really stand? There are no nationwide referendums in Germany. In comparison to other European countries, we are alone in this respect.
Every goal has its way, and Mehr Demokratie has already gone part of the way. Whether it was the longer part or just a few metres on a still very long road? We do not know. The comparison with Switzerland is often lame, but at least it gives an indication: depending on which historical point one considers to be the decisive one, between 60 and almost 100 years passed in Switzerland before direct democratic procedures were fully introduced. First came the procedures in the cantons, then the veto referendum at the federal level, and even later the initiative from below!
The Federal Republic of Germany is almost ten times larger than Switzerland, both in area and population. While none of its inhabitants was able to experience the founding of Switzerland in 1848, some Germans still experienced the dark chapter before the founding of the Federal Republic themselves, and many Germans even had to endure a dictatorship for a large part of their lives. Even if it doesn't seem like it to us: German democracy is still young.
All the greater is the task that Mehr Demokratie has set itself. And anyone who claims to know exactly the way to introduce direct democracy at the federal level is mistaken. He or she might as well claim to be able to predict the future with a crystal ball. We will always have to argue about this path. What we can do from today is, on the one hand, to maintain and carry forward our core concerns and, on the other hand, to take up some of the things that are on the way and integrate them into our work.
What is and remains our core
Over the past 35 years, Mehr Demokratie has been instrumental in shaping the expansion of direct democracy in Germany. Where possible, we have shaped this expansion together with parliaments. Where resistance was too great, we initiated civil society alliances and expanded direct democracy at the municipal and state level through referendums and other campaigns. Today, every German federal state has citizens' petitions and referendums, popular petitions and referendums at the municipal and state level. This has contributed to a more vibrant democracy, because citizens use these new opportunities with reason and moderation. This is where we must continue. The next step must be the introduction of optional referendums in as many federal states as possible. We must vehemently oppose retrograde steps such as those currently being taken in the federal state of Schleswig-Holstein - where necessary with a people's initiative! Direct democracy must become part of the life experience and reality of many citizens.
What we also have to take care of
In addition, the crisis of representative democracy is becoming more and more an issue for us. This must be the case. We can only call for more democracy if we mean direct democracy. Here, too, the comparison: despite quarterly votes, nine out of ten decisions in Switzerland are taken by parliaments and are not taken up again by direct democracy.
Low voter turnout, low confidence in (parliamentary) democracy, dramatically declining membership of political parties that provide political personnel and issues almost monopolistically - this is a mixture that must worry us all. We need new rules for party democracy that better meet the changed social demands for transparency and participation. We need parliaments that make decisions enriched by good citizen participation - and not in the ritualised wrangling between coalition and opposition, nor as the extended workbench of an overly powerful executive. And we need electoral rights that give citizens a real say over those who act for a time on behalf of the sovereign.
Also: citizen participation. Where direct democracy reaches its limits and representative democracy fails to make progress, citizen participation is able to cut many a Gordian knot. Lot-based citizens' councils and other participation procedures can usefully complement parliamentary as well as direct democracy, because they enrich the political process with their special structure and culture.
By the way, all this is not so new. As early as 1988, the year Mehr Demokratie was founded, people in the association were thinking about such questions. Many of the things that were already thought about back then we are taking up again today and with greater vigour.
Where we can sharpen our work
Mehr Demokratie is also a professional association for democracy. We advise initiatives on formal issues and evaluate (direct) democratic procedures. This work is enormously valuable because there is no body in Germany that collects data on direct democratic practice and its problems so intensively. Administrations lack qualified advice due to a lack of experience and neutrality. If direct democracy is to increasingly become part of a positive life experience for citizens, we need better procedures based on empirical findings and a comprehensive transfer of knowledge.
We are also building up an advisory service for citizens' councils, i.e. random participation procedures. In future, we will document all procedures in a database and evaluate them scientifically. A comprehensive evaluation will probably be published before the end of the year!
What we want to develop
The tasks we have are too big for the existing organisation. Therefore, we have already transferred tasks to spun-off organisations and alliances in the past. Democracy International, for example, came into being in 2012 because Mehr Demokratie would have been overwhelmed by intensive international work. Abgeordnetenwatch was also formed out of Mehr Demokratie.
In the field of political education, there is a lack of an organisation specialising in democratic procedures and the culture of democracy. There are few educational organisations in Germany that specialise as strongly as we do in elections, voting and civic participation procedures. We want to create an offer for this in the near future.
Where it is necessary and makes sense, we want to change roles and act as implementers, as we have already done in the Losland project with the implementation and monitoring of citizen participation in 10 municipalities.(https://www.losland.org/) We have also been able to gain a lot of experience in the implementation of the first two citizens' councils at the federal level, which we can now bring to bear together with our partners on behalf of the Bundestag for the Citizens' Council on Nutrition. We are concerned with the quality of the moderation, the overall process design and the publicity.
Nothing is as effective as a good example! In any case, Germany often lacks the courage to try out new democratic procedures and, if they work, to establish them. Mehr Demokratie! has this courage. And so we will continue to make an essential contribution to the step-by-step development of democracy in Germany - independent of party politics, neutral on issues and financed by donations. And we are happy about everyone who supports us!