The political world finds itself in the midst of massive transformation. Extremist views and doctrines that we thought had long been overcome, and the horror scenarios associated with them, suddenly seem possible again. Populism is on the rise. On the other side of the spectrum more and more frustrated people flock to the streets in protests against social injustice. But why do radical groups - left and right - gain more and more support and why are the established political forces under scrutiny? One aspect is that people do not agree with the politics of the incumbents as they do not feel represented anymore and thus losing trust in them. People are ready to vote for anybody who apparently offers an alternative - as vague or even dubious as it may be.
But what if the system actually nurtures the intransparency and the lack of control through the people? What if democracy as we know it today is not working for the people but for the interests of few?
Most democracies today have a system called ‘indirect democracy’ which means that every 4 to 5 years the people will vote for their representatives who then will represent the interest of the majority of the constituents or a state in the parliament. In this legislative period they will govern by delegation. Unfortunately more and more people do not feel represented by the politicians in the parliament. And since the people do not have a say in the specific themes like health care, security, immigration, labor etc. it makes them feel helpless and the next time they have to vote for a politician or a party they do not know whether they can trust the candidates to what they are promising.
So is democracy dead? Well one important asset could be to increase transparency and participation. This would mean that the people could actually participate in the political process with a feeling of being heard directly. The concept of direct democracy like for example in Switzerland requires a lot more political involvement of each citizen which obviously has it’s pro’s and con’s but it definitely shifts the last word in important topics to the people and helps people to set the public agenda which forces politics to address certain topics they would rather avoid. This is also why most established political forces from all coulors are against more involvement of the people, claiming that they lack the understanding of complex matters and should therefore be ‘protected from themselves’.
There is no intention to shift from the indirect democracy to a direct democracy. The initiators want to introduce one of the most powerful tools of the direct democracy to the indirect democracy: the binding people’sinitiative. The initiators believe that by shifting more power to the people, democracy as a whole is going to be strengthened and will become more resilient against anti-democratic movements. So if the binding people’s initiative is implemented, the political system will be challenged. Of course there will still be a parliament and a government and there will still be elections every 4 - 5 years. But with the possibility of the binding people’s initiative politics will be more directly accountable to the will of the people.
Binding People’s Initiative
A popular initiative is a tool which allows people to gather signatures from fellow citizens in order to address a certain issue. If an initiative gathers more than a certain amount of verified signatures of citizens in a strictly defined period of time the initiative will oblige the government to conduct a binding public vote. Usually the government has the possibility to put a counterproposal up for vote.
While most indirect democracies offer the possibility to start and submit a popular initiative - be it on communal, regional or federal level - the outcome has no binding effect. This means that, no matter how overwhelming the result, the governing body only needs to acknowledge the initiative. And even a resulting popular vote would be merely consultative - meaning not binding.
While there is a broad support from a lot of sides to introducing a binding popular vote, there is also a strong opposition. Especially powerful parties and politicians are against anything that goes into the direction of direct democracy. Their strongest arguments are that the most people are not interested in engaging in political processes anyway and that the majority of the people don’t have the understanding and expertise to vote on more complex matters.
While it might be true that the people might not always vote in favor of the interests of the established parties, fact is that if the people have access to the necessary information, have the right to start and support an initiative and are encouraged to go to vote, the final decision will be taken by the majority of the voting people and not by a few politicians elected every 4-5 years to represent the people. That’s a huge difference.
The initiators want to urge the Austrian government to hold a referendum on the introduction of the “binding people’s initiative”. While the initiators want to establish the binding people’s initiative on EU level, they see Austria as an important first step. So why Austria first? Austria is the perfect ‘test-market’ due to its size, the personal network of the initiators and the fact that major elections are coming up in 2018.
The initiators are a group of private people and from all political backgrounds. However the initiators are no politicians as it is important to be independent from all political parties. And even if the initiators’ political and social views may defer, the common goal is to shift some political power back to the people.
Please meet the representative of the initiators: Hermann Arnold.
Hermann Arnold is a serial entrepreneur and organizational innovator. He has been co-founder and longstanding CEO of Haufe-umantis, a democratically led company supporting organizations to transform for the future. He co-founded Vision Kids (computer training for kids), START (entrepreneurship initiative at universities), btov Partners (angel investor network), NEOS (political party in Austria), IT rocks (digital b2b cluster organization). He is Angel Investor in VIU (eyewear), agilentia (board room software), legion M (crowd entertainment) and others. He has been growing up in Innsbruck-Igls (Austria) and studying at the University St. Gallen (Switzerland). He is four times ironman finisher and proud father of a young and growing family.
In order to make people heard and therefore strengthen democracy the initiators want to build up reach, raise awareness and activate people to take a stance for the binding people’s initiative first in Austria and then in Europe. This lays the groundwork to develop enough power and pressure to convince the new Austrian government (and later the European Commission) to hold a referendum on the introduction of the binding people’s initiative.