Democracy for Dummies

(The Swiss referenda system for beginners)


Acknowledgement: A number of quotes and statistics in this essay are taken directly from the publication 'Guidebook to Direct Democracy – In Switzerland and Beyond' (2008 Edition) published by the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe. This comprehensive guide may be ordered via Email:


    The term 'democracy' is from the Greek, and means literally, 'peoples rule'. Ever since Athenian democratic rule triumphed over Sparta's totalitarian military rule 2,500 years ago, democracy has been evolving, from the Greeks to the Romans, then to Europe and the New World, and beyond. 

The modern version of democracy gained credence with The Great Charter in which King John  devolved the divine right of sovereign rule existing at the time to the people, albeit reluctantly, and only to the aristocracy of the time. Over subsequent centuries devolution included landowners, freemen, women and finally all citizens in the form of Representative Democracy (i.e. indirect parliamentary democracy) with universal suffrage. Democratic movements, as always, drew their power from dissatisfaction with political, social and economic conditions experienced by large sections of the population.

Representative Democracy is what we have in NZ today, where assemblies of elected  citizen representatives, and officials appointed by those elected representatives, execute the business of government in the greater public interest within the ideal of modern democracy where all citizens are free and equal.

Direct Democracy, where citizens vote directly on the business of Government as in the Athenian pre-modern assembly model, has continued evolving at a lesser pace. Representative Democracy, still controlled by society's privileged classes, was often sufficient to placate the majority of citizens and there was little opportunity, to exercise the right to 'peoples rule' by Direct Democracy. However as society evolved, population increased, and technology advanced, a growing plutocracy - rule by the privileged - created a new order of exploitation and Direct Democracy returned to the fore.

It was in revolutionary America where people had fled from the ever-growing European plutocracy, that the ideals of freedom and equality for all would be incorporated into the new constitutions of fledgling states. The first constitutional referenda vote took place in the  independent colony of Connecticut in 1639. In 1778-80 the constitutional referenda efforts of Massachusetts and New Hampshire were of particular importance to democratic ideals. These ideals were re-exported to Europe and in 1793 the Revolutionary French National Assembly decided to put a democratic constitution to the peoples' vote in a referendum. Ninety percent voted in favour, and that included the right of 10% of voters to demand referenda as needed. Direct democracy spread to Switzerland where it continues to this day( it did not survive in France under Napoleon) and then returned to the Americas in the late 19th century to the NW states of the USA and to Uruguay. After the Second World War instruments of direct democracy became important in many other countries, Italy, Australia, South Africa and Ecuador, for example

Direct Democracy, as a complement to our indirect Representative (Parliamentary) Democracy, is not idealistic nonsense from the past. It is an extremely practical idea...not least at provincial and local level. It is used, and continues to grow, throughout the world. Over the last 200 years there have been 1,430 national referendums held worldwide, most in the last 15 years. In 2006 in the USA over 9,000 referendums (propositions) were held; in the state of Bavaria  (Germany) there have been 1,200 popular ballots since 1995. In the European Union the citizens of 22 of the 27 member states have had the chance to vote directly on the EU. New Zealand lags far behind on the path to 'real democracy'.



        Direct Democracy is the right of a citizen to be directly involved in making political decisions about substantive issues. It achieves a more even distribution of political power and empowers citizens. Political power is not initiated and controlled from 'top down' but 'bottom up'. It returns the sovereign right of free people to govern themselves via their vote. Referendum take place only when the constitution stipulates, or a group of voters demand it.

       The three pillars of Direct Democracy are:

        The Mandatory Referendum incorporated into laws of parliamentary governance.    Where change to Parliamentary governance law, or Constitution if applicable, is proposed by government, a binding referendum vote must be held to confirm or reject any proposal.

        The Optional Referendum. New laws, or changes to existing laws passed by parliament, are subject to final approval by the electorate in a binding referendum, providing citizens call for a referendum and sufficient voters support the  call for such a vote. (Referenda may be initiated by Government as in the proposed referendum on NZ voting systems at the next general election).

        The Citizen Initiated Referendum  (the 'popular initiative' or 'popular ballot').  Where citizens have the right to place before the electorate matters which government may wish to avoid, or neglect to address.  Providing statutory requirements are met, an initiative will proceed to a binding referendum vote, irrespective of the wishes of Government or Parliament. 



First we need to examine indirect (i.e. NZ Parliamentary) democracy which itself is constantly evolving in response to changing political, social and economic factors.  In 2011, along with the election, Government is holding a binding referendum on potential changes to our voting system. It is termed a referendum but is actually a plebiscite, or national poll and should not be confused with a direct democracy referendum because government has decided when, and on what issue, the people are being consulted. NZ law, under the Citizens Initiated Referenda Act 1993, provides only for non-binding citizen initiative referenda. The results of the few actually held, have been ignored by government.

Indirect parliamentary democracy is more than simple majorities; there are wide variations of political systems throughout the world. It can vary from republicanism to socialism, bi-cameral and uni-cameral . In NZ it might include FPP, MMP, STV, list and party MP's, a variety of vote thresholds, and varying terms, all in any combination as it continues to evolve. However, what is consistent and common to all indirect democratic systems, is that empowerment does not reside with the citizens who vote; it resides with politicians who enjoy a monopoly over important sources of power, especially the right to determine the political agenda. They often see themselves as an elite, and the voter as an 'ordinary' citizen. Divisions are created and confirmed. Indirect democracy institutionalises an imbalance of power. There are no legitimate grounds today for maintaining that one category of people are better equipped to decide public affairs than another.

Direct Democracy also assumes different forms, and, like Representative (Parliamentary) Democracy, is constantly evolving in response to external factors and public perceptions. In all cases though, direct democracy is complementary to parliamentary or presidential systems of government. It provides oversight of political systems that determine the future and condition of the people; it does not replace government, but complements it.  Variations include the number of petition signatures required to trigger a referendum, the time and manner of collection, voter turn-out quorums, majorities required to pass laws, limitations on referenda subjects and funding, and differing binding/non-binding criteria.

In some cases Parliament has the right to make a counter-proposal to a referendum, and, following negotiations, petitioners may withdraw a proposed referendum if negotiations are able to achieve a compromise. Other variations include  the number of signature required to validate a Citizen Initiative proposal. In the Swiss canton of Aargau it is is 0.9% of registered voters for local referenda, but 2% for Swiss national initiatives. In the German state of Bavaria 10% of the electorate are required to sign, as it is under New Zealand's non binding system. In the USA the state of Wyoming needs 15% and North Dakota only 2% . In Italy 500,000 signatures nationally secure a referendum to change a law.

The time allowed to collect signatures varies widely between countries, often depending on whether it is a national, provincial, or local council initiative. In Aargau, local Citizen Initiated Referenda have 12 months to gather signatures, but Optional Referendums initiated by government have 90 days.  Voter turn-out quorums, where required to validate an initiative or referendum, can vary between no minimum to 50% or more.

What is plain is that each community negotiates within its political system as much democratic freedom as local conditions permit, established politicians are prepared to concede, or the populace wins by force of public demand. We must negotiate our own version of Direct Democracy. We have benefited from the sacrifices of those who founded the democracy we know today. In a world of rapid globalisation we must continue to expand democracy thus ensuring the freedoms we enjoy today are protected, and a legacy is passed to our descendants that equips them to preserve and grow those freedoms.


4.     LIKE A SWISS WATCH.........

Switzerland is an accepted example of a highly successful democratic state. Its population of 7.8 million, in a country of few natural resources, enjoys an excellent standard of living founded on a  high-tech economy, large service sector, and stable political system.

For over 140 years Switzerland's government, at local, provincial, and federal level, has operated Direct Democracy Referenda procedures. Switzerland leads the world in advancing democracy. It is manifestly obvious the interconnection and interdependence of citizens and politicians within Direct Democracy works!  Opinion polls show 90% of Swiss citizens will not countenance any curtailment of their statutory Direct Democratic rights. New Zealand, on the other hand, is sliding down the scale of contented societies and successful economies since its peak in the mid-fifties. It is time for change; New Zealand can become a 'South Seas Switzerland'. New Zealand need not adopt the Swiss example in its entirety, with its multi-lingual, cantonal and Federal factors, but utilise what is applicable to our history, culture, and aspirations. The following minimum requirements will achieve that ambition:

        Citizens must have the right to launch a popular initiative and referenda process themselves.

        Popular referendums must be binding and decided by a simple Yes/No response to proposals. 

        Referendums should not be held at the same time as General Elections where party politics might be used to confuse issue based politics.

        The role of Government and of public debate in referendum campaigns must be clearly defined.

        There shall be no minimum voter turnout quorums. Quorums permit non-voting to be used tactically to distort referenda results.

        There shall be realistic time available to gather petition signatures.

        Not less than six months between validated referendum proposal and voting day to allow adequate public debate.

        An elected body, independent of parliament, must set and oversee referenda procedure.

        All referenda campaign funding must be declared in the interests of transparency.

        Equal access and media time for those involved in referenda campaigns.



With implementation of Direct Democracy;

        Regular popular ballots on specific issues will promote a political culture of participation. Citizens become more politically confident and responsible, with a greater degree of mutual trust and social cohesion. 

        Citizens will have more effective control of Parliament and allows independent influence, both restraining and innovating. Politicians are tied more closely to society and must share their power.  Citizens must have the ability to decide on the same range of issues as their elected representatives.

        Greater public debate gives minorities the right to a public hearing and the opportunity to exercise that right thus furthering social integration.  The number of voices and minorities heard will be far greater, allowing compromises to be more readily agreed.

        The media, instead of promoting election manifestos, will focus on specific proposals for resolving specific problems. There would be a greater demand for, and greater supply of, quality political information.

        Politicians will take voters seriously all the time, not just before elections; they are interconnected and interdependent with citizens. Parliamentary behaviour will be modified to take into account as wide a political spectrum as possible before proposing legislation. (Citizens and legislators cannot be seen as two opposing tenets, for it is the citizens who are the sovereign power.)

        Well developed democratic procedures will allow citizens to go beyond simple resistance to parliamentary proposals, and offer constructive challenge and innovation in a more  participatory role in their own government. .

These points are by no means exhaustive but indicate the general social and political advantages of a truly democratic system.



Business often opposes Direct Democracy as it fears its influence on political parties is negated by the popular vote. This is an erroneous assumption. Empirical studies by mainstream  economists in Switzerland, Germany, and the US, show striking increases in economic performance where Direct Democratic procedures are utilised.

        In Swiss cantons with stronger rights of participation on financial issues, economic performance is 15% higher in terms of GDP per head.

        In Swiss cantons where citizens vote on the budget, there is 30% less tax avoidance; citizens are more prepared to support public expenditure when they have input on spending.

        In municipalities where the budget must be approved by referendum, public expenditure is 10% lower per head; citizens are more careful with tax money than politicians are.

        Municipalities which have a finance referendum have 25% lower public debt because of the two previous factors. 

In the United States, a 2004 study analysed to what extent public services (roads, education, utilities etc.) are provided, and whether there is a difference between states with referenda procedures, and those without. The data used was from 48 states between 1969 and 1986... prosperous years for the US. States without referendum initiatives were only 82% as effective as those with referenda provision, i.e. approximately 20% more government expenditure resulted where referenda were not available to the citizen.

The world is changing; our Westminster system of parliamentary democracy cannot keep up with social and economic change in our society. It is not evolving fast enough, we must move to the next level. Political and economic power is centralising and citizens are being marginalised.  The ideals of  freedom and equality can only be preserved by citizens direct involvement in the governance of society. It is then and only then, we will truly get 'the government we deserve'.


Contributed by G.M Waring

A Supporter of For Real Democracy NZ Inc.

18 July, 2010