October 12, 2003
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The debate about direct versus representative democracy has been going on since the eighteenth century, although it is only recently in the populous open societies that direct democracy has come more into vogue. And nowhere is the political experiment more advanced than in the US state of California, which, as the international news anchors have been reciting ad nauseam, is the world’s fifth largest economy. It is also an economy in financial difficulty, whose current debt runs into billions of dollars - a situation which triggered the recall vote of former Governor Gray Davis. However, it is not just the recall election held last Tuesday which is evidence of direct democracy in action; there is also the fact that Californians have the right to vote on citizens’ initiatives (called ‘Propositions’) which can then become law if a majority of electors approves them. According to the Economist, since 1980 the electorate of California has been asked to vote on more than 120 such initiatives of which more than 50 have been adopted. The magazine cited the case of ‘Proposition 13,’ an initiative which originated with anti-tax crusader Howard Jarvis, and which 65% of Californians voted into law in 1978. As a consequence, the Economist says, property assessments were reduced to the levels of 1975-76; the property- tax rate was limited to 1% of the purchase price; and increases in valuations were restricted to 2% per annum until the property was sold. Furthermore, any new taxes had to be approved by two-thirds of both state and local legislatures.
The consequence has been disastrous where local government budgets are concerned, since money can’t be raised from property owners any longer, and local authorities are forced to turn to the state for support. In times of economic stress, such as now, the state cuts back on expenditure with the inevitable result, according to the Economist, of “ill-maintained highways and a deteriorating public-school system, in which only 30% of seventh-grade pupils meet the state’s levels for mathematics and language proficiency.”
In addition, these citizens ‘Propositions’ make it difficult for the state government to plan. For example, says the weekly, a citizen’s ‘Proposition 98’ passed in 1998 requires that a minimum of 40% of the general fund be spent on schools, while ‘Proposition 42’ passed in 2002 says that the sales tax on petrol must be spent on transport proposals. Together they account for 70% of the general fund, which itself represents four-fifths of the state budget. While several other factors have contributed to California’s financial crisis, the capriciousness which direct democracy has injected into the state government is one of the major ones. California is not the only place where questions have been raised about the desirability of direct democracy. Referenda have been held in several European countries, mostly relating to the European Union. As in Sweden recently, electors have sometimes been asked to decide on whether their nation should join the euro-zone or not - a highly technical issue. Inevitably the debate that precedes the ballot is geared to aspects which have some measure of voter appeal, but invariably do not reflect the complexity of the economic questions which have to be decided.
For all of that, in an era where voters have almost equal access to information as administrations, governments - and opposition parties, for that matter - ignore the views of electorates at their peril. They need direct democracy, at least in its benign form of feedback from voters, which they can then factor in to their policy formulations. The Conservative party in Britain, faced with the prospect of a possible third term on the opposition benches, has retained a company to carry out polls on its behalf to find out the views of voters on various issues, and how they perceive the party. On the basis of those findings, they are making adjustments to their policies.
In the average representative democracy, even before the advent of opinion polls, parties soon found out where they stood with an electorate come election time. Guyana in contrast, is a fairly unique case of a representative democracy where elections are not about policies or competence, but about ethnic solidarity and security. As such, therefore, the governing party has felt under no constraint to pay attention to views emanating from outside its charmed circle, even those originating from its larger constituency base.
All governments tend to become disconnected from the governed after eleven years in office, and the PPP/C is no exception. Both for that reason, therefore, and because of our unusual circumstances, it needs to make an especial effort to start listening to the people again - supporters and non-supporters - and take account of what they say. It should be past the stage of trying to manipulate public opinion through the state media; it didn’t work under the PNC, and it isn’t working now. If direct democracy in the form in which California has espoused it is inimical to good government, so is representative democracy where the people’s representatives are totally impervious to the views of voters.