The illusion of equality

The right to petition for a referendum differs from state to state, and in some states one has never been held

The new referendum report by mehr demokratie shows that referendums are increasingly becoming a means of shaping the political will, but also exposes the inequality between state burghers as well as party wills.

Frank rehmet’s report initially shows some progress at first glance:

  1. In 2008, six referendums were held, more than ever before. At 43 percent, the success rate was also "significantly higher than the long-term average of 27 percent".
  2. In the coalition with gal, the cdu in hamburg removed some of the obstacles to direct democracy that it had introduced when it was still in power on its own. At the same time, laws passed by referendum were protected from subsequent changes by the citizenry. This had become necessary after the cdu had reversed several referendums during its rule and made the situation even more difficult by changing the law.
  3. The quorums for referendums in hamburg are now unique in germany. From now on, they will be based on the voter turnout in the simultaneous city council or federal elections. In this way, a referendum reflects the will of the citizens who are actually politically active, without the increasing proportion of non-voters distorting the result, as has been the case in the past. In hamburg, arbitrarily set participation quotas applied until then, which had the paradoxical consequence that referendums failed despite majority approval.
  4. In bremen, the hurdles for referendum petitions were lowered from ten to five percent and for referendums from 25 to 20 percent of those eligible to vote.

However, these successes are contrasted by questionable differences between the individual federal states. The idea of federalism to stimulate competition between countries and thus force them to make progress seems to be an illusion in the case of citizen participation as well. It’s a paradox, but the political equality of federal citizens apparently differs from state to state.

The illusion of equality

As a result, referendums were only held in six german states: hamburg, bavaria, schleswig-holstein, berlin, saxony and saxony-anhalt. In all other federal states, direct-democratic procedures (popular initiative, popular petition, referendum) fail due to the required minimum participation or the prescribed circumstantial collection procedures for signatures. Significantly, those states, with the exception of bavaria and berlin, also provide for reimbursement of the costs of direct-democratic initiatives. Reimbursement has already been planned in berlin, "but overturned at the last minute". This reimbursement of costs prevents the political influence of citizens from decreasing with their account balance.

Brandenburg is in third place behind hamburg and bavaria with a total of 8 referendums (since their introduction in 1992), but has not yet had a single referendum. This discrepancy is due to the rule that signatures for a petition for a referendum may only be submitted at the office. Official registration is usually the death of any direct-democratic initiative and was also used by the cdu hamburg to make referenda impossible. This must also have been known to brandenburg’s minister of the interior, schonbohm, who rejected a reform on the misguided grounds that the quorum for referendums is disproportionately low compared to other states. The real point of criticism, however, lies for him in the registration of office "in the nature of things".

Hesse was the first state to introduce referendums in 1946. Nevertheless, there can be no talk of a pioneering role. In all these years, there has only been one referendum. For a successful referendum, 20 percent of eligible voters had to be persuaded to register at the office within 14 days. The waiver of a quorum in the referendum is a sham, because most initiatives have already failed in the referendum. Thus hessen concerning the frequency is nearly taillight, were there not mecklenburg-western pomerania, the saarland and baden-wurttemberg, where still never a volksbegehren could be put on the legs.

Rhineland-palatinate, which introduced direct-democratic procedures a year after hesse, took its cue from the hessian law. Here, too, only one referendum has been held since then. A reform in 2000 lowered the quorum for referendums from 20 to 10 percent, but at the same time required a minimum turnout of 25 percent of eligible voters for referendums, which did not exist before. Thus, although one error from the hessian model was corrected, another was inserted in it instead.

In most countries where direct democracy is practiced, such as switzerland and some states in the usa, quorums are completely dispensed with. This prevents referendums from failing even though the yes votes outweigh the no votes ("spurious failure"). This would mean that abstentions, i.E. Votes of neutral voters, would be counted as no votes, which is difficult to reconcile with basic democratic rules. For example, some referendums on school policy ies have failed mainly because only a small minority is committed to them or can be committed to them. Can get involved: parents with german citizenship. The proportion of abstentions ultimately determines whether or not a community can assert its interests.

However, it is not the case that other federal states had learned from these mistakes, as one should expect according to the ideal concepts of federalism. The saarland did not allow direct democratic procedures until 1979 – and that, of all things, according to the hessian model. Consequence: despite six popular initiatives, there was never a referendum. The saarland is thus far behind in a comparison of the federal states by mehr demokratie. This is particularly revealing when one considers that both former prime minister oskar lafontaine (left party) and the incumbent peter muller (cdu) are considered advocates of referendums – not in their own state, however, but at the federal level.

Progress is hampered by the dependence and arbitrariness of the judiciary, rank games of the parties and ignorance of the deputies

In north rhine-westphalia, the cdu and fdp refused to approve a successful popular initiative to reform local election law in the state parliament, even though they themselves had been calling for this until then and their party colleagues in hesse had already implemented the same reform years earlier. Due to the high hurdles for referendums, the north rhine-westphalian initiative had to give up.

Between 1994 and 2005, the bavarian constitutional court ruled that six petitions for referendums alone were inadmissible because they were either aimed at an allegedly inadmissible change in the constitution or touched on parliamentary budgetary rights. This means that by making a decision in the name of the people, the people are not allowed to decide either on their own interception or on the use of the taxes they pay. Since political decisions are by their very nature associated with costs, the people are thus excluded from having a political say on most substantive ies.

In hamburg, the cdu government not only reversed several referendums in succession and then made it more difficult to hold referendums. In addition, it has become customary there to concede citizen petitions at the district level for the sake of appearances, so that they can be reversed at the state level, or to deprive the districts of their authority in matters in which citizen decisions are threatened. Here also the coalition partner gal participates since past tuesday, which explained itself in the opposition to the huterin of the democracy.

The coup of the cdu thuringen is likewise unique in germany: it led during a running people’s petition "for more democracy in thuringian municipalities" the government hastily introduced the completely unusual official registration of citizens’ petitions. It has thus changed the very law that was supposed to be changed by the referendum. As a result, the draft law of the referendum refers to a law that is no longer valid and is in danger of becoming a dead letter.

The hastily supplied argument that the citizens had been taken by surprise by the referendum proved to be inaccurate. Rather, it can be amed that the thuringian cdu followed the example of its party colleagues in hamburg and wanted to get rid of the citizens’ petition by introducing the official registration.

The swiss christian democrat gebhard kirchgassner said of his german party colleagues: in switzerland, the cdu was voted out of office for. But this is not impossible in germany either: what caused the cdu hamburg a defeat in the last state elections, its brutal handling of direct decisions by the burghers, may also make the slope slippery for the cdu thuringia in the state elections at the end of august. Plotzlicher loss of memory and protestations of innocence were hardly more bought from her.

Andreas kost (ed.). Direct democracy in the german lander. Wiesbaden 2005.

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