Citizens' Uprisings Germans Discover Direct Democracy

While political parties are losing members and voter turnout is sinking, Germans are discovering direct democracy. Their referendums, such as this Sunday's on Tempelhof Airport, are beginning to make life difficult for politicians and the business community alike.

The mayor seemed flexible on the evening of his greatest defeat to date. The outcome of the referendum represented "a clear commitment" by residents in the eastern German city of Leipzig to city-owned businesses, said Leipzig Mayor Burkhard Jung, a member of the Social Democratic Party (SPD). "Ultimately, the citizens delivered a resounding no to all unscrupulous privatizers," said Jung, whose comments came as a surprise to his rivals. It was Jung himself who had wanted to sell a 49.9-percent minority share of the city's public utility company to the French company Gaz de France.

In Leipzig's first-ever referendum, 149,000 people, or about 87 percent of votes cast, voted in late January to block the partial privatization. In Leipzig, a city known for its trade shows, the controversy brought 40,000 more people to the voting booths than for the mayoral election two years earlier. Mike Nagler, 28, was one of those who organized the citizens' initiative called "Stop Them from Selling Off our City," and he still gushes over the day the referendum triumphed. "It was a great success for democracy," he says.

The Leipzig citizens' uprising is part of a trend. While parties are losing members and voter turnout is declining, citizens all across Germany are taking matters into their own hands with petitions and referendums. Next Sunday, the will of the people could cause problems for Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a Social Democrat, when Berlin residents vote in a referendum on the closing of the city's Tempelhof Airport. Close to 200,000 Berliners have already ordered letter ballots.

Are the complaints of many pollsters about political apathy unfounded? And what is suddenly driving so many people to the polls?

Citizens' Participation and Direct Democracy, a research group at the University of Marburg, has studied the phenomenon and come up with statistics to corroborate the trend toward citizens taking matters into their own hands. In the mid-1990s there were fewer than 100 referendums a year in Germany. Last year there were about 300, with half of them ending in victory for the rebels.

The Appeal of David-versus-Goliath

The Marburg researchers also examined the issues behind the protests, and discovered a noticeable shift. For a long time, people collected signatures mainly to protest mobile phone towers, bypasses and parking meters. Nowadays, however, the goal of most petitions for referendums is to secure general public services. One in three citizens' efforts today involves privatization plans, major transportation projects or the basic supply of water and energy. In the southwestern city of Freiburg, for example, citizens blocked a proposal to sell public housing. In Meissen, in the former East Germany, a decision to privatize the city's municipal hospitals had to be revoked. And in the western state of Hesse, citizens flexed their muscles to stop energy giant E.on from building a new power plant.

This David-versus-Goliath pattern is not only effective, but also seems to hold great appeal for many citizens, fascinated by the notion that getting their own back at the authorities is easier than they had believed. The people are saying a big "No," and yet they are not the ones left dealing with the consequences or having to search for alternatives. Leipzig Mayor Jung has now been forced to severely tighten his administration's belt. Because of the referendum, his proposed budget, which was to be approved in early February, is no longer worth the paper it is printed on. And the next time Leipzig citizens go to the polls, they could very well be voting against the cost-cutting measures that resulted from the first decision.

Captains of industry often -- or at least more often than politicians -- complain about the annoying intervention from below. "We have noted this growing resistance with concern," says Michael Feist, the president of the Federal Association of Energy and Water Industry (BDEW). Citizens' initiatives directed against energy providers seeking to build new power plants or just power lines are currently underway in seven cities. Energy conglomerate RWE had planned to build a coal-burning power plant in Ensdorf in the western state of Saarland, at a cost of more than €2 billion ($3.2 billion), but a referendum forced it to scrap the project. Stories like these explain why the German Institute for Economic Research is calling the referendums part of a "citizens' wave" that could hurt German economically in the long run.

All kinds of tricks are being devised to put citizens back in their place. In Stuttgart, for example, city officials decided to stand up to a popular movement intended to prevent a planned expansion of the main train station, a project that would cost billions. A meeting of the Stuttgart city council has rarely been as chaotic as the one held shortly before Christmas, when officials were forced to call in security. "We are the people," the audience shouted from the overfilled visitors' gallery. Boos and whistles accompanied a heated, two-hour debate among council members. Nevertheless, a clear majority of the council used a legal loophole to reject a referendum on the controversial project. The right to a referendum, opponents argued, had already expired in this case.

The options for referendums are quietly being restricted in some German states. Saarland and Thuringia have set the bar for the conditions of approval so high that very few citizens' initiatives stand a chance of collecting enough signatures. In some states, there are so-called off-limits issues. For instance, if a project relates to urban land use planning or government budgets, citizens are not permitted to have their say. And the Federalism Commission is quietly trying to bury the voices of citizens in another respect: In the future, when states decide to merge, it would no longer be necessary to poll their citizens first.

A Political Proxy War

There is a long tradition of mistrust of citizens among politicians in Germany. In 1948, Theodor Heuss, a German politician and former president, expressly warned against direct democracy in the Parliamentary Council, describing it as a "premium for every demagogue." Article 20 of the German constitution states, simply, that "all authority comes from the people." But in Germany, as the philosopher Karl Jaspers complained, the fathers of the constitution were apparently "afraid of the people." The German constitution reduces "the effectiveness of the people to a minimum," Jaspers acknowledged in 1966.

The Swiss-style national referendum is still nonexistent in Germany today. Three parties, the Free Democrats, the Green Party and the Left Party, are preparing draft legislation to give a voice to the people at the national level. The conservative Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is the only party that is still fundamentally opposed to national referendums. Direct democracy, warns Wolfgang Bosbach, a CDU politician and expert on domestic policy, usually represents nothing but individual interests. "But we politicians must keep the big picture in mind," he insists. Skeptics like Bosbach are especially troubled by the simple yes-or-no structure of referendums, which "is no good for complex problems."

In fact, constructive initiatives, like those of the Berlin-based "Pro Reli" group, tend to be the exception. Pro Reli has done some of the parliamentarians' work for them and wants to see draft legislation it wrote voted on this fall. The legislation calls for schools in the German capital to be required to offer both ethics and equivalent religious instruction.

Sidestepping Party Politics

"People are now more well-informed when it comes to educational and economic issues," says Gerald Häfner of Mehr Demokratie (More Democracy), a nationwide initiative. Nevertheless, there is still plenty of room for experimentation in devising the ideal relationship between direct and representative democracy. It wasn't until the 1990s that most states gradually introduced petitions for referendums and referendums themselves. Since then, the public's interest in sidestepping the parties' power structures has grown steadily.

Volker Mittendorf, a researcher with the University of Marburg, says this experience can have a positive effect. "Once people have tried it and have been successful, they become increasingly interested in getting involved in politics." For many people, says Mittendorf, it is no longer enough to go to the polls once every few years and, in the interim, to observe the shenanigans of their elected representatives with dismay.

The parties are not just responding defensively to the new trend, they are also trying to connect with the people. But when that happens, Häfner fears, "grassroots democracy ends up becoming a political proxy war between the parties -- as is the case in Berlin."

In Berlin, opposition leader Friedbert Pflüger, a Christian Democrat and once a bitter opponent of direct democracy, is trying to turn the vote on Tempelhof Airport  into a referendum on the city's left-leaning government. The coalition of the SPD and the Left Party had voted to close the downtown airport, which is steeped in history, in light of plans to build a new mega-airport on the outskirts of the city in Schönefeld. Pflüger recognized the controversial issue's potential as a vote-getter, especially in West Berlin, where the airport is associated with memories of the Berlin Airlift. A citizens' initiative, with strong support from the business community, forced through the referendum.

The organization of Sunday's referendum will cost a total more than €2 million ($3.2 million), and 2.45 million voting notices were sent to residents. Hundreds of polling places must be set up this week, and thousands of election workers will have to be hired. The campaign itself has already taken on the character of a parliamentary election rather than a referendum about a runway.

Supporters and opponents have been heating up the atmosphere for weeks with their large posters throughout the city and full-page ads in the papers. Both sides have since turned the decision into a test for the city's government. Paradoxically, the ballots contain nothing but a simple request: "We ask the Berlin Senate to abandon its intentions to close the airport immediately." In other words, the referendum would not even be legally binding. This means that Mayor Wowereit will be able to completely ignore Berliners' Tempelhof decision, a fact that he has already made clear in his famously callous way.

Democracy experts like Häfner warn that cases like this could also trigger a backlash. According to Häfner, "failed referendums can even amplify political apathy."

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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