"Better" Rather Than "More" Democracy? Citizens' Perceptions of Direct vs. Representative Democracy in a Comparative Perspective

By Toplak, Cirila | Journal of Comparative Politics, January 2013 | Go to article overview

"Better" Rather Than "More" Democracy? Citizens' Perceptions of Direct vs. Representative Democracy in a Comparative Perspective


Toplak, Cirila, Journal of Comparative Politics


In the light of increasing claims for a more accountable political representation on the background of what is perceived a crisis of representative democracy, this discussion paper examines citizens' perceptions of direct vs. representative democracy. It first provides a historical contextualisation by exploring the evolution of the process of reintroduction of direct democracy in modern era as a complement to representative democracy, and the dynamics of comparative global trends in increase of implementation of instruments of direct democracy. These "path dependence" aspects are then correlated in a detailed comment on a recent comparative study of citizens' perceptions of direct democracy that demonstrated complex idiosyncrasies of particular European polities, but also important common characteristics i.e. the prevailing support for direct democracy in all considered Western states and the interdependence of citizens' perceptions of direct and representative democracy, as well as the decisive impact of the political representatives' attitude toward direct democracy on citizens' perceptions of the latter.

Key words: Direct Democracy, Political History, PostCommunist Europe, Path Dependence.

1 INTRODUCTION

In the context of overall economic, financial, social, environmental and political crisis, public criticisms of representative democracy and claims for political alternative, essentially focused on reintroduction or reinforcement of direct democracy (in absence of new ideological and ruling concepts), have been made increasingly prominent and even put forward in recent protest actions and movements across the globe. Although it appears that citizens are eager to take sovereignty back in their hands from their representatives, this eagerness may not necessarily reflect neither a reaction to the current crisis alone nor it is necessarily consistent with greater political awareness, civic education and readiness to engage in active citizenship practices in contemporary "knowledge societies".

This discussion on public perceptions of direct democracy vs. representative democracy will be based in part on a cross-national study by Bowler, Donovan and Karp that, while exploring citizens' attitude towards direct democracy in affluent democracies, also presents some noteworthy conclusions on citizens' perception of representative democracy.

In a study that included 11 EU Member States ("old" as well as postCommunist democracies), USA, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Switzerland, the authors demonstrated that substantial enthusiasm for direct democracy in studied polities "may reflect what people find lacking in representative democracy as much as it reflects interest in a more participatory version of democracy". Approval for direct democracy is therefore not coming primarily from people who are politically engaged and wish for "more democracy", i.e. public participation in decision-making processes, but at least as much from people who are not necessarily interested in politics but feel a strong urge to control and correct the ways representative democracy is currently functioning. The results of the study demonstrated furthermore that "the most consistent factors predicting interest in additional opportunities to participate are political distrust and the idea that citizens must "keep watch" on their Government".

Since collected data originate from a period prior to the current crisis and the authors of the study only superficially probed into the causes for detected prevailing citizens' position, I am first going to verify their argument on the background of historical reintroduction and evolution of implementation of direct democracy worldwide aiming at a possible detection of path dependence indicators. Since the authors explain the outcomes of their study primarily by procedural varieties in direct democracy regulations, I am going to address these in comparison. Second, I am going to comment on the outcomes of the study done by Bowler et al. …

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