citizens' initiative and referendum

Volksentscheid auf Bundesebene !

Citizens' referendum for the Federal Republic ! 

A report of some events before failure of the bill to achieve a constitutional majority in the Bundestag.

Conservative Party blockades German democracy

The coalition agreement on which the current social-democratic and green government (elected 1998) is based contains a promise to introduce a law governing citizens' law-initiative and citizens' referendum-on-demand at the federal (country) level.  This type of lawmaking is already in operation at the levels of Lands (states of the federation), cities and districts.

On March 21st 2002, rather late in this legislative period, a draft law for "the introduction of citizens' initiative, demand-for-referendum and referendum" (Volksinitiative, Volksbegehren und Volksentscheid) was introduced in the german parliament (Bundestag).

Why did the social democrats and greens decide to express their support for this reform? They are aware that there is strong public support for these elements of direct democracy. During the 1990s the use of direct democracy increased across the country. The procedures have been strengthened, often by citizen lawmaking,  in several Lands (states of the federation), in cities and districts ("communal" level), with hundreds of thousands if not millions of voters showing enthusiastic support for all of this. An effective lobby group, Mehr Demokratie, has been active for a dozen or more years and has assembled a platform of some 90 other endorsing organisations. Opinion surveys suggest that a large public majority favours more direct democracy. So, the politicians could see potential benefit for their future election results.

Here's the rub. Politicians and many legal experts claim that, in order to introduce this reform, the country's constitution (Basic Law) must be changed in several points. These changes require a two-thirds majority in parliament and the approval of two-thirds of the Land-governments. Together the Social Democrats and Greens can muster a majority but not a two-thirds majority in parliament. To change the constitution the co-operation of at least some members of the oppositional christian-democratic parties is needed. But the Christian-Democrats (CDU) have made it clear that they will vote against the Bill and intend to prevent it from becoming law. A prominent member of the CDU Wolfgang Schaeuble has expressed their opposition to direct democracy in saying that citizens should not have the right to decide on public issues but "we, the politicians" should decide. Paradoxically, while in opposition, his party has organised referendums in order to attract support for their own ideas, for instance in the matter of double state-citizenship.

The defection of only a few dozen christian democrats would be enough to get the bill through parliament.

Introduction to the proposed new law

The draft law for more democracy may be summarised as follows:

The existing democratic system with members of parliament, political parties and government will not be replaced but enhanced by introducing elements of direct democracy.

"Three-stage" direct-democracy which allows the procedures of citizens' law-initiative, demand-for-referendum and referendum is proposed.

If a law-initiative gathers enough signatures of support, the parliament must consider the proposal. If parliament does not pass the law within a certain period, then the initiators may, after collecting further signatures, demand that a referendum be held. This stage is called the "demand-for-referendum" stage.

The final stage is the referendum. For normal laws, a country-wide majority of citizens is needed. For some laws the votes of citizens must be counted twice, once in each federal state and once country-wide, preserving the federal dimension of governance. For constitutional matters a two-thirds majority is required.

To start a citizens' law-initiative, rather less than one in a hundred eligible voters (hereafter called citizens), that is at least 400,000 people, must sign the proposal. There is no time limit for the collection of these signatures.

If within eight months parliament (Bundestag) has not passed a law in accordance with the law-initiative, then the citizen-initiators can start a "demand-for-referendum". For this they need the signatures of five percent of citizens, three million people, collected within six months. If they succeed in demonstrating enough public support in this way, parliament then has another chance to approve the law-initiative. If it does not do so within a further six months, a referendum must be called.

In a referendum the majority decides. The result is valid only if at least one fifth of citizens take part. For constitutional matters a two-thirds majority and the participation of at least 40 percent of citizens are required.