Combining direct and representative (programmatic) democracy: an emerging synthesis?

In the modern world, direct and representative democracy have come together, through the pervasiveness of policy voting and the political parties’ role in organizing it. Of the two, representative democracy has come the longer way, no longer based on individual representation, but rather on programmatic voting with the successful party as guarantor of the programme. Direct democracy has continued to differentiate itself as direct voting on individual policies, most often policies not central to ongoing party politics, or else exceptional decisions that transcend normal party divisions.

We can see this better by examining actual practice in contemporary democracies. Popular policy votes tend to be held disproportionately in five areas: 1) changes in the constitution, 2) territorial questions covering secessions or extensions of the national territory, devolution and autonomy, 3) foreign policy, 4) moral matters such as divorce, abortion and homosexuality, and 5) ecology and environment (including local campaigns for protection of particular features, or in opposition to the siting of a power plant). In Swiss cantons and American states, fiscal matters are increasingly voted on, usually involving tax limitation and restrictions on the size of government (for recent surveys of content matter see LeDuc 2003).

Policy voting thus tends to take place either on issues of a certain level of generality - constitutions or foreign policy measures like trade liberalization that will have a long-term effect - or in areas that fit uneasily into the general left-right division of party politics and that might indeed provoke internal party splits, like moral and ecological matters. The closest that policy votes come to influencing the current political agenda is on fiscal matters. Even tax limitation has a long-term rather than an immediate effect, however. Almost never is a vote held, for example, to ‘prioritize unemployment now’, ‘stop inflation’, ‘end the war’, ‘reduce prison population’ and so on.

Several factors contribute to this pattern of policy consultation. First and perhaps most importantly, governments do not want to put their central policies to a referendum. So, where they have control over their timing and initiation, voting will not cover issues central to left-right conflicts - only off-issues that might split the party. New and opposition parties have generally also mobilized to put such issues on the agenda and not to refight continuing party battles.

A party-based explanation is only one part of the answer, however, since the same pattern occurs also in fairly unregulated popular initiatives where parties have less control. It is probable that electors themselves, and even interest groups, see no point in taking up matters that have already been part of the general election debate, and have already put into office parties that are pursuing them as part of a mandate. As we have stressed, so-called representative elections are heavily focused around medium-term policy plans, so it is natural that parties should be left to get on with them at least in their first years in office (and it often takes time to organize a referendum or initiative).

In this way, a certain division of labour seems to be emerging spontaneously between general, programmatic, elections and direct policy voting on individual issues. Where issues are linked together and form an integral part of the activity of governments, usually within the traditional left-right framework, the parties in power are left to get on with them. Where individual issues have long-term implications and do not fit so easily into a unifying framework, they tend disproportionately to be the subject of special popular votes. The overall mix does not seem a bad way of trying to translate popular preferences into public policy and in fact approaches that advocated by Budge (1996: 181-8).

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