Our democracy must empower voters

Instruments that permit people to vote directly on policy and to initiate legislation can ensure that the citizen’s voice is heard

Published - July 21, 2012 12:52 am IST

edit page referendums 210712

edit page referendums 210712

Independent India has been a large-scale experiment in democracy. Unlike many other nations that gained independence from colonial rule but descended into dictatorships and military rule, India has remained a democracy, despite its size and diversity. While we pride ourselves on this achievement, we also need to reflect more on the problems and challenges that face Indian democracy. Concerns relating to scams, criminal records of elected representatives and disorder in Parliament recur, but a deeper question needs to be asked: how democratic, actually, is Indian democracy?

India is a representative democracy, where people select their representatives once in five years to make laws and policies on their behalf. Limiting the participation of the people merely to voting once in five years has significantly reduced the responsiveness of the representatives to the people. Further, representatives often make policies that are not aligned with the wishes of the people. A key reason for this is that political parties require huge funds to contest elections, which are usually provided by moneyed special interests. Once elected, it is these special interests to whom our representatives often cater, rather than the interests of the people. So, what institutional mechanism do the people have to make their voice heard, if their representatives do not represent their interests?

Referendum & Initiative

This problem is not unique to India. Representative democracies around the world have searched for solutions to this structural flaw. One innovative solution tried in numerous countries is the Referendum (R) and the Initiative (I). These are instruments whereby some decisions of policy and law-making are ‘referred’ to a direct vote by the electorate, rather than solely being decided by their representatives. They provide a formal, institutional channel for the voice of the citizens, if they feel that their representatives are not adequately representing them.

Switzerland was the first country to introduce these instruments, as far back as 1848. Now 36 other countries, mainly in Europe and Latin America, have these instruments at a national level, and various other countries like Germany, Brazil and the United States, at the state and regional levels. Interestingly, India is one of only five democracies never to have used these instruments.

The Referendum (R): The citizen-initiated Referendum is an instrument whereby citizens, by a direct vote, can decide whether a legislation passed by Parliament should be rejected. Citizens sceptical of a certain law or policy can gather signatures of a small percentage of the electorate which can force a direct vote, by the entire electorate, on the legislation in question. If a majority vote opposes the legislation, then their rejection is binding upon Parliament. In the case of Switzerland, one per cent of its electorate needs to signal support through signatures, before a nationwide vote is conducted.

For example in 2000, the Swiss Parliament introduced the ‘Electricity Market Law’ for liberalisation and deregulation of the electricity market. There was, however, resentment against deregulation and what was perceived as the dismantling of a well-functioning public service. So the people asked for a referendum on this law. After the required signatures were collected, the law was put to a nationwide vote. A majority of the people opposed the law, so the law was rejected.

The Initiative (I): While the Referendum is an instrument that allows citizens to accept or reject legislation passed by the Parliament, an ‘Initiative’ lets citizens initiate a new legislation or constitutional amendment, by putting their own proposal on the political agenda that Parliament is ignoring. A bill drafted by a group of citizens and supported by a small percentage of the electorate (again established by signatures) is put to a nationwide direct vote. In Switzerland, two per cent of its electorate needs to sign and support an Initiative, to make it eligible for a nationwide direct vote. If the citizen-initiated legislation gets a majority it becomes a law.

For example, in Uruguay, in 2002, the government committed to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), that it would privatise the supply of drinking water and sanitation services to the entire country. This move met with opposition from the people, who responded with a citizens’ Initiative. The Initiative demanded that access to drinking water and sanitation should be enshrined in the constitution as a human right. This Initiative was voted on in 2004 and won with a resounding majority.


The primary value of I&R is to align legislative behaviour closer to public opinion. The mere presence of I&R, even when it is not used, makes the legislature more aligned to public opinion, since they know that citizens have the I&R channel to “trump” them. For example, in Uruguay in 2002, privatisation of the state-owned mobile phone operator was challenged by citizens. They collected the required number of signatures for a citizen-initiated Referendum. Before the voting happened, the government repealed the law and no referendum had to be held.

Second, I&R results in significant governance reforms — an area in which the legislature is least likely to act, since it typically curtails their own power. There is a conflict of interest, and the lawmakers typically ignore or even sabotage such reforms. For example, in India, one can see that the Lokpal Bill, which could lead to the investigation and prosecution of corrupt lawmakers, has languished for 42 years. However, in California, where I&R is frequently used, 67 Initiatives on governance have been voted on, between 1912 and 2006. Laws regarding campaign finance, prevention of elected representatives holding other offices have been introduced via Initiatives; laws that were unlikely to have been introduced by California’s legislature.

Third, an important impact of the I&R process is the educative and transformative effect it has in creating a more politically informed and participative citizenry. Scholars find that in Switzerland and American states where I&R is active, citizens are better informed and have more opportunities for direct political participation.


There are, however, some challenges in introducing I&R which need to be suitably addressed with appropriate solutions.

One logistical challenge is conducting in direct voting at the national or even state level. Various solutions exist, including the employment of information and communication technologies (ICT) in innovative ways. Further, the content of the ballot to be voted on, needs to be structured in a way that is easily understood by a wide variety of voters with varying linguistic backgrounds and levels of literacy. Here again various solutions exist.

Another challenge has to do with voter competence in making informed judgment on matters of law and policy. One response to this concern is if our elected representatives (who are clearly not experts on many of the issues they take decisions on) can make decisions on laws and policies taking into account the views of experts, so can the people. Additionally, in referendums it has been found that even when voters do not understand the complexity of issues, they are able to take simple cues — like who is supporting or opposing the proposition — to make informed and ideologically consistent choices. They also try to educate themselves on the issues to be voted on by listening to views of experts on the topic and engaging in debate. Mechanisms to make diverse expert opinions available in an easy to access manner need to be devised.

Yet another challenge is to prevent moneyed special interests from influencing the I&R process, by sponsoring high-spending misleading campaigns. This is an important issue that has emerged in some American states like California, Oregon and Colorado. For example in 2006, two oil companies contributed a combined $34 million to defeat an initiative for the funding of renewable energy research and production by oil companies.

One response to this concern is that it is far more difficult and expensive for moneyed special interests to convince citizens at large than to convince a smaller set of lawmakers through lobbying. That said, there is need to have safeguards that limit or eliminate campaign financing in the I&R process.

Whatever be the challenges in introducing such democratic reform, the time has come to discuss such a change to ensure that our government truly represents the people. Today, democracy is clearly falling short on this count and instruments of Initiatives and Referendums can provide a political mechanism to ensure that citizens’ voices counterbalance a legislature unresponsive to peoples’ interests. The time has come to recommit ourselves to a deeper and more participatory democracy; a democracy with greater alignment between public policy and people’s interests.

(Prashant Bhushan is a public interest lawyer and member of Team Anna. Atishi Marlena is an independent social educator and activist.)

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