Profesor Mirosław Matyja: Utopia or Chance? Part 5

4. Why Direct Democracy?

Introducing certain elements of direct democracy in our country seems like a rather simple task. Let us take a look at some ways of doing it. As a starting point of our analysis, we have to assume Article 4 of the Constitution of Poland:

  1. Supreme power in the Republic of Poland shall be vested in the Nation.
  2. The Nation shall exercise such power directly or through their representatives.

The word “directly” is of crucial importance here, for it establishes the principle of direct form of governance, i.e., by citizens for citizens.

The most important element of direct democracy – the system in which citizens participate in the decision-making – is a nationwide referendum that is legally binding and does not require a validity threshold. As such, it is an instrument of social control over the government; its serves as a tool for shaping the political system and expressing society’s will.

Although the Constitution of 1997 mentions a referendum, it is not society who is eligible to initiate it, but the Sejm or the president with the Senate’s approval. Such referendum has nothing to do with genuine direct democracy or the will of Polish citizens (the actual sovereign).

Fig.1: The basic instruments of direct democracy.

Since only the people understand their problems directly, it is them who have to initiate the necessary changes. Such direct action should be followed by a nationwide referendum that leads to an amendment of a given law or the Constitution. When it comes to the revision of particular legal acts, the proper instrument for that – as it is in the Swiss system – should be people’s veto, which constitutes a tool for protesting against an existing statute or proposing a new one (see Fig. 1).

In Switzerland, people’s veto can be initiated at the request of 50,000 citizens. In Poland, the number of required signatures could be, for instance, 250,000. Apart from that, there should be set a period of, let us say, 180 days for collecting signatures. Veto should be followed by a referendum with a “yes or no” type of question, without any validity threshold. Why should there be no validity threshold? Because it would constitute an additional obstacle, and such obstacles are contradictory to democracy. Those who do not participate in referendum, vote passively – by accepting its results.

Similarly, people’s initiative should also result in an amendment of an existing regulation or introduction of a new provision into the Constitution (see Fig. 1). This instrument would also be a tool for initiating a referendum with a “yes or no” type of question. In Switzerland, people’s initiative requires 100,000 signatures in order to be initiated. In Poland, it could be, for instance, 500,000, and the optimal period for collecting signatures could be 18 months.

It should be pointed out that referendum is the most important instrument of direct democracy, through which it is society who decides on the state’s matters. In order for it be held, it has to be initiated directly by those who demand certain changes in their legal system.

People’s veto (which concerns the normal legislative level) and people’s initiative (which concerns the Constitutional level) are procedural instruments of direct democracy that should always result in binding legal changes, and they should be free of any validity thresholds.

After the people’s vote, the government, as the executive agency, should be obliged to introduce accepted changes within, let us say, one year.

Implementing those instruments in Poland would bring a shift of power from the political parties and the state agencies to the hands of the people, bringing us closer to the ideal of a true civil society (see Fig. 2).

Fig. 2: The power shift in the Polish political process.

Source: own work.

In the next chapters we shall discuss in detail the three basic instruments of direct democracy, which – in our opinion – should become the unquestionable foundation of a healthy and democratic political system in Poland.

Profesor Mirosław Matyja

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