Think About It: The limits of direct democracy

In short, while the idea of direct democracy is trendy, voting in elections is still a citizen’s main tool to have some influence.

Social justice protest 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Social justice protest 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Current events in Egypt are further proof of the fact that despite Twitter, Facebook, smartphones, and all the other modern means and gadgets, efforts at direct democracy have not become more effective. True, it has become much easier than in previous decades to organize movements and protests, but the power game has remained as it always was.
The Arab Spring in Egypt, as elsewhere in the Arab world, was ignited by a younger generation with dreams of western-style democracy. However, since this younger generation – though fervent it certainly is, as well as savvy in the use of said modern means and gadgets – does not enjoy the support of the majority, the process that it ignited was soon taken over by Islamic forces, which apparently do enjoy the support of the majority, or are at least much shrewder brokers of power.
The social protest in Israel in the summer of 2011 was also ignited with the help of the same means used in Egypt, and at least at first – after the establishment of the Trajtenberg Committee – it looked as if it would attain some tangible results.
Though in the sphere of free education for younger children, a little something was achieved – largely because Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu started to fear the possible electoral ramifications – on the whole nothing fundamental changed. This led several of the leaders of the social protest to reach the conclusion that direct democracy has its limits, and as a result we saw Itzik Shmuli, Stav Shapir and Prof. Yossi Yona deciding to enter the representative democracy game and run in the Labor Party primaries.
What is direct democracy? Direct democracy means that the people themselves act directly, by various means, to determine policy, rather than indirectly by means of the representatives they vote for every so often in elections. All modern democracies are based on representative democracy, though most also have provisions for manifestations of direct democracy.
Direct democracy can take the form of referenda, citizens’ conferences (a Danish idea) that try to formulate a consensus on certain issues, participation in the legislative work of parliamentary committees, etc.
Demonstrations can turn into a form of direct democracy if they start a revolution that does not end up in some form of autocratic regime, or if they manage to shake passive elected representatives into action.
Neither of these happened in Egypt, or in Israel in 2011/12.
IN ISRAEL, manifestations of direct democracy have been slow to develop. Several citizens’ conferences were held within the framework of the Knesset in the course of the 1990s, but were totally ineffective because there was no mechanism connecting their deliberations to the formal decision making process.
In 2002 the Knesset started to enable citizens to participate in certain committee meetings online. The initiator of the idea was the ever resourceful MK Michael Eitan (who will unfortunately not be a member of the 19th Knesset), and formally the procedure still exists, but it is more a gimmick than an effective means of influence.
Anyone who has ever been involved in the work of Knesset committees knows that they all work under serious time constraints, that enabling every Tom, Dick and Harry to have a say during meetings is a sure way of wasting valuable time, and that anyone who is really interested in participating in the deliberations, and has something tangible to contribute, is able to arrange to be formally invited to participate in the meetings.
In November 2010 a law was passed enabling the holding of a referendum in the event of the Israeli government reaching an agreement involving the relinquishment of sovereignty over territories, and its not being approved by at least 80 MKs.
While this law opens the gate to the holding of referenda in Israel, the likelihood of a referendum on any issue being held in Israel in the foreseeable future is slim.
In the past year, various NGOs have made it their business to send observers to Knesset committee meetings as watchdogs.
However, since on the whole the Knesset committee system is relatively fair and effective, once again we are speaking of a gimmick rather than an effective democratic tool that has a real chance of preventing the occasional (though rare) “hijacking” of a vote, or other Machiavellian tricks. From my experience with this phenomenon, the persons involved are usually both innocent and not very knowledgeable regarding the workings of the Knesset, and frequently climb up the wrong tree.
Finally, it is possible today to contact the Knesset by means of Facebook. However, the person dealing with the incoming messages is not someone senior in the Knesset administration. While interesting messages might be forwarded to the appropriate authority or person, this can hardly be viewed as a means of direct democracy.
Once again one should not confuse modern means of communication with effective influence.
In short, while the idea of direct democracy is trendy, voting in elections is still a citizen’s main tool to have some influence.
True, those we vote for are unlikely to be able to realize even a fraction of what they promise, but this is due to the fact that our system of elections leads to a fragmented Knesset and incoherent coalition governments, and not even the prime minister can fully realize his platform (incidentally, nor can the US president, but that is a different story).
Nevertheless, by voting we have more of a chance to influence the general direction of things than if we do not vote. By not voting we merely strengthen those with agendas different from our own. Direct democracy is not a viable alternative. Nor are cynical remarks over coffee on Friday night.
The writer is a former Knesset employee.