Since at least 2011, the Catholic University’s Bicentennial survey shows that confidence in government, political parties, parliamentarians, and courts of justice, or all major state powers, is below 10%. 9 out of 10 Chileans don’t trust them.
We have a crisis of legitimacy and representativeness. This crisis may be resolved by the constituent process, but that resolution is not going to be automatic. Depends on what results from that process. Specifically, it depends on whether or not we introduce changes to the constitution that structurally increase legitimacy into the future.
The Swiss have for more than a hundred years a practical solution to the problem of legitimacy: they complement representative democracy with robust mechanisms of direct democracy. It works like this: every citizen has the right to gather signatures, and if he collects enough signatures within a certain time frame, a binding plebiscite is filed where a binding plebiscite is voted in favour of the citizen proposal, in favour of a counterproposal of the authority, or against. It applies to new initiatives, via constitutional reform, although it extends to matters normally covered by law, and to veto important laws and executive decisions.
The benefits of having robust mechanisms of direct democracy in addition to representative democracy are multiple:
It increases the legitimacy of the political system: Citizens can at all times contradict their representatives in a binding and orderly manner, and may force reforms that it deems urgent, independent of the action or inaction of the authorities.
Political stability is increasing: A system in which everyone has the doors open to proposing binding reforms is a system in which there is less incentive to manifest themselves politically by burning things on the street.
Reduces corruption and incompetence: If our representatives make any un reasoned decisions or are captured by any particular interest, citizens have a formal mechanism to neutralize them.
It is a protocol for resolving political and social conflicts: Crises have always been and always will have. Robust mechanisms of direct democracy allow us to channel them institutionally and come to port in order, on time, and without violence. They’re pressure valves.
It routes public debate towards specific policies rather than the merits or personal flaws of our representatives.
It opens doors for civil society experts to propose binding changes: good reforms to the state, to the very machinery of politics, are likely to come from study centres without our own representatives. Sometimes those who know more what to do and how to do it have no political power
The main concern when first hearing about these mechanisms tends to be the risk of populism. Populism is actually a problem of democracy in general. It is present in representative democracy, in Chile and the world, and also in direct democracy. It is not a specific problem for direct democracy. In fact, with these mechanisms citizens can stop populist proposals from our representatives. However, the design of the mechanisms largely determines whether they have a populist or anti-populist effect: Swiss mechanisms, in addition to giving sufficient time for each part of the process, to give space for the authorities, the media, and civil society to discuss and think about the issues, also include the counter-proposal of the authority when voting , and the ability of those who gathered the signatures to lower the plebiscite if they manage to reach agreement before the vote. In this way, if the day of the vote arrives, which often does not happen because it is agreed, the options for citizenship are varied and reasoned: by institutional design, by the times, by media coverage, they have normally had more scrutiny at that height than the regular reforms and decisions of our authorities, and citizenship, with its virtues and flaws , similar to the virtues and flaws of its representatives, has an incentive to learn about it because in that system its opinion matters: it is binding.
The advantages are varied, and the Swiss mechanisms of direct democracy, adapted to Chile, are simple and strong. The question is, of all the things we can prioritize writing in the Constitution, why prioritize this one?
Let’s start with the things that don’t make sense to prioritize:
Things that are going to go safe, like the right to property or life.
Things that certainly don’t go 2/3, because it’s lost effort.
Things that are laudable written but have weak or vague effects.
Reduced then to the circle of things that are not already practically secured, can achieve 2/3, and make a significant concrete improvement, the Swiss mechanisms of direct democracy, adapted to Chile, are probably the most gravitating: real long-term power to make all the changes that we deem necessary, at times we deem appropriate.
This last point is fundamental: robust mechanisms of direct democracy are the only instrument with which citizens can continue to make changes and adjustments to the country’s long-term political life. By introducing these mechanisms, we can do with them all the reforms that are wrong or outside the constitutional convention in their 12 months of operation: it is better to have the hammer to fix and build the house, than to have a house built without a direct tool for future arrangements.
The content poured into this opinion column is the sole responsibility of its author, and does not necessarily reflect the editorial line or position of El Mostrador.