Why is accountability important in democracy

Long ways of German unity

Oscar W. Gabriel

em. Prof. Dr. Oscar W. Gabiel is a professor emeritus at the Institute for Social Sciences at the Technical University of Stuttgart. His areas of work include political attitudes and political culture, political and social participation, election and party research, theories and methods of comparative empirical political research and comparative local politics research.

In representative democracies, the people only take on the role of decision-maker in the choice of political leadership. However, the direct democratic reforms that have been carried out since 1990 have broken the monopoly of the institutions and actors of representative democracy that had previously existed.

(& copy picture-alliance / dpa, dpa-Zentralbild, Robert Michael)

The importance of representative and direct democracy

Democracy means rule by the people. The ideas about the concrete design of democratic systems, however, diverge. This is also reflected in political practice. Switzerland practices a different form of democracy than the United States. The British model of democracy differs from the German as well as from the Dutch, Swedish or French. With regard to the diversity of democratic systems, a distinction is made between parliamentary and presidential, federal and unitary, consensus and competition-oriented and, last but not least, direct and representative democracies.

Direct and representative democracies are based on the principle of popular sovereignty. In direct democracies, the people make all political personnel and factual decisions. Consistently thought through to the end, the undivided state power rests with the people in its entirety. The formation of further - executive and judicial - institutions may be justified by technical requirements, but it is not normatively desirable. This view, anchored in Rousseau's thinking, was not realized in the political practice of modern democracies. In small political units such as Swiss rural communities and some cantons, people's assemblies serve as the place where public affairs are debated and decided through consensus building or majority decisions. In the modern nation-states of today, referendums express the idea of ​​self-government by the people. In both cases, the constitutions guarantee the democratic principles of the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary.

In contrast to direct democracies, in representative democracies the people only take on the role of decision-maker when choosing the political leadership. Democratic elections require open, free and fair political competition and an opportunity to choose between competing leadership offerings. The political community gives its representatives the power to make binding decisions on their behalf. This creates a chain of legitimacy that establishes an authoritative decision-making power for the representatives of the people in all individual questions, but in return makes them accountable to the voters. Accordingly, the people's representatives are not bound by orders and instructions from the electorate (see Article 38 of the Basic Law). However, they are obliged to take note of the demands placed on them, to weigh them against each other, to take them into account in their decisions, to disclose their reasons for making decisions and to take responsibility for the decisions made. At the end of an electoral term, the ruled decide whether the rulers have met their expectations and, depending on the outcome of this assessment, extend the mandate of the previous political leadership or transfer it to a competing political group.

Representative and direct democracy in Germany - historical background

For a long time science and practice equated the modern form of democracy with representative democracy. The direct self-government of the people, which is typical of direct democracy, was considered incompatible with the reality of modern societies. In recent years, however, there have been increasing calls for representative democracy to be modernized through the use of direct democratic procedures and for citizens to have political decision-making rights that go beyond voting in elections (Geissel and Newton 2012). With the exception of the CDU / CSU, all political parties currently represented in the Bundestag, from the Left Party to the AfD, are calling for the introduction of direct democratic opportunities for participation at the federal level.

When viewed in isolation, this requirement can invoke Article 20, Paragraph 2 of the Basic Law of the Federal Republic of Germany. The provision, according to which all state authority emanates from the people, is immediately followed by a reference to the exercise of state authority in elections and votes (direct democratic) and through special legislative, executive and judicial organs (representative democratic). Notwithstanding this, the parliamentary council in 1949 clearly opted for a representative democracy. Since then, referendums have only been possible at the federal level on the restructuring of the federal territory, but not on the constitution or individual laws.

Other regulations apply to the federal states and municipalities (municipalities, districts). Some old federal states had already completed the constitutional process before the Basic Law was passed in 1949 and provided their constitutions with various direct democratic procedures. The new federal states, whose constitutions were strongly shaped by the experiences with the democratic upheaval in the GDR, abolished provisions on direct democratic procedures from the start, thus triggering direct democratic reforms in the old states as well. The effects of the democratic reforms initiated in the new federal states in the municipal constitutions were even more evident than at the state level. Before reunification, only the municipal ordinances of Baden-Württemberg (since 1956) and Schleswig Holstein (since 1990) contained regulations on direct democratic citizenship rights. After unification, these were also introduced across the board in the old federal states, most recently in the Saarland in 1999 (Kost 2005).

The direct democratic process

The direct democratic reforms carried out since 1990 broke the previous monopoly of decision-making by the institutions and actors of representative democracy. The introduction of direct democratic procedures changes the formal distribution of power and influence in favor of the citizens and to the disadvantage of parliaments. The strength of this effect depends on which procedures are involved, how the procedures are designed in detail and how intensively the population makes use of them.

In a narrower sense, direct democratic processes encompass different forms of civil participation in decisions on political issues (Schiller 2002: 13ff). With regard to the strength of the interventions in the power structure of representative democracies, the following four basic forms can be distinguished.

Referendums such as the British vote to leave the European Union, serve the purpose of informing parliaments and governments about the distribution of public attitudes to a particular issue. The initiative for this usually comes from parliament or the government. These procedures do not significantly restrict the formal competencies of parliaments. The latter can freely decide whether to tackle a settlement of the question after the survey and thereby follow the vote of the majority determined in the survey. In fact, referendums have a much stronger effect, which can come close to the result of a binding decision by the electorate. This is especially the case when the political issue is significant, when a large number of voters took part in the vote, and when a clear majority of those entitled to vote voted for one of the alternatives put to the vote.

At Popular initiatives These are agenda setting instruments that force parliament to deal with a political issue and to decide on it within a certain period of time. One example is the "Abolish road construction contribution" initiative launched in North Rhine-Westphalia in 2018. [1] In contrast to popular polls, the citizenship initiates such a procedure. To the extent that certain - usually minor - formal requirements are met, this gives him an initiative role in legislation. This procedure does not result in any significant restriction of the freedom of action and freedom of action of parliaments. Rather, they can even increase the effectiveness of parliamentary work by supporting parliament in identifying and solving urgent political problems.

ReferendumFor example, the "Popular initiative for climate protection in the constitution" launched in Bavaria in 2018 (Rehmet 2019: 41) go one step further than popular initiatives. They also assign the citizens an agenda setting function in the legislative process, but can also change the distribution of decision-making powers. In contrast to the popular initiative, the right to a binding decision on the question raised in a request either remains with the parliament or it is passed on to the electorate. For this reason, the initiation and success of referendums are usually linked to higher formal requirements than apply to popular initiatives.