People’s sovereignty in Germany?

Hans Herbert von Arnim calls for more direct democracy

“When more and more people think their voices are no longer heard in politics and feel deprived of their influence, is that a populist fallacy? Or are the citizens just right in their impression to be  being disempowered?”1

rt. The debate about the people’s rule (democracy) is and remains virulent. The value of our direct democracy can be recognized very quickly with a glance across the national borders. There, more and more citizens feel less and less appreciated with their concerns by their political representatives. Especially in representative democracies like in Germany or in France, this feeling has sound reasons. More openly, there is a gap between the concerns of the population and the implementation of these concerns in the official policy. One consequence of this discrepancy is an increasing “disenchantment with politics”, which may manifest itself in a strongly diminishing electoral participation, just as recently in the French parliamentary elections, where the majority of the electorate stayed away from the ballot boxes and nearly one tenth of those who still voted placed a “blank” ballot. Another signal is the severe defeat of established parties or their candidates, despite intense PR processing by mainstream media and public radio and television.

Serious deficits of democratic and juridical nature

As these events have become more and more frequent over the last few months, the expressed dissatisfaction of the citizens was stigmatised by the expression “populism”. Of course, this is wrong and distracts from the factual problems. If existing law is ignored, as in many states, for example, in the “immigration question”, and if it is no longer possible to correct wrong decisions by means of elections and votes, then there are serious deficits of a democratic-juridical  nature.

Abuse of power by the parties

The renowned lawyer and economist and former rector of the University of Administrative Sciences Speyer and constitutional judge in Brandenburg Hans Herbert von Arnim scrutinises these questions of popular representation in his recent publication on the example of the German State and the EU “Die Hebel der Macht und wer sie bedient. Parteienherrschaft statt Volkssouveränität” (The levers of power and who serves them. Rule of the parties instead of popular sovereignty). The author has been concerned with the abuse of power, the incompetence and opportunism of the parties at the municipal, provincial and federal level for decades.
In the vast majority of representative democracies, the people’s representatives are organised by parties. Meanwhile, these parties lead a life of their own in Germany. They determine, for example, which candidates are allowed to stand for election in the first place and which programs they have to represent. The resulting party state has been widely criticised for a long time. Moreover, not even the members of parliament are free in their decisions but a handful of people on top of the party hierarchies determine how the individual deputies have to vote. Whose orders this handful of people follows in turn would be another interesting question …

State as the prey of the parties

In his knowledgeable and detailed account, von Arnim shows how a popular representation envisaged by the German constitution has been, and still is, systematically undermined by the party state. For example, laws meant to regulate the financing of the parties are defined by the parties themselves. And the established parties themselves also decide on staff recruitments in state authorities, which are responsible for, among other things, monitoring the parties, or make staff appointments in courts which decide on matters of the parties. Over the last decades the German state has become more and more the prey of the parties and of the high-level political officials. The parties determine the rules of play. They were able to override the control mechanisms that should supervise them.
Thus the paradoxical situation arises that the elected representatives of the people do not represent their voters but the interests of their party leaders and of the stakeholder groups behind them. As soon as a deputy departs from the party’s political line and actually follows his or her conscience, the place on the electoral list of the party is at risk.

Whom do the politicians obey?

This untenable situation has been obvious for decades, for anybody comparing the rejection of German war missions abroad by the German population with the voting results of their representatives in the German Bundestag. As in many other questions too, the politicians decide against their voters.
This state can no longer be covered up and becomes a problem for increasing numbers of people.
The attempt to denounce legitimate criticism or desires for change with the slogan “populism” shows absolutist traits. Just to express an opinion different from the one proposed by the mainstream media is supposed to be suspicious. Those who question democracy or restrict it in this way have to explain their legitimacy.
Who takes the right to rise above his fellow human beings by what right? Is the party always right (again)? Are there (again) blue-blooded persons, who inherently know things better than the “ordinary” people? Are there so-called experts who are allowed to ruin the country (as in the financial crisis), or does the country need a leader or a ruling elite which, because it is “better” than the others, is allowed to rule the others? Is this still democracy or rather, yet again, absolutism?

Citizen’s State instead of Party State

In detail, von Arnim addresses the urgent question of how to remedy this situation. He calls for a return to the democratic citizen’s state. But how can the parties’ regime be contained? Finally, he discusses more direct participation of the citizens by means of direct democratic decisions, which are already possible in various German federal states – unfortunately still very limited. Here he sees a way out. Should the citizens continue to accept that, on their behalf, “their” deputy can do as his party pleases for four years for which he was elected? One only needs to think of the foreign missions of the German armed forces, the unregulated and illegal mass immigration, the excessive government debt, the unlimited financial guarantees to indebted banks and states via the ECB, or even of the Berlin airport.

Positive effects due to direct participation

In detail, von Arnim describes the positive effects of direct democratic participation: Laws that are unsuitable can be abolished by the citizens. Thereby, new legislative proposals are prepared more appropriately and transparently from the beginning. Unreasonable or badly planned projects, which would be rejected anyway, never make it to the legislative level. The citizens get actively involved in politics and decide themselves on questions concerning their lives. The arbitrariness of the party state can be restrained.
After more than 60 years, a direct-democratic participation at federal level should find its place, as intended in the German Basic Law. Continuing as in the past would be disastrous for the country.    •

1     see von Arnim, Hans Herbert. Die Hebel der Macht und wer sie bedient. Parteienherrschaft statt Volkssouveränität. Klappentext. 2017. ISBN 978-3 453-20142-2