Many people are concerned that decision-making in a direct democracy will be too slow.
They ask: How will the country handle an emergency if the people have to hold a referendum to decide? How can a direct democracy not be at a disadvantage regarding representative democracies and, even more so, regarding authoritarian and totalitarian regimens if something unexpected happens?
Let us look at how Switzerland; humanity’s only direct democracy today, deals with emergencies.
The Swiss Constitution; which has been approved by the Swiss people, because it always has to be approved by the people, says:
Article 165, emergency legislation.
Note: I have simplified the official wording. I believe I do not distort what the original texts mean.
This article refers to the power of Swiss elected representatives in emergency situations.
It says that federal acts whose coming into force cannot wait, can be declared urgent by an absolute majority of the members of Parliament, and can apply immediately. Such emergency laws must be of limited duration.
If the people in a referendum say “no” to an emergency federal act, the act must be repealed one year after being passed by the Federal Assembly. But if the people approve the law in the referendum, then the law stays.
Remember that the Swiss people call the referendum; the Swiss government can not call referendums or stop them.
An emergency federal law has to be repealed within one year, unless the People approve it in a referendum.
As I have said in another post, the Swiss Constitution prohibits that the Swiss Supreme Court declare if a law is, or is not, constitutional. The constitutionality of laws is out of the hands of the Supreme Court. Switzerland does want to have a Constitutional Court either.
Laws promulgated in an emergency must be of limited duration. An emergency federal law that is not approved in a popular referendum can not be renewed.
As you can see, the Swiss constitution allows legislators to swiftly approve emergency laws; no need for a referendum up front, but it puts the people in ultimate control.
What in plain words, the Swiss Constitution (which can only be changed if the people approve) tells to the legislators is: “You can pass any legislation you consider necessary but the legislation will not stand beyond one year unless the people approve of it.
In this way, the Swiss achieve two goals; deal with the emergency and preserve direct democracy.
But there may be situations so urgent that there is no time for the legislators to act. In such situations, such as the one with the virus pandemic originating in China, the executive can act unilaterally, even without the approval of the legislature.
The executive can act under Article 185 of the Swiss Constitution. The article refers to internal and external emergency issues.
The Federal Council, which is the Swiss Executive, can take measures to safeguard the external and internal security, independence and neutrality of Switzerland.
The Executive may issue rules to deal with existing or imminent threats to public order or internal or external security. It must also limit the duration of such rules.
In cases of emergency, the Executive may also mobilise the armed forces. If it mobilises over 4,000 members of the armed forces for over three weeks, the Parliament must be convened without delay. But if Parliament can not meet because of war or some other situation, the executive will do whatever it considers necessary to continue the protection of the country.
You could even say that in emergencies, the Swiss executive has more freedom to act than the executives in representative democracies.
You may know that after the Second World War, the Swiss executive did not want to give up its emergency powers. They felt that rule by executive orders was great. It seems people in power easily “grow” into non-democrats.
I do not know why the Swiss Parliament did not act. The Swiss Parliament elects-appoints the Executive. Perhaps they had the problem we see now in most representative democracies; if the government has majority in the Parliament, then the checks and balances go out the window.
Fortunately, the Swiss had direct democracy to fix this problem. Once Second World War was over, the people decided the government no longer needed emergency powers; they organized a referendum and revoked the emergency powers of the executive.
It is obvious; a direct democracy has the tools to act swiftly in emergency situations. It also has the tools to return to direct democracy if the Executive resists.
The conclusion: Direct democracy can act as swiftly, or even more swiftly, than representative democracies. Perhaps it is because the Swiss people know they have the power and the tools to force the executive to give up emergency powers.
In the current virus crisis, the Swiss government can deal with the emergency as well as any other. Whatever mistakes the Swiss government has made, or is making, in dealing with the crisis, they have nothing to do with direct democracy.
There is no doubt that if the current Swiss executive tries to hold on to its emergency powers longer than what the People consider necessary, the people will act, calmly, deliberately; no need for demonstrations or riots… and will revoke the powers of the executive.
The current quarrels in so many representative democracies about “losing our freedoms” would not arise if we, the people, felt certain we have more power than the executive and the legislative.