The Limits of Direct Democracy. The Popular Initiative in the Swiss and the US Experiences, with a View on Italy

By Simona Rodriquez

Measures of direct democracy easures, specifically popular initiatives and referendums, are being increasingly used to address problematic and complex issues that affect citizenship rights, the status of minorities and the relationship with federal and/or international law. The first part of this study considers the Swiss legal system. It will trace the history of direct democracy as a form of public deliberation and democratic lawmaking, focusing in particular on the increasing reliance on initiatives and referendums to legislate upon complex constitutional issues (as demonstrated by the referendum recently held in the Canton of Ticino). In the second part, the U.S. legal system will be examined. Direct democracy is an integral part of the government structure in almost half the American states and is deeply entrenched in their civic and political traditions. However, from the 1980s, the nature, dynamics and political potential of direct democracy began to shift decidedly away from its grassroots base and toward a new emphasis on financial resources. First, money was increasingly required to get issues to the ballot. Second, money was required to sell ideas to the electorate. This new emphasis on money inevitably changed the type of issues presented through the initiative process, as only heavily supported groups could afford to pursue direct democracy as a means of accomplishing political change. Other issues are connected with the interests of minorities. Direct democracy fails to «filter out» majority-minority hostility from democratic lawmaking. In contrast, representative processes structure legislative decision making such that majorities are more accountable to minority interests. The case of Italy will be discussed in the last part of the study. The essay analyses the impact of the constitutional reform upon which Italian citizens recently voted, focusing especially on the role of referendums and initiatives in the overall legislative process.