Power to the People: Inclusive Democracy

Spread This News

“He who thinks he is a leader and has no one following him is only taking a walk” – Malawian proverb.
MY previous article on the “Democracy Delusion” was too long, too academic and did not reach my intended target audience. I was testing the waters to see how receptive the average reader would be to my ideas. Unfortunately, it would appear that what I was trying to feed the reader was neither edible nor digestible; I failed to adequately explain in Laymen’s terms what I was proposing through Inclusive Democracy.
In this article I will try to simplify the idea so that we all understand what I’m proposing. Notwithstanding my own failure to articulate my idea, my previous article was met with the usual PhD (pull him down) mentality, the same colonial mentality that has us believe that we as Zimbabweans cannot solve our own problems, that we are bereft of any new ideas. When we fail to grasp the subject being discussed we are quick to call it high sound nothings. It’s the same mentality that is quick to embrace, exalt and unquestionably proclaim as genius the exact same idea had it been repackaged and written by some professor from some overseas institute.
What may have sounded too utopian and too idealistic to work in the real world is actually a type of direct democracy that was first put in place in 1848 in some country called Switzerland, believe it or not. Switzerland is quite unique in that it features a system of government not seen in any other nation: direct representation. It is the closest state in the world to what I would call an ideal democracy. My idea was to adapt this type of democracy to our own situation in Zimbabwe based on the current government structure.
Now, Switzerland does share some similarities with Zimbabwe, it is a landlocked country, surrounded by Austria, Liechtenstein, France, Italy and Germany, has a relatively small population of 8 million and a land area of 41,285km2. Zimbabwe is also a landlocked country, surrounded by South Africa, Zambia, Botswana and Mozambique, has a relatively small population of 14 million and a larger land area of 390,580km2.
But that’s where the similarity ends however, as Switzerland is the most politically and economically stable country in the world. It is not a coincidence that Geneva, its capital, has been chosen as the headquarters of the majority of UN agencies and numerous other international organizations. Switzerland has a GDP of US$650 billion and is the wealthiest country in the world per capita. The unemployment rate is 4% (lowest for the top 10 richest countries) and the economy is primarily made up of agriculture (3.4%), manufacturing (23.4%) and the services industry (71%).Advertisement

Switzerland is neither an EU nor EEA member but is part of the single market. In a recent study which sort to verify where the wealthiest 1% live, it was found that the country with the largest proportion of its population in the 1% per capita was Switzerland. One in 10 Swiss residents – 800,000 out of 8 million – have assets worth more than US$798,000. They have no known natural resources to speak of, so what is it exactly that makes Switzerland so special? The answer becomes self-evident when you analyze their system of government which practices direct democracy.
So how does this direct democracy in Switzerland work, exactly? Well, the Swiss are quite unique in their outlook on life in that they believe that power should never be concentrated or centralized in one person. The reasoning behind this is quite simple, no human being is perfect and all of us are prone to errors of judgment due to our inherent human fallibility.
The Swiss don’t have an all-powerful executive president (or prime minister) as they do in other western countries; they have a type of “collective presidency” called the Swiss Federal Council which is a seven-member executive council. They have a rotating presidency between members of this executive council whereby they change presidents each year and the president has almost no powers over and above his or her six colleagues, but undertakes representative functions normally performed by a president or prime minister in single-executive systems.
Switzerland is a multi-party direct democracy federal state made up of 26 mini-autonomous states, otherwise known as cantons. These cantons have far-reaching autonomy and are responsible for healthcare, welfare, law enforcement and public education; they also retain the power of taxation. Although Switzerland has a federal constitution, each canton also has its own cantonal constitution which determines the degree of autonomy accorded to the municipalities. This varies but almost always includes the power to levy taxes and pass municipal laws.
Switzerland’s government, parliament and courts are organized on three levels: – Federal (national), cantonal (provincial), and communal (local communities). The government of Switzerland also has a 2 chamber system Parliament just as we do here in Zimbabwe. They have a “National Council” (house of assembly) made up of 200 members who are elected every 4 years according to a refined proportional election system. Then they have a Council of States (Senate), whereby each canton sends 2 representatives (more or less) for a total of 46 members. Both chambers discuss new laws separately. Being a Member of Parliament is not a full-time job in Switzerland (at least they are not paid accordingly). This means that Swiss members of parliament are closer to everyday life of their electorate.
The main difference with the Swiss is that ALL citizens can partake directly in the national politics. Any citizen in Switzerland may challenge a law that has been passed by parliament. If that person is able to gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days, a national vote has to be scheduled where voters decide by a simple majority of the voters whether to accept or reject the law. Also, any citizen may seek a decision on an amendment they want to make to the constitution. For such a federal popular initiative to be organized, the signatures of 100,000 voters must be collected within 18 months.
Where Switzerland is also quite unique is in its frequent use of referendums. While the federal system can be found in many other countries like the U.S.A., Germany, Austria etc., and separation of powers (government, parliament, courts) are common to all democracies (or at least should be), referendums are rare in most other countries. In Switzerland’s long tradition of direct democracy, frequent referendums have had a stabilizing influence on parliament and government as follows:
·          Referendums increase parties’ willingness to compromise (otherwise a defeated party will call for a referendum)
·          Referendums favour big coalitions (shared power motivates compromise, exclusion from power motivates obstructive referendums)
·          Referendums increase stability (as extreme laws will be blocked by referendum, parties are less inclined to radical changes in lawmaking and voters are less inclined to call for fundamental changes in elections)
For any change in the constitution, a referendum is mandatory (mandatory referendum); for any change in a law, a referendum can be requested (optional referendum). Through referenda, citizens may challenge any law voted by federal parliament and, through federal popular initiative, introduce amendments to the federal constitution.
Out of the many referendums that the Swiss have had, the one which sticks out in my mind was held in May 2014. A law was proposed to fix the minimum wage at £32,000 (US$53,600). This law was rejected by majority vote during the referendum. How rich can you be as a country to even propose such a minimum wage? That’s real democracy at work. Whilst this direct democracy as practiced in Switzerland only entails political democracy, the inclusive democracy I’m proposing actually goes further in that it encompasses direct political democracy and economic democracy.
What can we adapt from Switzerland as part of an Inclusive Democracy?
The Swiss system is quite complex, and my idea was to simplify this to the largest possible extent as applicable to our current government structure in Zimbabwe. First let us analyze the system in place in Zimbabwe, starting from the wards, districts and building up to the national level. We have a total of 1,200 wards which make up 59 districts. These 59 districts form our 10 provinces, which in turn form the nation of Zimbabwe. So, this is basically how the area of our country is divided up.
The fun part comes in how the country is then divided again into constituencies for election purposes only. I have always been perplexed by the need to group the 1200 wards into 210 parliamentary constituencies which then make up the House of Assembly. Could someone please shed some light on what the point of that exercise is? If these 1,200 wards already make up 59 districts then common sense dictates that 59 representatives from each of the 59 districts should make up the House of Assembly?
Our central government consists of a two chamber parliament, whereby we have the House of Assembly (lower chamber) which is made up of 210 legislators (law makers) elected from their constituencies. This is the main legislative arm of government. Then we have the Senate (upper chamber) which is made up of 93 elected legislators, which are also drawn from the parliamentary constituencies. The primary purpose of the Senate is to exercise checks on the House of Assembly and the Executive. It is supposed to be an overseer that reviews, scrutinizes and amends bills passed by the House of Assembly. It is the writer’s personal opinion that the Senate is not required.
We then also have the Cabinet, which is the executive body of appointed government ministers, headed by the president. They are there to execute policies passed by the House of Assembly. The Cabinet consists of 1) President; 2) Vice Presidents; 3) Senior Minister of State in the President’s Office; 4) Ministers, Deputy Ministers and Permanent Secretaries. As I explained in my previous article, this type of central national government is based on the previous colonial system where power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few, and real democracy needs to be devolved to the people.
My proposal of restructuring the current central government
I’m just going to recap and try to clarify what I proposed under an Inclusive Democracy. I proposed a system of government made up of three tiers, i.e. Local Committees (based on the 1,200 wards), People’s Congress (based on the 59 districts) and the Executive Council (based on the 10 provinces which can be collapsed into 5).
Our 10 (or 5) provinces would be the “mini-autonomous states” within a state, similar to the cantons they have in Switzerland. These mini-autonomous states would have control over their districts and would be able to make a range of decisions including how to allocate revenue from their natural resources and local industries, and how to use their budgetary funds through Local Committee meetings. The purpose of these Local Committee meetings would essentially be to build a broad-based national consensus. All Zimbabweans would be allowed to take part in Local Committee meetings at ward level.
One step up from the Local Committees would be the People’s Convention (Congress). The 59 representatives from all Local Committees around the country would meet several times a year (twice a month minimum) at the People’s Convention (Congress), to pass laws based on what the people said in their Local Committee meetings. These People’s Convention (Congress) would have legislative power to write new laws, formulate economic and public policy as well as ratify treaties and agreements i.e. the People’s Convention (Congress) would be the equivalent legislative arm of government.
The most important part of my proposal has to do with the current presidency of the country. Instead of having an executive President, we would have an Executive Council of leaders, where a representative from each of Zimbabwe’s 10 provinces sits on this Executive Council. On second thoughts the 10 provinces could be combined into 5 main provinces (Matabeleland, Midlands, Masvingo, Manicaland and Mashonaland), with the Executive Council consisting of 5 leaders, each elected from each of these provinces who share executive power and rule by consensus.
Since elections are held every 5 years, we could easily accommodate a rotating presidency between members of this executive council whereby the president has almost no powers over and above his or her other 4 colleagues, but undertakes representative functions normally performed by a president or prime minister in single-executive systems. In this way each province would not feel left out or marginalized when it comes to national relevance.
This Executive Council would be in charge of implementing policies put forward by the people through the People’s Convention (Congress). The Executive Council could be voted in by the general populace, at local committee level, or by the People’s Convention, depending on what the general populace prefers.
In an Inclusive Democracy, the post of ministers would be retained. However, these ministers would be CEO’s selected by an independent board. Each minister would be selected on competence and merit alone, and would be a proven expert or specialist in his/her respective field to which he/she would be hired as minister. The number of ministries would also be streamlined to a maximum of 10 ministries namely Economic; Education; Health; Energy and Infrastructure; Agriculture, Land and Environment; Defence; Home and Foreign Affairs; Health; Justice; and lastly State Enterprises. There would be no deputy ministers or permanent secretaries.
The problem with our current set up is that the elected legislators are supposed to represent their constituency and pass and formulate policies on behalf of their constituents, without any direct input from the actual members of their constituents i.e. the general population of 14.5 million. In an inclusive democracy, it’s the local committees that discuss new laws, policies etc which affect their districts and provinces, and come up with resolutions. The representative is there merely to transmit what was agreed and signed for during the local committee meetings by citizens. This is grassroots democracy and how it should be.
In an inclusive democracy we could adapt the same system of referendums as employed in Switzerland. I would also like to propose an amendment to our current constitution to allow any Zimbabwean citizen to challenge a law that has been passed by parliament. If that person is able to gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days, a national vote has to be scheduled where voters decide by a simple majority of the voters whether to accept or reject the law.
Also, any citizen may seek a decision on an amendment they want to make to the constitution. For such a popular initiative to be organized, the signatures of 100,000 voters must be collected within 18 months. Zimbabwe has a mobile penetration rate of 120%, so setting up voting system with a mobile platform to hold such referendums is neither unthinkable nor impractical. This is the existing technology we have at our disposal today which we can use to this end.
There is normally a vast chasm between espoused theory and the theory of practice. As with any shift towards a radical ideology, there will be resistance and ridicule and I am more than prepared to take my share of it. I’m trying to shake the very foundations of our belief in what a democracy should be. I want to turn the world as we know it upside down, which is why I started this series of articles with a piece on the Great Zimbabwe Empire. Our ancestors dared to dream.
By placing the first cornerstone they went on to build a great monument in Great Zimbabwe, the pinnacle of our civilization in every sense, and in the same way I’m trying to place that first cornerstone of a truly inclusive democracy which Zimbabweans can then use to begin the reconstruction of this country to its past greatness. If we can’t fix our politics we can’t fix our economy. If we put in place a truly inclusive democratic system of government, this will provide political and economic stability for us and future generations.
When moral entrepreneurs propose high sounding ideologies such as inclusive democracy, we often forget the most important part, which is to include the input and opinions of the general populace. The urban population in Zimbabwe is only 38.62%, with the rural population being 61.38%, which means whatever government structure is proposed has to take this important factor into account. In my next piece I will try to go into the details and propose a hypothesis of how we could reconfigure current national and local government structures to tie in with Inclusive Democracy.