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“People want more co-determination”

The political scientist Brigitte Geißel studies democratic innovations: from citizens’ councils to referendums. 

Carsten HauptmeierCarsten Hauptmeier, 10.05.2023
„Die Menschen wollen mehr Mitbestimmung“
© IStock

This year, Germany is looking back at how German democracy began at St. Paul’s Church assembly 175 years ago in Frankfurt am Main. However, the anniversary celebrations are also being overshadowed by the debate about whether and how democracy could be further developed. Frankfurt-based political scientist Brigitte Geißel has been studying “democratic innovations” for years. She talks about new forms of co-determination in citizens’ councils or in referendums. 

Democracy researcher Brigitte Geissel
Democracy researcher Brigitte Geissel © Vincent Leifer

Professor Geißel, you study “democratic innovations”. Does democracy need to be renewed?
Societies in democracies have changed, yet our democratic structures have not. Political parties, for example, no longer represent specific groups in society, as they did in the past. There are signs that a purely representative democracy, brought about by elections of parties every four or five years, is no longer enough in itself to work in today’s societies. People want more co-determination.  

What new forms of co-determination are conceivable?
I believe we need various elements that can also be combined. One option would be randomly composed citizens’ councils that draw up recommendations on particular issues. Ireland is probably the best-known example of this: following the recommendation of a citizens’ council there, the right to abortion was liberalised in a referendum. What was special about this was the fact that the council’s work was linked directly to a referendum.  

How binding should the recommendations of citizens’ councils be?
Citizens’ councils should not take decisions. But they can be an important part of societal debate. However, it is important for there to be a political response to the recommendations. It is frustrating if the only reaction is “thanks, and goodbye”. That said, the recommendation need not necessarily result in a referendum.  

Referendums are often viewed critically because overly emotional decisions are feared. Are such concerns justified?
Ahead of any referendum, there certainly needs to be a lengthy debate in society to consider all the various aspects of an issue. We therefore need an appropriate culture of debate so that we can jointly struggle to find solutions.  

Another possibility would be to hold so-called multi-issue referendums. They give people the chance to vote for example on 20 different issues, each with a variety of options. Voters can then submit 20 votes, voting up to three times for each option. This system allows citizens to express their wishes more clearly than if they had to select a particular party. A test conducted in Filderstadt in Baden-Württemberg also revealed that such referendums are not too complicated.