Sep 1, 2012 / 3:00 pm
For a number of politically cynical Quebecers the current provincial election isn't about which political party they like best but about the legitimacy of representative democracy itself.
Members of student organizations, citizen assemblies and anarchists are increasingly vocal in their criticism of a centuries-old form of government they consider insufficient.
Such conversations grew during the Occupy movement, swelled with the student unrest, and are now transpiring on the fringes of the provincial campaign which ends Sept. 4.
One idea would see elected officials consult with local assemblies before acting in parliaments.
Another would see political parties disbanded. In the most extreme form, some anarchists would dissolve state institutions, including parliaments.
Adherents of "direct democracy" have vastly differing visions.
One thing they have in common is the belief that citizens deserve a more active role in the decision-making process.
"I don't think voting every four years and then shutting up is what democracy was intended to be," said Alia Al-Saji, a member of a neighbourhood group that sprang out of the pots-and-pans protests in Quebec this spring.
Direct democracy arguably has a deeper history than Canada's Westminster model. It was practised in the golden age of Athens around 2,500 years ago, although that early version excluded women and slaves.
The approach has been used more recently by modern governments.
Iceland employed the principles of direct democracy to create a new constitution when political reforms were initiated following the country's 2008 financial collapse.
Citizen representatives were picked from each region. Local meetings were held to let citizens share their desires for the new constitution.
Finally, the representatives met a national constitutional assembly to put together the country's fundamental law.
During that assembly, regular citizens were given updates on progress and were able to offer input through social media. Two years later, after unanticipated delays, the country's citizens are expected to vote in a referendum this fall on whether to approve the document.
The principle is applied in citizen-initiated referendums in U.S. states and Europe. In California, voters used it to ban gay marriage.
That case is used as a warning flag by direct democracy's skeptics.
The idea does raise important questions: What impact might it have on minorities? Is it practical? Will the loudest voice always get its way? Will it give the uninformed a veto over public policy? Will people choose to do what's popular instead of what's difficult, but right?
Hugo Bonin is more optimistic about the process. He experienced direct democracy at his student union's general assemblies last spring.
There, he said, he was free to take the microphone, help shape the meeting agenda, debate and eventually vote to set policies.
One reason it took so long for the more ardent CLASSE student group to denounce violence this spring was that its assemblies had never voted to put the issue on the agenda.
"It's not like clicking 'Like' on a Facebook photo," Bonin said.
"You're putting yourself into the decision, you're a part of it, so you're more likely to be part of the mobilization."
Now Bonin, a recent graduate of Concordia University, is a co-spokesperson for the CLASSE, taking over the position vacated by Gabriel Nadeau-Dubois.
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