Volksentscheid. Photo by Lokiseinchef (CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikimedia Commons)
Berlin did a lot for direct democracy in Germany back in 2006 when it implemented some reforms that gave petitions and referendums a vague chance of making a difference. Not that it's been spectacular. According to the campaign group Mehr Demokratie, there have been 40 citizens' initiatives since 1998, and only two have ended up with a successful referendums (Tempelhofer Feld two years ago, and the release of privatization contracts for the water works in 2011).
But that does't mean things don't need to change: the new law about Tempelhofer Feld has recently been weakened, because the Berlin government has decided it wants to build a refugee centre there, even though hardly any refugees are coming anymore and even though everyone says a massive camp in an old airport is absolutely the worst place to keep a large number of newcomers if you want to integrate them. The Tempelhofer Feld campaigners are pretty sure this is a backdoor ploy to let the property developers onto the park after all.
Anyway, now there is a new petition – a petition to make petitions more effective (Volksentscheid retten!). If it get its way, these are the changes it will make:
1) If a referendum is successful and forces a law change, then the state parliament shouldn't be able to change that law back. Instead, it has to give the people a four-month window to collect 50,000 signatures to stop it. This rule is already in place in Hamburg, and should really be a given, if you think about it.
2) Instead of having to get 175,000 signatures in the second phase of the Volksbegehren (7 percent of the Berlin population), as you do now, you will only need 125,000 (5 percent), to force a referendum.
3) In the referendum itself (Volksentscheid), you will only need a 20-percent turnout (500,000 people), and a simple majority to win. At the moment you need 25 percent (625,000).
4) A referendum must happen on an election day, to ensure maximum turnout. At the moment, the Berlin government gets to decide when referendums are held.
If you ask me, these are all pretty modest changes, and all they do is make sure that petitions and referendums actually mean something.
As if to prove exactly how conservative this referendum is, it doesn't even dare give any say to the 620,000 non-Germans living in Berlin (Are you kidding? No one's gonna sign that!). It is indeed total bullshit that you still have to be a German citizen to even sign a petition that directly affects your life. (You can still sign the local district Bürgerinitiativen, but they're rubbish, since they only deal with local district issues.) Anyway, if you're German I think you should still sign this one, and vote in the referendum when it comes round. It's a basic step that will hopefully open the door to empowerment in the future. Sorry, foreigners. But next time.
Check out Konrad's weekly news podcast, News des Nachrichtens, with Drew Portnoy!