Joe Mathews: A debate on direct democracy in the Arab Spring

People hold Tunisian flags in a patriotic demonstration in March after gunmen attacked a museum in Tunis.
People hold Tunisian flags in a patriotic demonstration in March after gunmen attacked a museum in Tunis. The Associated Press

Living in an exceptional place is hard work – especially when your place needs big changes.

Californians know this. We routinely embrace novel and costly schemes (such as the $70 billion high-speed rail project) that no other state would attempt.

People in Tunisia, where I spent last week, know the pressures of exceptionalism, too. The North African country of 11 million is the only Arab Spring country to make the transition to democracy.

I went to Tunisia for California reasons. Our state’s devotion to direct democracy, despite its problems, has made me so curious about how initiatives work elsewhere that I’ve built a global network of journalists and scholars who study the subject. In the process, I’ve learned that California’s initiative process is an outlier. None of the 100-plus countries with direct democracy has initiatives so inflexible to amendment and so dominated by money.

Tunisia is the latest to leap into direct democracy, and the stakes couldn’t be higher as the country seeks to overcome a long history of dictatorship that ended in 2011. Tunisia’s new constitution requires a new system of regional and local government, including direct democracy, to replace the dictatorship’s centralized model.

That makes Tunisia’s case relevant to California. Our own governance has also been highly centralized. The culprits weren’t dictators but voters, who passed ballot measures that take power away from local governments and give it to Sacramento.

I’ve written books and articles making the case for reversing this centralization. We need a redesign of our state and local government that includes remaking our initiative process so it can’t be so easily commandeered by powerful people.

So Tunisia appeared to offer an answer to a question I’ve wished we could pose in California: What would happen if a place had to design a whole new system of state and local government, one reliant on direct democracy?

The answer, as I learned during a forum I led in Tunis, was sobering. Beyond the work of making a new government, Tunisians have the burden of designing something that might be a model for the Arab world and that suits Tunisia’s own traditions and faith. In a striking speech, Rached Ghannouchi of the moderate Islamist party Ennahda powerfully argued that the Islamic concept of shura, or consultation, is a form of direct democracy.

The question of how to build a new, decentralized government was fraught. Our forum convened the first public debate on the subject, with the government, political parties and trade unions represented. Tunisians, like Californians, like to say that local governments need more power. But the details are controversial.

Before the forum, Tunisia was supposedly going to hold its first municipal elections later this year and decentralize power in the months after that. But officials said the process could take 10 years. Too many big questions – about services, financial controls, taxes – are unresolved. One audience member shouted the timeless municipal question: Who will pick up the trash?

The debate was supposed to last an hour, but the participants kept talking, with the kind of dogmatic passion you usually only get at Santa Monica City Council meetings. At 90 minutes, the exhausted translators quit. At two hours, foreigners in the audience left. But the debate continued.

Tunisians have done so much – toppling a dictatorship, adopting a new constitution, electing a new government – but building state and local governments democratically may be harder than all of those things combined. The next morning, still thinking about the debate, I took a short ride to the Mediterranean, dipped my toes in the water, and felt overwhelmed by the vastness of the sea.

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.