Democratic rights, democratic wrongs


I’d like to tell you about a referendum.

It’s due to take place, hopefully, in 2017, if everything goes according to plan. We in the campaign team for the Volksentscheid Fahrrad are working to get this referendum granted so that there can be a public vote about whether a certain number of significant changes should be made to Berlin to make it a much safer, more pleasant place for cyclists – and by extension, for pedestrians and motorists and even all the chihuahuas who skitter along the city streets.

But they’re not just going to let us have a referendum and make such a big change happen without a long, heavy fight. First of all, we had to apply for the Volksbegehren, which is a preliminary petition. The Volksbegehren can only be approved if another petition is successfully carried out beforehand. In order to apply for the petition for the petition, our team of lawyers and city planners had to stay up for a 48-hour write-a-thon, working pro bono to draft our proposed new law for it to be submitted by the senate’s deadline. All together, the time they gave was worth tens of thousands of euros.

The next step was waiting. We waited for the Senate to put together its cost estimate for the changes we have outlined as being necessary to make Berlin a cycle-friendly city. These changes include things like making sure every road has a cycle path, making sure there are fast lanes on popular commuter routes, and renovating crossings to prevent the hundreds of deaths and injuries that happen each year when drivers turn right without looking and blithely mow down pedestrians and cyclists legitimately heading straight on over the crossing. Other goals of our campaign are to have a few streets around the city where cars are not allowed access, so these streets will open up and become quiet sanctuaries for kids playing, cyclists cycling, and people who want to sit outside a café enjoying a warm, breeze-whispery evening.

But the Senate doesn’t like the sound of our plans. They want to make changes to the city’s infrastructure at their own pace: namely, that of a snail. In this car-centric country, cyclists and pedestrians are priority number 2; this is not to say that we are against motorists, but simply that this approach has led to an imbalanced and unsafe infrastructure. At any rate, we estimate our targets to cost around 300 million euros – the price of just a scant few km of Autobahn, which gets built every year either which way. But before anything else can happen, we have to wait for the Senate to release its official cost estimate. Until we receive this cost estimate, we are not allowed to begin collecting the signatures we need for the first petition. The estimate is ‘delayed’ by a week and a half, but the deadline for collecting signatures is not moved. This is a tactic.

Finally the cost estimate is released, and it is a doozie: the Senate claims that our measures would cost almost 2.5 BILLION euros. This is significant, not only because it is an exaggerated figure into which the Senate have included every possible fee that could arise: tea and coffee for all the road builders, cosmetic dental surgery for all the city planners, a margarita-dispensing jacuzzi for the Reichstag. The other reason why it is significant for us is that we have to put all this information on every single sign-up sheet for the petition. Every sheet a person signs must have all the facts, plainly laid out, about what we are planning and how much it will cost the city. And more often than not, they read that information when they sign; and they do sign, in their thousands, across the city as we stand in the rain and the sun collecting people’s autographs for hours and hours each weekend, trying to get the minimum number of signatures before the deadline three weeks later.

In the end, we collected over 100,000 signatures – over five times as many as we needed to hit the minimum. The signatures are now being checked, one by one, by human people in the Ämtern across the city. Every single signature must be validated to ensure that the person signing it lives in Berlin and is elegible to vote. Hence, I did not and could not sign.

Then, if all the signatures have been checked and enough are still valid for us to have hit the minimum, there will be the Volksbegehren – the second petition. For this one, we need to collect at least 175,000 signatures. Then they have to be painstakingly checked, probably by the same poor souls who did it the first time, unless they’ve already gone blind and insane by then from the first lot. THEN, if the number is still enough, the referendum is approved. The citizens of Berlin will be allowed to vote.

The results of the vote will only be valid if at least a quarter of Berlin citizens vote for our plan, which means that a minimum number of people must vote overall. That means another phase of frantic campaigning, crowdfunding, media blitzes, flashmobs, late-night meetings over nothing but Kräutertee and Butterkeks, and so on.

It is worth it because what we are campaigning for will be a very good thing indeed. It has the potential to freshen Berlin up and make it a world contender as one of those cities which is not just awesome but also beautiful and free. And you cannot help but want to support it, because when you meet the people in the campaign team, they all have the most arrestingly wonderful smiles permanently beaming. They are joyful, good people, working hard at something they believe in.

Meanwhile, in the UK, a referendum was crassly thrown together, campaigned for hastily, voted for amidst a miasma of lies and ignorance, and won by people who didn’t know what it was they wanted. This referendum decided the future of my home country and threw the world’s largest spanner into western economies, politics, diplomatic relations et al. It caused whole socio-economic structures to jump and crumble, like a football accidentally dropped onto a boardgame mid-play.

I am glad for the meticulous steps and exacting bureaucracy of my referendum, my Volksentscheid. The one that I cannot vote for, but in which my vote – my work – will make a genuine difference.


Rose T