Time and again, Switzerland gets into trouble because of direct democracy. But author and journalist Monica Piffaretti is convinced that the system is valuable enough to be upheld despite its flaws.
The debate over ideas and the direct participation of citizens in political decisions at the ballot box - including elections and votes - must not be given up, she says.
Piffaretti, a former editor-in-chief, lives in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.
swissinfo.ch: President Simonetta Sommaruga says direct democracy depends on the political culture. In what way has this culture changed over the past 25 years when you worked as parliamentary correspondent in the Swiss capital, Bern?
Monica Piffaretti: It is not so much the direct democracy system and its culture that have changed, but society.
For centuries Switzerland was used to managing on its own. But more and more the country had to deal with connections to the rest of the world, in particular to Europe.
The system of direct democracy can somehow become an obstacle in this dynamic development. There is the whole issue of bringing it in line with foreign policy and relations with other countries.
swissinfo.ch: When some people talk about direct democracy, it’s almost as if Switzerland is completely independent from the rest of the world…
M.P.: It is true that populist movements have been using direct democracy for their political ends over the past 20 or 30 years, or rather, to win power regardless of the impact of their political initiatives.
Nevertheless, it is still worth keeping this system in my opinion. It allows citizens to play an active role in the decision-making process.
I couldn’t agree more with President Sommaruga: direct democracy means political culture, which means a culture of debate.
It is crucial to be able to discuss issues. It might make the system creak sometimes as with direct democracy you have to stop, often suddenly, and then make a new start.
It is far from perfect, but it is a good system, a precious asset worth fighting for.
swissinfo.ch: What’s the risk of political movements exploiting direct democracy and undermining the system with their destructive stance against the state, or against Europe?
M.P.: Given the choice between the freedom to discuss, even if people have opposing views, and an authority which bans differing opinions, I go for the first option.
I will always have a liberal approach to direct democracy as it is crucial to be able to express ideas and debate them, even if they go against my own conviction.
Trying to keep the lid on emotions can sometimes backfire.
Discussions are an essential element when trying to convince others. Sometimes it is the facts that make the difference.
Take the example of the February 9 vote [Voters approved a proposal in 2014 to re-introduce immigration curbs for citizens from the European Union]. If no solution can be found to implement the decision we have to sit down and discuss it again.
The Swiss are often pragmatic. When they become aware of the negative impact of a decision they took, they might also be willing to change their minds.
swissinfo.ch: Many issues that the Swiss decide at the ballot box are launched by political parties in power. Sometimes so-called people’s initiatives even serve as campaign tools. Is the principle of people having the final say not a mere illusion?
M.P.: It is a fact that people’s initiatives and referenda are also used by parties to push their agenda and by important pressure groups to promote their interests.
But this is not the rule. Often enough people’s initiatives are launched by groups of citizens and driven by their experience. In a direct democracy system it is possible to raise important issues and make way for new things.
This is democracy at its best which allows citizens to compare ideas.
All in all I believe it is a fairly transparent method. Citizens understand what they vote on and they are not naïve.
swissinfo.ch: But to what extent is a ballot box decision democratic if turnout hardly ever reaches 50%?
M.P.: You could argue that those who don’t go to the polls have delegated their vote. That is, they say ‘I’m not interested, so I let those decide who want to participate’.
Occasionally an issue may be too complex for some citizens to understand and therefore they abstain. But abstention is also a way to express an opinion and this is as valid as a vote.
swissinfo.ch: What do you make of abstention rates especially among young people?
M.P.: For me it is an issue to be taken seriously and a phenomenon which mirrors the problems of today’s society and its increasing trend towards individualism. At stake is not only the interest in democracy but also in everyday life.
Many young people spend hours sitting in front of a computer. They may be linked up with people from around the world but do they know real life in their own country and the problems around them?
This attitude can even lead to a loss of identity because normally your point of reference is where you are living.
Piffaretti is a journalist and author from the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland.
Trained as an economist at Bern University, she worked as parliamentary correspondent for the leading Italian-language Corriere del Ticino newspaper between 1987 and 1993.
Piffaretti was named editor-in-chief of the Regione Ticino newspaper at the age of 30, making her the first woman to lead a Ticino daily. She quit the position in 1999.
She has continued to work as journalist and author of short stories and published several novels, including I giorni del delfino (The Days of the Dolphin) in 2014.
Born in 1963, she is married and has four children.
So many - too many - young people live and play in a virtual world; they are unaware of its risks and its impact on their personal development.
We need to address this issue be it in the family and in school. Rules have to be established to see who trusts and relies too much on a virtual reality at the expense of real life.
I think it is such a shame that the young generation is showing so little interest in politics and in votes. Because they are the ones who have new ideas.
Their involvement is absolutely crucial for the future of the country. But if their contribution is lacking we may pay a high price later for something that could have been avoided.
swissinfo.ch: As an author of books what kind of message about direct democracy do you have?
M.P.: Not to take it for granted, that goes not only for the system of direct democracy but for democracy as such.
We have become so used to it and maybe we don’t appreciate it enough.
It would be great to see this topic being debated, to have discussions about its essential value and the fact that it is defended, even in on a daily basis, at a small scale, in your commune, in your canton, and at national level in Switzerland.
(Adapted from Italian by Urs Geiser), swissinfo.ch