Town hall meetings in Switzerland are generally poorly attended, undermining their political legitimacy. Researchers have revealed details about a form of direct democracy with a long tradition.
Four-fifths of Switzerland’s roughly 2,300 municipalities, particularly in the German-speaking part of the country, hold regular town hall meetings. They are a key element of citizens’ participation in local politics and to some extent take the role of elected local parliaments.
But attendance has been decreasing over the past 30 years and young citizens are noticeably absent, according to political scientist Andreas Ladner of the University of Lausanne.
In an article initially published by the German-language DeFacto platform for political and social sciences, Ladner shows that older citizens and long-time residents are over-represented.
The findings are confirmed in a case study, the first of its kind in Switzerland, published by the Centre for Democracy Studies last month.
Similar to the open-air assemblies of cantons Appenzell Outer Rhodes and Glarus, citizens in most Swiss municipalities are regularly invited to take part in town hall meetings.
Under the three-tier structure of national, cantonal and local levels, citizens in small towns or villages decide on a broad range of issues, including tax, schools, zoning and planning as well as elections to the local council.
It is estimated that about 300,000 citizens attend the 4,000 or so town hall meetings throughout the year.
Participation ranges between 20% in small communes to just a few per cent in larger municipalities.
Based on data from Richterswil, a town south of Zurich, the researchers show that only about 3% of the 8,500 citizens took part in town hall meetings over the past five years.
The authors of the study – Alexander Haus, Philippe E. Rochat and Daniel Kübler – warn against giving material incentives to encourage more citizens to participate in assemblies as it puts off people who attend such meetings regularly.
Instead, they call on local authorities and other political institutions to create and maintain a public interest.
They recommend increasing efforts, particularly among the younger generation, for civic education. “It might have a positive impact to boost civic education, giving it greater importance,” the authors say.
“Beyond that, it is up to the local authorities and political players such as parties, associations and clubs to engage the interest of citizens in local politics.”
No elite bias
For his part, Ladner says women and people with high incomes and professional qualifications are more often under-represented at town hall meetings. The same holds true for farmers, local businessmen and members of political parties.
Older people, house owners and long-time residents, on the other hand, are over-represented at local assemblies, Ladner found.
However, there is no evidence that citizens with higher education diplomas are necessarily less interested in attending local assemblies than other citizens.
“It appears there is no elite bias compared with votes or elections,” Ladner concludes.
He dismisses assumptions that everyone speaks up at all town hall assemblies. But research shows that these meetings are particularly animated in municipalities with more than 10,000 residents.
Ladner points out that despite the often poor attendance, there is no trend towards local parliaments.
“Town hall meetings as archetypes of democracy still enjoy great popularity,” he says.
To safeguard some minimal standards of democracy, notably vote secrecy, Ladner recommends providing the possibility that town hall decisions can be challenged at the ballot box. This helps prevent the rule of a small local elite and reduce the effects of possible intimidation or bribery.
The possibility of referendums exists in about 90% of all Swiss municipalities, he adds.
Ladner’s research also found that mergers of small municipalities do not lead to fewer town hall meetings. The number of communes has dropped by 700 over the past 15 years, according to official statistics.
“Even larger municipalities still maintain town hall meetings as a form of democratic decision-making bodies,” Ladner says.
Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch