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Why a citizen’s parliament chosen by lot would be ‘perfect’

By Timo Rieg

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Even in direct democracies like Switzerland, the self-interest of the political players is the dominant force, according to German political expert Timo Rieg. He thus makes the case for a citizens’ parliament, whose members would be determined through a random draw.

They would only serve for a short session until the next citizens’ jury took over. This article is a response to Liu Junning’s recently published opinion piece (see below), in which he labelled direct democracy “impractical”.

By Peter Singer

Direct democracy is the subject of much criticism: it’s not very creative to just be permitted to say yes or no; every vote is vulnerable to populism or false information; the minority can prevail over the majority when there is low participation; the electorate does not ultimately bear responsibility for its vote; most topics are too complex for regular people and so forth. 

In response, direct democracy’s limits are being discussed in Switzerland. Indeed, the system is attracting particularly intense and international attention following the initiative against mass immigration [approved by 50.3% of voters on February 9, 2014]. 

As a consequence, the governing party in Germany, the CDU, refuses to introduce referendums on a national level, while political scientists praise the representative system, the parliamentary system, the party democracy. The debates all assume that democracy’s aim is to make people happy, protect minorities, ensure peace, secure the future and save the world. In short, it’s the best for everyone. Unfortunately this is pure nonsense. 

Representative systems such as direct democracy are forms of government, which always entail egotism. Government means power over resources, which can be used for the benefit of one’s own life. There is no reason to expect that humans are the only exception among all eukaryotes on this planet. 

Greek example 

When reforms to democracy are negotiated today, one should first ask: cui bono – to whose benefit? Such reforms rarely help just “the people”, “the general public” or “minorities”, but rather the protagonists. In biology, altruism is just one way to make the best out of one’s situation, whereby you support those who can help you succeed. It’s therefore not “selflessness”. 

In the origins of democracy, there was a process 2,400 years ago that ran contrary to this: selecting decision makers by a random draw. Instead of consulting with everyone (direct democracy) or transferring all decision-making powers to elected “elites” (representative democracy), a random sample of citizens would be representative of everyone. This system is efficient and throws any criticism to the wind concerning the unwieldy, large size of countries today. 

However, this negation is hostile to the concept of power. This grandiose idea from ancient Greece therefore quickly disappeared.  

An “aleatory democracy” – the selection of representatives of the people through a draw – is at most a footnote in today’s debate. The concept is unsexy from a biological point of view because it focuses on a good coexistence for everyone, while leaving no room whatsoever for individual career aspirations. 

The aleatory system is thus a mere deliberative element today, for example it is used to make non-binding suggestions to those who are in power.  

‘Citizen juries’ 

The method is known as “planning cells” or “citizen juries”: 25 citizens selected from the general population form an advisory group (jury) for a week. The citizens receive clear yes-no questions, as well as all the necessary information (documents, speakers, as well as possible site visits and consultations). 

Independent facilitators organise everything that is required. All deliberations take place in small groups of five people, which keep alternating through a draw. There is no moderation or influence from anyone – the citizens are amongst themselves!  

Each group of five casts a vote, and all 25 citizens vote following the end of a deliberation session. If statistical reliability is required, there can be several juries in parallel who work completely independently from each other. 

The advantages: the citizens selected through a draw reach sound compromises. None of them has a special plan: they were all drawn without having applied. No one aspires to a political career: after five days their mandate ends and there are no extensions. And the selected citizens are aware of their responsibility: they represent everyone. 

It has nothing to do with their personal preferences, but rather it’s about considering and evaluating proposals from experts, the members of the administration and lobbyists, and then proposing the best possible regulation. This is a completely different task than that of elected politicians or referendums. 

Also, discussions within small groups proceed along very different lines compared with discussions via a microphone in a room or an internet forum. 

‘Citizens’ parliament’ 

One could firmly establish this procedure, which could be called the “citizens’ parliament”. Week by week, 200 new members, selected each time by a draw, could meet in the citizen’s parliament. They could listen to experts and lobbyists in a plenary session, have discussions with their jury and small groups, ask questions, suggest changes and entrust the governing authority to make improvements. 

The outcome of this process would be a clear recommendation, a law (or its repeal), and the result is, unlike today’s parliament, always representative! Thus the citizen’s parliament is a “mini-populus”, an almost exact miniature replica of the general public. 

All schools of thought, all social backgrounds, all occupations, artistic interests and hobbies would be proportionally represented. No one and nothing would be forgotten, and yet it’s both technically and financially a manageable size. 

Everything that concerns the public could be discussed in the citizens’ parliament – not just those issues backed by hundreds of thousands of supporters. The sole aim of this model would be to make sound decisions and find solutions to problems. No one would benefit personally or feel the need to show off, and there would be no campaign speeches or empty promises. An aleatory democracy is perfect: a combination of the best of parliamentarianism and referendums. 

Cui bono – to whose benefit? Almost everyone except for those in power today. If political parties and lobby groups want to remain significant within an aleatory democracy, they would have to successfully promote their vision of the future among the people so that the representatives chosen by a draw, following careful deliberation, would then choose exactly the vision of the future envisaged by the parties and lobbyists. It is of course easier to lay claim to power by courting a small number of voters.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of swissinfo.ch.

Opinion series
swissinfo.ch publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

Translated from German by Catherine McLean, swissinfo.ch



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