A very limited presence in public and not much to say about direct democracy: Political experts give mixed reviews to Simonetta Sommaruga’s year as Swiss President in 2015.
It wasn’t about proposing changes but about raising awareness of Switzerland’s unique system with citizens’ direct participation in politics and a warning against attempts by a political party to turn upside down a proven system, she counters.
Sommaruga had promising plans when parliament in December 2014 elected her as president for the following year.
“I’d like to put a special focus on this issue and contribute to a continuing debate about direct democracy in 2015,” she said. Sommaruga noted that participatory democracy was often brought up as a subject of conversation with citizens in everyday life.
Her speech to parliament ended with a categorical invocation.
“Our direct democracy is fascinating and a unique political system. It has to be handled with great responsibility. Therefore, let us all take care to preserve our political culture.”
In a similar vein, she continued in her speech for the New Year 2015.
“No other country gives citizens as much power and responsibility as Switzerland. This is what I like about our democratic system: It is daring. It trusts us a lot.”
The Swiss president has a largely ceremonial role and is limited to 12 months, retaining his or her ministerial portfolio. Formally elected by parliament, the seven cabinet ministers take turns according to a system of seniority. The president represents the entire cabinet both on visits abroad and in Switzerland.
Discussions are ongoing about increasing the powers of the Swiss president and extending the mandate to two years.
In 2016, Sommaruga’s successor as president is Economics Minister Johann Schneider-Ammann.
At the end of April, Sommaruga changed her tune slightly, when she addressed guests from Switzerland and abroad at the Europa Forum in Lucerne.
“Our democracy is a unique success story. However, this can only continue if our political culture is marked by respect and consideration for others.”
In her speech for the August 1st National Day on the mythical Rütli meadow in central Switzerland, Sommaruga raised the tone.
“Our direct democracy can only function if it is supported by a majority. There is only one motto for this political culture: Direct democracy means direct responsibility.”
She warned against attempts to abuse people’s initiatives as a way of setting an example regardless of the relevance of an issue.
“Initiatives are aimed at changing our constitution. The core of our basic laws must not become a random collection of amendments based on protest,” she said.
Nice words and public appeals, but what remains?
Yves Petignatexternal link, senior parliamentary correspondent for the French-language Le Temps newspaper, criticised Sommaruga early on in the year.
In an editorial, Petignat noted that she had hardly gone beyond stating truisms in her New Year speech, singing the praises of direct democratic values while facing relentless opposition by the conservative right People’s Party.
He added that the political right and their insistence on the sovereignty of the people risked undermining relations with the European Union and Switzerland’s reputation when it comes to respecting international law.
Ten months on, Petignat struggles to find substantial evidence of Sommaruga’s pledge to contribute to the debate on direct democracy. She limited herself to evocations of the topic, he says.
“Other issues – asylum, immigration, the EU – possibly moved it off her agenda,” Petignat says.
Sommaruga initially may have thought that direct democracy is a perfect mainstream topic for her presidential year.
“Later in the year she appeared to avoid the subject also because it became a bit of a hot potato as the government came out against the strict and literal application of highly controversial initiatives.”
Political scientist Georg Lutzexternal link is also sceptical in his appraisal.
“I couldn’t find any trace of concrete proposals from her to improve the current system of direct democracy in Switzerland,” says Lutz, a professor at the University of Lausanne.
Given the controversy over the implementation of several initiatives – the deportation of convicted foreigners, immigration curbs, limits for holiday homes, to name just three – Lutz expected to hear more from Sommaruga.
“Direct democracy, just like consensus politics, is a key element everybody easily agrees on,” says Lutz.
“But if it gets down to the nitty-gritty, a certain vagueness prevails. As soon as somebody tries to propose changes to the system, there is a hail of criticism.”
Therefore, there is a rather short queue of reformers.
Lack of resources
Bruno Kaufmann, expert on direct democracy and editor-in chief of the People2Power online platformexternal link to, agrees with Lutz and Petignat.
He says nobody would seriously doubt the positive impact of direct democracy, but it is a different story when practical problems crop up with the implementation of divisive initiatives.
“In her capacity as justice minister Sommaruga was compelled to take sides, prompting immediate criticism of her role as president.”
Kaufmann notes a lack of resources to promote the issue.
“There was no noticeable willingness to remain the opinion leader on the subject of direct democracy throughout the year.”
Nevertheless, Kaufmann concedes that Sommaruga showed a keen interest compared with other ministers.
“She displayed a great awareness of direct democracy. Probably because she is confronted with the issue as justice minister,” Kaufmann says.
Sommaruga, for her part, sees her effort this year for citizens' participation in politics in a specific context.
“It was not my aim to reform direct democracy, but to show how unique it is and certainly what it takes to make responsible use of the system. Such an effort is not over at the end of the year.”
She says political scientists may have different expectations than politicians.
“We don’t need a new substantial focus primarily. It is enough to deal with the next public votes. Citizens are very aware of the topic of direct democracy and it will remain so in the future,” she says.
Referring to a controversial Swiss People’s Party proposal, to be voted on next February, on the implementation of an initiative on the automatic deportation of convicted foreigners, thereby undermining the powers of parliament, she continues.
“We have to act responsibly. Direct democracy is not to be mixed up with a tyranny of the majority. It is a well-balanced and proven system of interaction between the population, parliament and the government.”
Adapted from German by Urs Geiser, swissinfo.ch