Switzerland’s direct democracy will come under increased pressure in the future because of the acceleration effect from digitalisation and globalisation, according to Adrian Vatter, a professor of political science at the University of Bern.
Slowing down to allow participation conflicts with the need to act quickly in an interconnected world.
Reforms, however, are only promising if that the political elite makes proposals that will be supported by everyone, Vatter argues.
swissinfo.ch: Let’s begin with some bookkeeping with regards to direct democracy. What are its biggest benefits and disadvantages?
Adrian Vatter: With regard to people’s rights, I see the advantages in the education of the citizenry.
To be more concrete, wherever there is a well-developed form of direct democracy such as in certain cantons and communes in Switzerland, civic knowledge, political awareness, as well as trust in the political system is much higher than areas where direct democracy is less robust.
I think this is one of the system’s main benefits.
I see disadvantages in the threat that financially powerfully interest groups could control the propaganda.
As a result, people’s rights – direct democracy – are paradoxically transformed into the rights of interest groups. This is appealing for those groups with an organisation that is capable of quickly collecting the necessary signatures for a nationwide vote. There is a need for action here.
swissinfo.ch: What possibilities do you see?
A.V.: There are several different options. The most radical solution would be the one we know from Germany. Its constitution is comprised of fundamental and human rights that are sacrosanct.
Since August 2009, he has been professor at the institute of political science in Bern and chair for Swiss politics.
The 50-year-old political scientist from Bern was previously a professor at the University of Constance in Germany and Zurich University.
His main areas of research include democracy research and direct democracy.
We could move in this direction, enshrining certain fundamental rights within the Swiss constitution, in particular those of minorities.
But one doesn’t have to go so far. It is also conceivable that important information could be prominently featured in the run-up to elections and on the ballot itself.
In particular, that approval for a proposal would hurt certain fundamental and human rights, or international agreements.
swissinfo.ch: You mentioned that trust in the political system and its institutions are among direct democracy’s greatest strengths. As far as the government is concerned, however, there is an intriguing discrepancy right now. While the cabinet has lost a number of important votes recently, it still enjoys the highest level of trust among the people in 15 years. How can you explain this?
A.V.: Swiss people can definitely distinguish between the various participants – cabinet on the one hand, direct democracy on the other – and their respective roles and purpose.
As far as trust is concerned, the government hit a low between 2003 and 2007. The cabinet at the time was newly formed and members quarrelled with each other.
In the past few years, the cabinet appears united once again. The seven members are more harmonious and uphold the principle of collegiality. Voters appreciate this.
However, voters sometimes don’t share the same opinion as the government on one or another issue.
swissinfo.ch: Let’s now turn our attention the digital revolution and its impact on direct democracy. To start with, it has an enormous, global acceleration effect in almost all areas. Democracy in Switzerland, on the other hand, is designed to be measured, even slow. Will it stay this way?
A.V.: It is completely appropriate that direct democracy has led to a slowdown of our decision processes. This is a consequence of the system of concordance and the need for consensus. This makes everything a bit slower in Swiss politics.
This does have an advantage, however, in that one doesn’t necessarily make mistakes that need to be corrected later on.
A certain level of continuity and slower pace of change can by all means have benefits. For example, it can provide a certain amount of predictability, which is very important for economic stakeholders.
Digitalisation itself will not be without consequences for direct democracy.
E-voting, new forms of information and their dissemination, or propaganda distribution will be carried out more and more through social media, that is, digital channels. This again has an influence on citizens who either go to the polls or choose to stay at home.
swissinfo.ch: Will digital acceleration also changed the Swiss system of parliamentary democracy, with its finely tuned balance of direct and indirect elements?
A.V.: The pressure from the acceleration effect doesn’t just come from digitalisation.
A general pressure, which we feel here in Switzerland, results from Europeanization and globalisation. Switzerland has to react when the European Union or international organisations make decisions quickly.
It is here where we have this conflict of objectives. On one side, we have direct democracy in which everyone wants to participate. This takes time.
On the other side, there are rapid economic developments such as the 2008/2009 financial crisis, which require a prompt response from the government.
In the future, this is where we may have conflicts and even gridlock within the political system.
In some cases, this could lead to pressure for reform with the direct democracy system. For example, we could have fierce debates in the future regarding the relationship between nationwide votes and international agreements.
swissinfo.ch: What other reforms of the direct democratic system could or should Switzerland tackle in the next five years?
A.V.: It is basically difficult to reform direct democracy. It is even more difficult to put an end to certain people’s rights.
To be sure, there were occasions such as the abolition of the general initiative in which signatures could be collected not for only a concrete constitutional article but rather for a general suggestion regarding a constitutional amendment.
These possibilities, however, were not used by anyone. This goes to show that changes are absolutely possible.
This presupposes, however, that the political elite, including the government and large parties, presents a united front and make proposals that will be supported by everyone.
Fundamentally to this day, however, our semi-direct democracy system is functioning well and enjoys a high degree of legitimacy.
Adapted from German by Catherine McLean, swissinfo.ch