Silent majority always wins Swiss ballots

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Turnout was between 42% and 46% over the past two decadesImage Caption:

Turnout was between 42% and 46% over the past two decades (Keystone)

by Armando Mombelli and Urs Geiser,

Voter turnout in Switzerland is notoriously lower than in other European countries. On average only four out of ten citizens take part in national ballots in Switzerland.

This practice of abstaining is in stark contrast to the traditional image of direct democracy where people participate actively in political decisions.

Citizens in Switzerland can vote three to four times per year on a wide range of issues as part of their democratic rights. Ballots not only take place on a nationwide, but also on a cantonal and local level.

Yet turnout has been on the decrease over the past few decades and now reaches between 42 per cent and 46 per cent. You have to go back nearly 90 years in Swiss history – the parliamentary elections of 1919 - to find rates similar to those currently recorded in almost every European country.

Those figures range between 50 per cent and 90 per cent. Last May 85 per cent of voters took part in the first round of the French presidential election, according to official data.

"The fact that there is ballot almost every three months no doubt has a tiring effect. Citizens would probably be keener if they had the opportunity to do so only every four years," says political scientist Werner Seitz.

Solid and staid

"Elections in Switzerland don't have the importance they have in other parliamentary democracies where elections can lead to a new government," added Seitz, head of the Politics, Culture and Media section at the Federal Statistics Office.

Swiss politics are based on compromise and consensus. The four main parties have held the seven cabinet seats for more than half a century under a power-sharing agreement.

"This formula created a very solid but at the same time a rather staid system. Many Swiss citizens miss the element of a plebiscite like in other countries," said Seitz.

He points out that voters have come out in force when important and emotional issues were at stake, including a proposal for Switzerland to join to European Economic Area treaty when turnout reached more than 70 per cent.

"It goes to show that democracy is very much alive, albeit just from time to time," he reckons.

Question of class

Younger people are less tempted by the ballot box than older people, according to the statistics office. Participation of citizens with lower professional qualifications is also inferior compared with those who have higher education.

"These differences lead to the notion of a democracy dominated by middle and upper classes. They also raise questions about the quality of our political system," he explains.

Seitz says the authorities and politicians must double their efforts in a bid to encourage the entire population to take part.

"Political parties must learn to present their ideas and goals more clearly to citizens. I'd say they have a long way to go to achieve this," he added.

Some experts believe that information technology, including the internet, could boost turnout. But they are sceptical whether it will lead to a major and sustainable increase in the electorate. If anything it is mainly people with high skills and members of the middle class that will use such technology.


Consensus politics and power-sharing

The term "consensus politics" describes the ongoing effort to achieve a balanced compromise among political parties and among the different cultural, linguistic and social communities that make up Switzerland. One of the most obvious aspects of the Swiss power-sharing system is the way in which the distribution of cabinet seats reflects the relative strengths of the political parties, a practice first adopted in 1959.

Left or right?

It remains unclear which political party would benefit most from a significantly stronger interest by the silent majority in votes and elections.

"The general presumption was that the left stood to gain to a large extent from higher turnout by people with below average salaries and education, their typical clientele," says Georg Lutz, a political scientist at Bern University.

But it later emerged that trends had shifted and that the silent majority was more likely to vote for rightwing and nationalist parties, including the Swiss People's Party.

Lutz, the author of several publications on the subject, says no party would win a lot of additional support.

"Those who vote can be considered as more or less representative for the entire population. Non-voters are characterised by the lack of interest in politics. They don't have a clear preference and parties appear all alike," he adds.

swissinfo, based on an article in Italian by Armando Mombelli


Direct democracy

The term describes a political system in which the people exert power directly. It differs from representative democracy in which the people delegate this power to elected representatives. The two main instruments of direct democracy in Switzerland are the people's initiative and the optional referendum. Switzerland is referred to as a semi-direct democracy because its system has recourse to both direct democracy and representative public institutions.