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Exemplary Why the Swiss may have a cure for flawed democracies

Leonello Zaquini (first from left) says citizens' involvement in politics helps ensure parliamentary democracy. The author of a book on Switzerland's system of direct democracy was taking part in a panel discussion in Le Locle

(Ricardo Volpe)

Democracy Swiss-style could serve as model for other countries and for the European Union, according to Leonello Zaquini, author of a recent book on direct democracy. The strength of the Swiss system is its ability to break the monopoly of power by parliaments.

Italian-born Zaquini is a member of the local parliament in the town of Le Locle in northwestern Switzerland. The trained engineer emigrated from his native town of Iseo in northern Italy to Switzerland in the late 1990s where he was teaching at a technical college.

His book La democrazia diretta vista da vicinoexternal link (Close up of direct democracy) was published by Milan-based Mimesis Edizioni earlier this year.

Zaquini says his ambition was not to write a scientific analysis but to tell the story of how he got first-hand experience in Swiss-style direct democracy.

He has no Swiss passport but the laws in canton Neuchâtel where he’s been living allow foreign residents to take part in local votes and be elected to local authorities. Only a limited number of the country’s 26 cantons grant foreign residents these democratic rights.

swissinfo: What made you write a book which explains Switzerland’s direct democratic system to primarily an Italian readership?

Leonello Zaquini: I hope the Swiss system will be copied by my fellow Italians, adapting it because nothing can be applied one to one. It could be used to reform Italy’s political system which has been suffering.

Switzerland has a huge asset: Over the decades, layers of the direct democratic system have formed and settled. I want Italians to know this and to acknowledge it is happening in a neighbouring country.

Unlike Switzerland where voters have the final say on electoral laws, in Italy the matter is in the hands of parliament. This just one of the many dirty tricks played on citizens.

Comparing the two countries I came to realise that direct democracy, beside elements of representative democracy, are the cure for many political woes.

swissinfo: Switzerland is a small state with a federalist structure. How can you sure that a system can work in a big centralised state?

L.Z.: These democratic instruments have already been taken over successfully by states that are much bigger than Switzerland and also have another political system. Take the example of California with a population of about 40 million where direct democracy was introduced more than a century ago.

The European Union a few years ago launched the European Citizens’ Initiativeexternal link. It is not very powerful at all, I agree. But it is a first step and a most interesting sign. And what’s more, signatures for the European Initiative can be gathered online. This could also be the way forward for Switzerland because it makes collecting and campaigning much easier.

Then there is the question: Why should citizens capable of electing representatives to a political position not also be capable of deciding on concrete issues?

It is much more demanding for voters to choose people than to give your opinion on a matter at stake. Because who are the elected representatives really and what will they do in their positions?

swissinfo: What about those initiatives which raise complex issues and are difficult for some citizens to decide?

L.Z.: A very valid point. This is where the common sense of citizens comes in. Those who don’t know, abstain rather than risk taking a wrong decision. This is quite frequent in Switzerland and, I my view, it is a sensible attitude.

So voters, even if they are a minority of citizens, make up a sample of people outnumbering any parliament.

Initiative and referendum

A people’s initiative is aimed at amending the constitution. Voters will have the final say on the proposal provided the campaigners successfully gather at least 100,000 signatures within 18 months.

A referendum challenges a decision by parliament. Some matters need voters’ approval, including membership in international organisations and security alliances as well as urgent legislation introduced at short notice.

Other parliamentary decisions, including major international treaties, only go to a public vote if they are challenged by at least 50,000 signatures collected within 100 days.

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Direct democracy uses the wisdom spread over millions of citizens for the benefit of all.

Which means that the result of a decision by the people is more broadly founded than that of whatever legislative body.

No doubt, citizens do commit errors. But it is less likely for a majority of millions of citizens to go wrong than for a much smaller number of parliamentarians.

swissinfo: You seem to be exceedingly fond of the Swiss system of direct democracy. Is it not possible that you might have a distorted picture, overdoing its virtues while downplaying its flaws?

L.Z.: I often wondered myself, but I’m sure it is not the case. An entire chapter of my book is dedicated to restrictions and shortcomings of Switzerland’s direct democracy.

Bear in mind that all decision-making system have flaws. The Swiss model is no exception. Therefore it is crucial to continue improving it. Having said that, Europe could learn a lot from the Swiss example.

swissinfo: Which of the flaws in Switzerland’s direct democracy must be remedied most urgently in your opinion?

L.Z.: It’s primarily the lack of transparency over the financing of people’s initiatives. Binding rules should be imposed to make clear who is behind a proposal.

Another quite serious issue is the increasing use of direct democratic instruments for political parties to promote their agenda and win additional support in elections. It is imperative to stop this trend in my opinion.

But I think it is very difficult to set rules which effectively ban parties from launching initiatives or force referendums. These are instruments to be used only by citizens and interest groups exclusively.

swissinfo: What are the main merits of democracy Swiss-style?

L.Z.: The foremost advantage is certainly that it breaks the monopoly of power of a parliament. In a direct democracy, parliaments and citizens both have their own spheres of powers; they are not opponents but rather complement each other.

Direct democracy ensures the representative democracy. Parliamentarians are aware that their decisions can be challenged or overturned by voters. Obviously this has an impact on the way they decide. In the true sense of the word it forces them to be representatives and speak for the citizens.

In a representative democracy, however, there is a monopoly on power. The parties hold on to it through the elected representatives. But in reality they turn into party delegates.

Direct democracy, in addition to the representative democracy with a parliament, is an antidote to prevent any form of power abuse.

Adapted from Italian by Urs Geiser,

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