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Outside perspective Swiss democracy at risk from populism, media and globalisation

Critics say political campaigns pandering to populist demands are a threat for democracy  


Switzerland’s system of direct democracy is being undermined by growing populism, the role of the media and globalisation, warns Moroccan-born Swiss researcher Abdelmoula Lamhangar.

At stake are extended citizen participation in the management of public affairs and the autonomy of the local policy decision process, he says in an interview with swissinfo.

The 51-year-old expert on Islam in Switzerland is a former member of the local parliament for the leftwing Social Democratic Party in the town of Romont in western Switzerland. Direct democracy is controversial even in Switzerland. Some believe that Switzerland is stable and rich thanks to direct democracy. Others argue that the country’s prosperity is regardless of citizen participation in politics. Who’s right?

Abdelmoula Lamhangar: Direct democracy is a deeply rooted element of the Swiss identity. In 1848, the first constitution of modern-day Switzerland contributed to the creation of a society and a method of managing public affairs that ensures a balanced distribution of power between the people and their elites, between cities and rural regions, and between minorities and the majority.

Born in Morocco in 1964, Abdelmoula Lamhangar (right) studied geography, sociology and economics at Marrakesh University.

He worked as research assistant in geography and anthropology at Lausanne University in Switzerland.

Lamhangar has lived in Switzerland since 1990 and acquired the Swiss passport in 2002.

He is much sought-after by the French-language media on issues including Islam in Switzerland.

A member of the local parliament for the Social Democrats in Romont between 2007 and 2011,  he set up a travel agency and is a founding member of the Atadamoun charity for disabled children in Morocco.


It is not a coincidence that the results of any nationwide ballot on an initiative need both a majority of votes of the electorate, as well as the majority [of the country’s 26] cantons, regardless of their size.

Direct democracy enables minorities to express their views so that the majority cannot dominate or monopolise public affairs. Switzerland's relations with the world, especially in the 20th century, were characterised by strongly perceived threats from the outside. To what extent has this affected the practice of direct democracy?

A.L.: Switzerland’s foreign policy has often opted for a neutral and impartial stand. This attitude has helped to strengthen and consolidate the cohesion of the country.

It also allowed Switzerland to gain a special status as an international mediator and to play a leading role in managing and solving different conflicts in other parts of the world.

It was a temporary refuge for many dissidents [e.g. Russian revolutionary Lenin and Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organization PLO] and became the seat of the European headquarters of the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross ICRC, to mention just a few. What is the relation between direct democracy in Switzerland, - which means more freedom, equality, and participation -, and attempts to impose restrictions on minorities and curb solidarity?

A.L.: Switzerland is not a country where minorities face restrictions or discrimination, in my view. The problem is a certain lack of checks and balances in current politics.

Certain strong conservative right parties are having recourse to a populist discourse, pretending to be able to solve all types of problems, but their real aim is to shape public views and opinions.

In doing so, they misuse and undermine the process of direct democracy.

The same goes for some of the leftwing parties, I must admit. Both sides are involved in committing the same political mistake while dealing with the issue of direct democracy.

The second factor that threatens direct democracy in Switzerland is the impact of the media.

Taking advantage of free speech and the wide margin of freedom, journalists spare no efforts in spreading negative and biased attitudes about foreigners: their views, behaviour, culture and religion.

In doing so, the media has become a ‘political power’ that influences the public opinion and voting intentions: of course in favour of rightwing parties and organisations.

But, no matter how hard both the right and the left may try to misuse direct democracy, Switzerland remains that country where every citizen enjoys his full rights. You have mentioned the populist tendency of the right. How dangerous is this for society in general?

A.L.: Western democracies risk giving up the most important democratic principles of human rights. These principles have come under pressure under the pretext of fighting terrorism [the anti-terror law known as ‘Patriot Act’ in the United States, and the anti-terror laws in France, Germany].

At the same time, there is a political elite in these democracies, represented in parliaments, that raises populist slogans to win elections or support for their parties.

This risks damaging the democratic process, whether it is direct or representative, and goes beyond the political competition in the interest of voters. Nevertheless, Switzerland remains a state based on the rule of law.

Switzerland faces a problematic trend among conservative right parties which increasingly impose their agenda on centrist as well as leftwing parties.

The conservative right provides populist answers that fuel emotions but it does not change anything in reality. Yet it is difficult for other political forces to compete in elections and votes.

The dilemma is that the right sends direct democracy off its course. Is this the real agenda of those who say ‘Switzerland cannot accommodate all the misery of the world’?

A.L.: This discourse is unacceptable and unrealistic, because it ignores historical facts. In past centuries when Europe was living in misery, it sent huge numbers of its population to America, Australia and Africa.

Take canton Valais for instance. Driven by famines, one-third of the population from that region emigrated to Argentina.

Protesters in canton Fribourg opposing the opening of asylum shelters should remember that thousands of families had left Fribourg [in the 19th century] in search of a better life in Brazil. The processes of policy- and decision-making have become more complicated, because of increasing international cooperation and coordination. So, what is the point of consulting voters at a national level?

A.L.: Recent political events in Spain and Greece or the last general elections in Italy give a very valuable lesson for direct democracy.

More than ever, there is a need for more public consultations.

The discussions that followed the Arab Spring and the emergence of the ‘indignant movement’ and others have one thing in common: they demand that citizens are given more power of decision-making.

This is because the representative democracy, in their view, has deviated from its principles and lacks transparency, especially with the growing role of lobbies, thus emptying democracy of its real significance.; this translation is a shortened and adapted version of an interview conducted in Arabic.

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