Ten years ago, voters in the mountainous Swiss canton of Glarus took the bold decision to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. A decade on, it remains the only canton in Switzerland to have done so. The move produced some young and highly active politicians.
On a damp spring day, Leana Meier is confidently pushing her moped across Zaunstrasse in Glarus, the capital of the eastern Swiss canton with the same name. The 14-year-old received her licence a month ago and “only” has to wait another two years until she can vote in referendums and elections. When that day comes, she will be one of a select few young people to enjoy such a right: Glarus is the sole canton in Switzerland that allows 16-year-olds to vote, having lowered the minimum age on May 6, 2007.
This text is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues, by swissinfo.ch.
Laura, on the other hand, is already entitled to vote. I meet her in Glarus’s youth centre, where she is challenging her classmate Lucia to a table football battle. The secondary school pupil, who has just turned 16, is about to vote for the first time. “Being given the right to vote is a sign of trust. It’s a privilege, but at the same time it comes with great responsibility,” she says.
Today, the question of whether to lower the voting age has provoked global debate. This is in no small part due to the decision of Glarus, one of the two Swiss cantons where direct democracy is still practised in its premodern form of assembly democracy, which involves citizens attending popular assemblies to have their say. But has anything changed in Glarus since the close-run referendum of 2007? Are more young people involved in making political decisions? Have votes been infused with a more adventurous and youthful spirit?
Pascal Vuichard is precisely the type of person the Young Swiss Socialists had in mind in 2005 when they launched their popular initiative to grant voting rights to 16-year-olds. Their goal was to attract interested and engaged young people to become active in political affairs.
And on this score, Pascal Vuichard fits the bill. Three years ago, he and his colleagues founded the Green Liberal Party in the canton of Glarus. Today, Vuichard is the Cantonal President and the Co-President of the Young Green Liberal Party of Switzerland. He also organises the Glarus Youth Parliament, which aims to give teenagers a taste of cantonal politics.
A big push
“The decision to give people the right to vote at 16 motivated me enormously to get involved in politics. It also made me very proud. You see, the canton of Glarus is seen as being rather behind the times in Switzerland. The fact that we chose to give people the right to vote from the age of 16 has made us seem progressive and has shown that political changes can happen even here,” says Vuichard, who is currently writing his PhD thesis in business administration at the University of St. Gallen.
Indeed Glarus is no ordinary Swiss canton. Here, laws are still passed by means of people's assemblies: once a year, on the first Sunday in May, several thousand of the canton’s citizens gather on the Zaunplatz, the large square in the centre of the capital, to cast their votes by raising their hands into the air for all to see. There’s no secret voting here. The “Landammann”, which is the local name for the president of the cantonal government, then determines the result of the vote.
Among the smallest of Switzerland’s 26 cantons, Glarus is centrally located in the narrow valleys between the steep Glarus Alps, and is home to just 40,000 people, 26,500 of whom are eligible to vote. Marco Kistler, 32, is one of them. His interest in politics was also sparked by the discussion around the voting age. And a year before this, in 2006, the People’s Assembly had pulled off a coup even more spectacular than that of lowering the right to vote to 16, when the radical decision was made to merge Glarus’s 25 communes into three municipalities. It was a unique move in modern Swiss history.
These successes spurred him on. The Young Socialist Kistler then made the leap to join the Cantonal Parliament and in 2009, alongside six other citizens, he became a member of the Executive Authority of the newly created municipality of Glarus-Nord. Convinced that “profound changes” are needed in society, Kistler has been stepping up his activities ever since. In recent years, he has been making a name for himself as a campaign leader for popular initiatives in the field of social politics. And although to date his initiatives have failed to win a majority of votes, they have fuelled wide public debates. One example is the 1:12 initiative, which he co-proposed with the aim of reducing excessive wage gaps.
Between tradition and progress
In Glarus, tradition and progress only appear mutually exclusive at first glance. On the one hand, premodern customs and practices are still observed during the people’s assemblies. These include the punctual arrival of the “Landammann” (president of the local government), who leans on an old sword during the discussions, and the coming together at the closing of the event to eat the local speciality of veal sausages.
The long road to a greater say
The spirit of revolutionary exuberance in the Islamic Republic of Iran following the expulsion of the Shah in 1979 prompted the country to lower its national voting age to 15. However, this failed to achieve the desired effects, and in 2007 the voting age was again increased to 18. This is currently regarded as the benchmark age worldwide, although in some countries, like Japan, 18-year-olds have only recently been granted the right to vote.
Around the world, the lowering of the voting age has been a gradual process. Until the middle of the last century, the majority of countries only allowed citizens aged over 20 to vote. But after widely reducing this to 18, now the right to vote at 16 is on the agenda. In fact, besides the Swiss canton of Glarus and Austria, 16-year-olds in Scotland, Malta and several federal states in Germany already have the chance to vote. In Scandinavia, notably in Norway, a lowering of the voting age is being trialled at a local level.
On the other hand, Glarus’s voters are clearly willing to embrace some change. Yet the injection of youth introduced by lowering the voting age to 16 hasn’t turned things on their head: Glarus has remained Glarus. The revolution feared by some and hoped for by others hasn’t happened. Rather, a slower democratic evolution is underway.
This same idea applies in Austria, where 16- to 18-year-olds have had the same rights to participate in political affairs as older citizens since 2008. While academic studies have shown that the voting reform in Switzerland’s eastern neighbour has sparked an increased interest in politics among young people, researchers have observed few noticeable differences in voting behaviour.
In the meantime, the idea of lowering the voting age has started to be discussed in other parts of Switzerland as well. This autumn, people living in the canton of Basel-Landschaft will vote on a popular initiative on the issue, instigated by the Young Socialists. In Fribourg, 16-year-olds are also to be given the vote, a move which the canton hopes will revitalise local politics.
Those in favour of the reform have a prominent advocate at the national level: Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter. “I am in favour of the principle of lowering the voting age to 16 because I believe that doing so will make young people take more responsibility for our common destiny,” he said.
Bruno Kaufmann is swissinfo.ch’s global democracy correspondent.
Translated from German.