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‘Switzerland is the gold standard for direct democracy’

Direct democracy in action: A committee hands in boxes with lists of signatures it gathered to force a nationwide vote on its initiative Keystone

No country on earth is more democratic than Switzerland. So says the Uruguayan political scientist David Altman. As co-leader of a big international research project to measure and compare democracy in 200 countries, he should know. Is Altman a passionate advocate of direct democracy? Not exactly, as became clear in conversation.

Comparative politics is David Altman’s job. The professor at Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile is co-leader of the research project V-Dem, in which a group of 3,000 researchers has established 400 indicators to monitor democracy in 200 countries (for details, see box below). In 2014 he published the book “Direct Democracy Worldwide.”

AltmanExternal link was recently invited by a colleague to speak to students at the University of Bern. met him beforehand. Wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, conflict in Ukraine, a refugee crisis in Europe, deterioration in Turkey: Given this gloomy outlook, is there any good news about democracy?

David Altman: In some places there is progress, in others, regression. Democracy is a very diffuse collection of instruments and mechanisms to reach decisions: Initiatives, referendums, plebiscites, the right to make counter-proposals, etc.

David Altman is a professor of political science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He also serves at associate researcher for Uruguay’s national research and innovation agency. Altman is the author of Direct Democracy Worldwide and leads the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project. Owen Hawxhurst

There is no linear upward development towards progress. If we don’t nurture these institutions, one day they vanish. What impresses you about direct democracy in Switzerland? What troubles you?

D.A.: Switzerland is to a certain extent the gold standard of direct democracy. Here, each citizen can change each aspect of life. Of course not acting alone, but only if they belong to a group.

If we look at the scope of direct democracy on a national, cantonal and communal level, Switzerland is the most democratic country in the world.

People who do not understand the significance of the direct democracy institutions and federalism do not understand Switzerland. At stations and in trains, the announcements are multilingual, and everyone understands them. Switzerland is an example of how a multi-ethnic society can work.

The Swiss have always been sensible, sober and adult. They have long experience with these institutions. The way they combine and interlock representative and direct democracy is very clever.

But direct democracy isn’t without problems and tensions. The dark side is that some groups trying to advance their own agendas can abuse it. Is there any other country where the will of the people is given as high priority as it is in Switzerland?

D.A.: No. But there is very pronounced direct democracy in some US states. For example California, but above all in Washington and Oregon.

As with all institutions, direct democracy can be used correctly or it can be abused. It can lead to unintended consequences or negative external effects. A majority can reach a bad or even abhorrent decision. The process is one thing, the content of the decision another. How do you regard this prioritising the will of the people above all else? Does it need to be limited?

D.A.: Modern democracy is a combination of three great lines of thinking:

One of these is Athenian democracy with the principle of the absolute majority; one is the republicanism of ancient Rome, in which opposing forces control each other, the other is the British and French form of liberalism.

If there is no opposing force to the principle of majority, then it is easily possible for a tyranny of the majority to develop, which can tip over into a dictatorship. The principle of majority and the sovereignty of the people therefore needs to be controlled. This, too, is achieved by the people, in the form of laws.

The rule of law is decisive. It lays down rights, which can’t be limited or withdrawn. The Swiss can’t reintroduce slavery. Or the death penalty. No way.

A recent case involved the ban on minarets. It showed how the will of the majority can stand in opposition to individual rights. It is important to be extremely careful. Power to the people: That sounds very good! But only under certain conditions and within certain limits. Who should set these limits and when?

D.A.: There are several options. It is important that a body such as the constitutional court can examine decisions before they are reached or after.

The latter model is used in the United States, for example. A complaint can lead to the withdrawal of a referendum decision. You mentioned the initiative for a ban on minarets, which Swiss voters approved in 2009. What do you think of the Swiss People’s Party and its policy of setting the will of the people above all else? The conservative right party even explicitly sets it above international law?

D.A.: I don’t like it at all. Yet they have the right to do that. The instruments of direct democracy are available to all.

Whenever someone calls loudly for direct democracy, I always say the following:

‘Stop and close your eyes! If you like the idea of direct democracy, then imagine your biggest political enemies and how they would campaign for a proposal that you don’t like at all. Every now and then, a proposal like that makes it through the ballot box. Are you prepared to accept the decision of the people? If you answer yes, then you are ready for the democratic game. If you say no, then you are not.’

The People’s Party can follow its own political agenda. Other parties also use direct democracy to grab headlines and win voters. They play the direct-democracy card to improve their standing in the competition for representative democracy.

The People’s Party has been successful in pushing its demands to the vote. However, in most cases, Swiss citizens were wise enough to reject their initiatives at the ballot box. In Europe and the US, many citizens are losing their faith in establishment politics. Could direct democracy be a suitable cure to win back this trust?

D.A.: In part. With people’s initiatives and referendums I can register my opinion. It is very healthy if people are collecting signatures because they feel the government isn’t taking them sufficiently seriously, or because they want to change the constitution. It can strengthen the love between citizens and politicians.

If, however, a ruler is demanding me to re-elect him for the nth time via plebiscite, I have to say no to that very loudly. Plebiscites are the dark side of direct democracy.

The instruments shouldn’t all be judged in the same way. Some secure the power of the people. Others, however, are the instruments of the powerful, and can be very dangerous.

Direct democracy can have many colours and flavours, both positive and negative.


Name: Varieties of Democracy

One of the biggest international research projects of the last years.

Goal: Precise measurement of democracy in all its forms.

Team: 3,000 researchers, led by 20 professors.

Measuring instruments: 400 indicators (200 objective, 200 subjective. The latter are weighted fivefold.)

Measuring: The quality of democracy in 200 countries over 120 years.

Publication: December 31, 2015, in the form of a global database with 15 million pieces of data in the Internet. Access is free to all.

Target audience: Politicians, business, civil society and academic disciplines such as political studies, sociology and history etc.

Translated from German by Catherine Hickley

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