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‘Direct democracy is not a religion’

Kucholl says the Swiss shouldn't be able to vote on everything PHOTO-GENIC.CH / OLIVIER MAIRE

Switzerland is a model democracy but safeguards are needed to improve the system and avoid ‘accidents’ like the anti-minaret vote, declares Swiss comic and writer Vincent Kucholl.

His bestselling guide “Institutions Politiques Suisses” [Swiss political institutions], created together with the comic artist Mix & Remix, has recently been published in English under the title “Swiss Democracy in a Nutshell”. External link

Kucholl is half of the comedy duo behind the satirical radio show “120 Secondes”External link. Over the past 18 months the show has been on a sell-out theatre tour of  Switzerland and Paris. The team is due to launch a comedy news programme on Swiss public television, RTS, in January 2015. Your book on Swiss democracy has sold over 250,000 copies, particularly among schools and candidates for naturalisation; now you are publishing an English version. Is Swiss democracy really that interesting?

Vincent Kucholl: At first glance it’s not really a sexy topic but we see – and the statistics prove it – that it does interest people. If you make the effort to simplify and explain the essence of things, you realise that people have lots of questions and are interested.  Do you have direct democracy running through your veins, as Swiss President Didier Burkhalter says many Swiss people do?

V.K: No. (laughs) The Swiss political system is a cocktail of many different components and direct democracy is just one element.

Direct democracy  encourages consensus as parliament looks for compromise to avoid referendums, which are stones in the system slowing things down. Federalism is also very important, as is multiculturalism. The system’s stability shows that despite this mosaic it works well.  

I think the Swiss political system is a model system. If it could be better known and inspire other countries that would be good but I don’t want to start preaching how good it is. So the Swiss democratic model could be exported?

V.K.: I’m not sure as there is a really specific political culture here.

There’s a kind of political maturity. Lots of initiatives have been voted on – for example the minimum salary or an extra week of holiday – which were turned down in Switzerland, but which I’m sure would have passed in other countries. It’s a special political culture where people vote against their own personal interest. This is quite strange seen from abroad. 

People fear direct democracy could become a weapon for populists. It has been a few times but it’s actually quite rare. Is it really a model system when for example it can cost up to CHF500,000 ($515,000) getting an initiative to the ballot box?

V.K.: Sure, but there is always worse elsewhere, like in the US. In Switzerland, some campaigns are shocking when you see the resources invested like the one against a single public health insurance scheme. There, it was obvious there were actors with keen interests to maintain the current system who invested millions of Swiss francs as they had a lot to lose.  

The system is slightly perverted in this respect. Here we can imagine bringing in safeguards to limit expenditure on campaigns and to ensure financial transparency to know how much the Swiss Business Federation for example invests in each vote. 

The monetisation of democracy is not something very positive. I’m in favour of opening up the accounts of political parties. We need to make sure democracy cannot be bought or it becomes pointless. Turnout among young voters is low. They complain of too many votes that are also too complicated. How can this be improved?

V.K.: Sometimes it’s technical but I don’t think there are too many votes. Too much democracy doesn’t kill democracy.

Civic education and training have a fundamental role. Classrooms should be a place to discuss culture and politics. People must become more interested in public affairs. And before understanding how things work in detail you have to understand that we all have a role to play and it’s interesting. That’s when people want to become an actor in the system. Following the anti-immigration vote in February 2014, German President Joachim Gauck said he respected the Swiss vote but felt direct democracy could represent a ‘real danger’ in complex issues of which it is sometimes difficult for citizens to understand the implications. Should we be able to vote on everything: Europe, immigration, guns, an extra week’s holiday….?

V.K.: That vote [February 9] was about a lack of information.  We can’t vote on everything. We need certain safeguards.

Immigration is not complicated. It’s a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, but there are complex consequences. And some of them are legal and these were not well explained to the population. I’m sure that the vote wouldn’t be the same if it was held today. There was a lack of information and communication regarding questions of research, mobility and relations with the EU and the bilateral accords. Does Switzerland need a constitutional court to evaluate the conformity of certain initiatives?

V.K.: Yes. We need to validate initiatives more precisely. I don’t think this is managed properly. The February 9 vote was quite serious. It’s really an accident, like the minarets, which have consequences for Switzerland internationally.

Direct democracy shouldn’t be able to deal with all topics. I don’t agree with the Swiss People’s Party that Swiss law has precedence over international law. The people aren’t always right. I think the people can make mistakes and that’s what happened on February 9.

What’s shocking in Switzerland is that almost every politician says, ‘the Swiss people are right’. I don’t agree with this slogan. Direct democracy is not a religion. The citizen is not a god. Former Swiss Federal Chancellor Annemarie Huber-Hotz said big political parties should be banned from launching popular initiatives as they overuse them. What’s your view?

V.K.: From a philosophical point of view it’s interesting, as popular initiatives were introduced at the start of the century as a political counterbalance. Today the biggest party – the Swiss People’s Party – launches the most initiatives. I don’t think the Swiss founding fathers intended this tool to be used this way when they introduced it. But I think it’s a provocative proposal from her that will never pass. What other improvements could be made to the Swiss democratic system?

V.K.: Average voter participation of 40% is not bad. But it’s 40% of Swiss citizens and not 40% of the entire population.

We must remember that lots of people cannot vote who live here and who were born here. This is also something that could be reformed so that the people who live in Switzerland and make the country what it is today can participate in its life and development. Many people are excluded from the system. There are about two million foreigners.

This takes time but I would like to see this happen. The Swiss are not the only ones who have the [Swiss] passport. 

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