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How to (mis)understand Swiss direct democracy

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As a Swiss citizen of the European Union with – even if very limited – executive powers in a Swedish city, I have been active for decades in the global conversation on democracy. Up to now, the world has more often than not misunderstood the promises and perils of participative people power as experienced and practised in Switzerland. This should change, as Swiss direct democracy offers some very encouraging lessons for making democracy more democratic in the 21st century.

Bruno Kaufmann serves as Chairman of the Democracy Council and Election Commission in Falun, Sweden; and is president of the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe and co-chair of the Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy. He is the correspondent for Northern Europe at the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation and Editor-in-Chief of, a direct democracy platform created and hosted by Zvg

But let’s start with the main misunderstandings. Firstly, the Swiss themselves are the ones to blame. A few years ago the Swiss authorities invited foreign guests to experience “real” direct democracy by inviting them to attend so-called “Landsgemeinde” gatherings in the mountains. These popular assemblies predate modern democracy – based on human rights, delegation of powers and voting – and are still used in a couple of small Swiss cantons.

At one of these folkloristic excursions an ambassador from Poland told me: “Now I understand why my country will never be able to have direct democracy – because in my country we don’t have such nice mountains… or such good white wines.”

And as he and his colleagues had enjoyed quite a lot of the latter during that sunny day in Glarus, they had little incentive to follow my explanations that today’s Swiss direct democracy has very little to do with the medieval “Landsgemeinde”, but much more to do with implementing the basic ideas of the French Revolution – to bring sovereignty back to the people through initiative and referendum – and the use of modern technology like e-voting.

Another common misunderstanding arises from the frequent mistake of assessing a democratic tool on the individual outcome of a referendum process. Depending on the particular political standpoint, this can produce either very positive or very negative opinions, as recent Swiss votes like the ones on banning new minarets, capping executives’ salaries, questioning the bilateral treaties with the EU and the “no” to buying new jet fighters have shown.

Such positive or negative cherry-picking of outcomes simply misses the long-term importance and impact of a political system in which the citizens are in charge beyond election day.

Modern Swiss direct democracy has very little to do with the medieval “Landsgemeinde”, says Bruno Kaufmann,
Modern Swiss direct democracy has very little to do with the medieval “Landsgemeinde”, says Bruno Kaufmann, Keystone
Finally, there is the confusion over downgrading the importance of the Swiss record of practical direct democracy because of the country’s limited size. This is typically done in academic works on the subject, where the Swiss data is put to one side because it is deemed to be unique and unrepresentative.

Once again, the Swiss themselves are not immune to such unfortunate misunderstandings – and hence sometimes contribute to making the debate on the options and limits of modern direct democracy more confused than helpful by stressing the ”uniqueness” of their democratic approach.

But the world has changed. The main instruments of modern direct democracy – such as the initiative and referendum processes – have become global features, as more than a hundred countries worldwide have introduced some form of them into their national constitutions in recent years. The European Union has also got involved via the European Citizens’ Initiative, introduced in 2012. This is the first direct democratic process on the transnational level that even features the e-collection of signatures.

So what are the main elements to help us understand what makes the Swiss direct democracy experience so modern and – to some extent – universal?

First – it’s the talking, stupid! From the very beginning in ancient Greece, successful democracies allowed the citizens to discuss and debate the issues before any decisions were made. In the Swiss case this is underscored by the citizen-friendliness and accessibility of the country’s political institutions and by a decision-making process which aims to support – and not avoid – political discussion.

As an example: citizens’ initiatives at the national level are very rarely totally successful at the ballot box. However, they are able to create stable compromises based on a wide-ranging and lengthy discussions of the issues. To increase the hurdles by requiring more signatures for a valid initiative, as has been argued on this site, would clearly work against such benefits – and fortunately has very little chance of being successfully implemented. Instead, the world should take a lesson from the cooperative design of Swiss political institutions, which do not offer noisy revolutions, but continuous evolution.

Secondly – it’s the practice, stupid! Swiss citizens are continuously invited to discuss common issues with others and make up their own minds. And they participate willingly. Eight out of ten Swiss citizens take part actively at least once a year in a popular vote – while many consciously abstain from voting on issues they do not feel familiar with. These facts contradict the superficial analysis based on average participation levels in single referendum and election votes. In addition, this continuous right and invitation to active citizenship and participative democracy contrasts markedly with the trend to top-down referendum processes, where the elected representatives play around with letting people make decisions – opening the door to all kind of manipulations.

And finally – Switzerland did not invent direct democracy; rather it has been invented by direct democracy. The basic ideas behind having a say in both elections, initiatives and referendums are much more universal and date back to the American and French revolutions in the 18th century. In Switzerland, these ideas fell on fertile ground and were able to be developed and augmented step-by-step.

At the same time, this also explains the obvious limitations of the current Swiss practice, including the problem of both internal and external integration (extending voting right to more residents and reconciling participative democracy with active membership in the EU). The failure to understand this may also explain why Swiss direct democracy has many structural deficits when it comes to political education and financial transparency, for example.

Nonetheless, the world would certainly benefit from a better understanding of the merits of Swiss direct democracy, while the Swiss themselves should become much more conscious and caring about what is probably their most valuable resource – a living popular sovereignty.

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. Over time, the selection of articles will present a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR