Direct democracy: a passenger aboard every fighter jet

Without the consent of voters, no new planes for Swiss air force pilots. © Keystone / Jean-christophe Bott

Switzerland is the only country in the world where citizens have a say in what their military does. What’s surprising is that the 24 popular votes on national security since 1977 have all served to strengthen, rather than weaken, the army.

This content was published on September 2, 2020 - 11:00

On September 27, voters will decide on a CHF6 billion ($6.64 billion) credit package for the purchase of new fighter jets for the army.

Regardless of the type of planes that end up policing Swiss skies, the vote symbolises more than anything the democratisation of Switzerland’s security policy over the past decades.

In total, 24 ballots on military issues have come up since 1977, with the outcomes most often reflecting the classic political divide: supporters of centre-right parties vote in favour of the army, followers of the green and left-wing parties vote against it.

Thanks to the system of referendums (to challenge proposed laws) and people’s initiatives (to suggest them), it’s almost impossible for the army to take a major step like buying new fighter jets without first securing the people’s consent.

In the public interest?

This particular development began in 1993 with the anti-fighter jet initiative launched by the left, and was last seen in 2014 when the purchase of new Gripen jets was popularly rejected. The turnout for both votes was higher than 44 percent.

“Those turnouts were some of the highest in the last 50 years,” says Diane Porcellana, head of the security policy division at Année Politique Suisse, a University of Bern research programme dedicated to Switzerland’s democratic development.

“These two votes have shown a strong public interest in having a say on the issue of buying new fighter jets. For this reason, it would be tricky not to let the people decide whether these jets should be bought or not,” says the political scientist.

Six years ago, the Swiss rejected the purchase of the Swedish Gripen fighter jets. “The VOX analysis of the Gripen rejection found that the cost and the type of jet were instrumental in determining the outcome of the vote,” Porcellana says. This time, however, voters will only be consulted on the CHF6 billion needed for the procurement. If they say yes, it will then be up to the experts as to which model to buy.

Porcellana thinks this approach brings opportunities and risks. Not giving the citizens a say as to which kind of jet to buy could backfire and increase the risk of the initiative being rejected, she reckons. On the other hand, some may be relieved to have the experts decide which type of jet to purchase.

Army votes since 1848

Since 1848, Swiss voters have decided 45 times on the future of the army – nearly seven percent of the total 630 initiatives that have made it to the ballot box.

“Until voting on nuclear weapons began in the early 1960s, referendums were mainly about fundamental constitutional or legal matters, most of which came out in favour of the army,” Jaun says.

Referendums on military issues started to become more popular in the late 1970s. In the 1980s, leftwing and pacifist anti-army groups launched several popular votes.

The Rothenturm initiative in 1987 and the initiative to abolish the army in 1989 laid the foundations for the democratisation of Switzerland’s security policy.

End of insertion

Or in the government’s interest?

As to the overall explosion of votes on the army over the past 40 years, Marc Bühlmann, head of Année Politique Suisse, says that “it wasn’t really in the interest of authorities to democratise foreign and security policy.” Too much meddling of voters in core areas of federal government competency could lead to difficult situations, he says.

Rudolf Jaun, a military historian, has a different opinion. “Swiss democracy covers all areas of policy; therefore I think people’s participation is desired,” the former history professor at the University of Zurich insists.

Previous outcomes show that even when voters have more say in military issues, there is no reason for the army to worry. Only four initiatives have come out against the government’s and parliament’s interests, Bühlmann says:

  • The 2014 Gripen initiative
  • The acceptance of the 1987 Rothenthurm initiative, which had challenged the government’s plan to build an army training ground on wetlands
  • The rejection of Switzerland’s bid to participate in missions of the United Nations Blue Helmets in 1994
  • The rejection of a federal decree to abolish cantonal responsibility for the purchase of personal equipment for the military, in 1996

Historic vote

Bühlmann is convinced that the 1989 initiative by the Group for a Switzerland without an Army (GSoA) to abolish the military played an important role in the democratisation process.

“Even though only 35.6 percent voted in favour of this initiative, it triggered many reforms and thus made a big difference,” says Bühlmann, also a professor of political science at the University of Bern.

Jaun is also convinced that the initiative had an impact. “Even though the Swiss were clearly against abolishing the army, the sometimes carnivalesque campaign of the GSoA broke some taboos. The future of the army was finally called into question.”

Jaun refers to the character of the initiative as an ode to peace at the end of the Cold War. However, he believes that the shift towards citizens having more say in security policy really began in 1987 with the surprising acceptance of the Rothenthurm initiative and the rejection of another initiative requesting the right of referendum on military spending.

A young participant in the “Stop the Army” demonstration in Bern, October 1989. Keystone / Str

Jaun thinks both votes marked the beginning of a fundamental battle for the Swiss army.

“This was when leftwing populist campaigning against the army started; they wanted to either abolish it or slowly starve it to death. This movement was or could be interpreted as dangerous because it undermined government bills and parliamentary decisions.”

The essence of democracy

However, the GSoA didn’t manage to repeat its 1989 ‘success’. In 1993, the Swiss rejected its initiative to prevent the purchase of F/A-18 fighter jets, and in 2001 they turned down a second attempt to abolish the army.

But despite these setbacks in popular votes, the GSoA has played a major part in making Switzerland the only country where people have a say in security policy. The sacred cow of the army was not slaughtered in 1989 – but it was brought down to earth.

In spite of this, public support for the army has increased, says Bühlmann, referring to annual security studies carried out by the Federal Institute of Technology ETH Zurich.

Even though the decision-making power of the Swiss has been a nuisance to government, parliament and the authorities, the sometimes annoying initiatives also contribute to greater trust, satisfaction, security and stability in the long term.

Translated and adapted from German by Billi Bierling & Domhnall O'Sullivan

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