Democracy doom-rankings come thick and fast

Hot spots and troubled regions: global democracy is in trouble, we are hearing. © Keystone / Gaetan Bally

An overview of the latest Swiss and international democracy news from our direct democracy reporters.

This content was published on February 19, 2020 - 17:15
swissinfo.ch

It’s become almost a tradition for intelligence units, think tanks and research institutes to start a new year – and this time a new decade – by summing up the state of the moment.

And for many years now, they have offered a bleak picture when it comes to the state of modern representative democracy across the globe: “13 years of decline”, says Freedom House in its most recent update; “Global democracy has another bad year”, the Economist writes of 2019. The trend continues…

And yet: in assessing 167 countries around the world, the Economist looks at just five criteria at the national level: electoral processes and pluralism; the functioning of government; political participation; political culture; and civil liberties. 

And even in spite of this limited approach, which the London magazine shares with Freedom House or scholars like Larry Diamond, Joan Hoey, the editor of the most recent Economist Index, says she can see “a demand for more popular sovereignty and better political representation, both holding out the potential for a regeneration of democracy”.

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Such a “regeneration” has been on the cards for years now, as movements across the globe have tried to overcome the indirect weaknesses of representative democracy through decentralization and participatory tools. A host of more recent kids on the democracy-assessment-business block also offer fascinating and deeper insights into how democracy, governance and quality of life are interconnected.

The latest addition is the 2019 Berggruen Governance Index, which assesses 27 different criteria across 38 countries. Based on its findings, the Berggruen Foundation will later this spring publish a “Renewing Democracy in the Digital Age” report outlining proposals for how to make democracy more democratic.

In a similar comprehensive direction, global reports by Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) and International IDEA assess hundreds of criteria – including localized and participatory criteria – and also come to the conclusion that there are indeed many, many new things under the sun when it comes to democracy, such as: 

– Innovative practices like “crowdlaw”, which mobilize “collective intelligence” through networked deliberation, such as the annual “Presidential Hackathon” that takes places in Taiwan under the auspices of Digital Minister Audrey Tang, as a way of setting public priorities and the agenda for both legislators and sponsors of citizens’ initiatives and referendums

– Citizen’s Assemblies, like that which took place in Ireland in 2017, which form ‘policy juries’ by bringing together randomly selected but representative groups of citizens, including through lottery, who hear pro and con arguments on an issue and are presented with facts in order to reach a consensus (see also Swiss updates, below).

Finally, on the analysis front, there is one last new entrant to the industry: at the University of Cambridge in the UK, a new center for the Future of Democracy has been established, whose first report has looked into the levels of dissatisfaction with democracy in 154 countries, including “islands of contentment” like Switzerland, where a wide-ranging power sharing mechanism makes citizens happier.

We’ll make it a priority of our reporting in 2020 to take a critical look at these reports and to play them off against each other to really try to understand what it happening with global democracy – and if this is something that can even be properly measured.

Meanwhile, in Switzerland...

The dust is settling after the latest round of national votes on February 9, when citizens rejected a proposal to build more social housing and accepted a legal amendment putting homophobia on a par with racism. Turnout was fairly normal, at 41.7%.

Locally, there were a few interesting polls as well, including the rejection in Neuchâtel of a proposal to lower the voting age from 18 to 16. A controversial vote in Aargau approved a tightening of citizenship laws that will disqualify any applicant that has received social welfare within the past decade. In Schaffhausen, political transparency will be improved.

But barely has the dust around these votes settled that more is being kicked up in preparation for the next ones in May, the biggie being a right-wing proposal to limit immigration from the EU. Similar to the Brexit-style shock of 2016, the campaign will be heated. The government has fired the starting shot, saying a yes vote would be “irresponsible”.

The Christian Democrats have meanwhile dropped an initiative calling for lower tax burdens on married couples. And so, the famous “cancelled vote” of 2016, which was overturned by the Supreme Court due to statistical errors, will not be voted on again – per se. Perhaps sensing the direction of the wind, the Christian Dems plan to launch another, similar reform proposal that will enlarge the traditional definition of “family” to include same-sex couples.

An RTS investigation into the practice of signature-collection in Switzerland showed that many collectors are privately hired and use “dodgy” means (i.e. downplaying certain issues, being vague about others) to secure names. Political moves are afoot to clamp down on such practices, the Tribune de Genève writes. The company at the heart of the scandal, INCOP, said that in future it would leave it to political parties to “train” the collectors.

A trial project in the southern town of Sion, which brought together 20 random locals to discuss the February national votes and prepare an informational sheet to guide citizens, successfully concluded, organisers said. They’re now looking to expand the exercise in democratic deliberation elsewhere in the country.

Other initiatives and signature collections underway include a left-wing effort to challenge parliament’s approval of new fighter jets for the army; the 5G debate rumbles on; and campaigners have won the right to vote on a new “digital ID” in Switzerland.

If there's anything we missed, or anything you'd like to hear us report more on, let us know!

Bruno Kaufmann and Domhnall O’Sullivan 

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