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Direct Democracy Companies: political players like any others?

As the head of Denner, Switzerland's largest distributor until 1998, Karl Schweri made heavy use of citizens' rights


The 'Pro Public Service' initiative, which will be put to the vote on 5th June, is unusual in that it was launched by a private company. Some opponents have condemned what they say is an undemocratic undertaking. Democracy experts interviewed by are not that categorical.

The latest proposal wants to ban profit-making goals for basic services of state-owned companies and demands a salary cap for executives at the Post Office, the Federal Railways, the Swisscom telecom company as well as the Ruag technology group.

The proposal was launched by consumer rights magazines in all four linguistic regions of the country.

This stands out because people's initiatives are traditionally launched by political parties or associations but this is not a first in Switzerland's political history. More than 20 years ago, discount supermarket chain Denner also launched several initiatives.

However, the fact that private companies resort to direct democracy tools is not to everyone's taste, including Social Democratic parliamentarian Roger Nordmannexternal link. “This is debatable because this initiative has no democratic basis,” he says.

“There is no requirement for democratic balance within the initiative committee. Typically, when an association or a party launches an initiative, there is a discussion, a general assembly, etc. There is no such thing in this particular case. They make a unilateral decision in an office. This is quite bizarre, to say the least."

“Associations or parties launching initiatives usually have a number of members who give a degree of democratic legitimacy to the document,” Nordmann says.

“In the case of 'Pro Public Service', the problem is that we are not quite sure what is in it for these magazines, what their agenda may be. If car importers launch an initiative to build more roads, things are clearer.”

A liability rather than an asset

Direct democracy observers say things are relative. "It is true that we are more used to parties or associations launching initiatives but if it is a good idea and people endorse it, I do not find this objectionable at all," says Pascal Sciariniexternal link, a political scientist at the University of Geneva.

As for Andreas Grossexternal link, a former Social Democratic parliamentarian who has authored several books on political life in Switzerland, he says companies have the same rights as everyone else. “Companies include people who are entitled to launch initiatives just like any other group,” he says.

“Predictably, when initiatives are launched by a company, people immediately assume that it has a vested interest, yet in actual fact it is more of a drawback. In the 1980s and 1990s, Denner's name was a liability rather than an asset for an initiative. This is the reason why companies seldom launch initiatives.”


Bruno Kaufmann, the editor in chief of people2powerexternal link, a platform about direct democracy hosted by, agrees.

“In theory I have no problem with this because we are quite clear as to who is 'hiding' behind the initiative committee. Also because ultimately, these are citizens working for companies and showing an interest. They are keen to get involved in public issues due to their 'economic' interests.”

Yet Kaufmann has reservations.

“There is no requirement for transparency in Switzerland when it comes to funding in connection with politics or campaigns. This prevents the general public from understanding what someone really aims to achieve with an initiative,” he says.

Denner Initiatives

Founded in the late 19th century, Denner has long been Switzerland's  third largest distributor behind giants Migros and Coop.

From 1951 to 1998, Denner was led by Karl Schweri, who made his group the precursor to bargain price retail in Switzerland.

Politically, Karl Schweri launched six federal popular initiatives between 1972 and 2000. These initiatives were concerned with lowering healthcare costs, encouraging the creation of housing, fighting against cartels, and accelerating the procedures of direct democracy.

All were curtly refused. His four referendums, however, were accepted, including one that attacked the federal law on tobacco taxation in 1968.

In 2007, Denner was passed into the hands of Migros.

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No grounds for exclusion

But why should a company be less democratic than an association which, at the end of the day, is only representative of its members and not the entire population?

“With regard to citizens' rights, I would not make a distinction between for-profit organisations and non-profit ones,” Kaufmann says.

“Representativeness cannot be assessed scientifically as it is only a consequence of the fact that people share various interests. All citizens have a right to launch an initiative and initiate a referendum, regardless of the way they organise and wish to be represented. In the end, citizens who sit on initiative and referendum committees are citizens who enjoy such rights from a legal point of view,” he adds.

“How representative they are is not a determining factor but how much a position tallies with the public interest, is,” says Gross.

“Also, all groups represent particular interests they intend to fight for at a political level, whether they are mass retailers, consumer rights organisations or environmental groups."

“The difference between them, perhaps, is the extent to which their interests match the common interest,” he says. “But this is subjective and cannot therefore constitute grounds for exclusion.”

De facto restriction

Could companies use direct democracy tools more frequently? This is not ruled out.

“All major associations, economiesuisse [the Swiss Business Federation lobby group] for instance, are finding it increasingly difficult to provide a focal point for their members' interests. As a result, members tend to go it alone. Yet it remains to be seen if these companies can get the required number of signatures. So far, only parties and associations have had the means - personnel, resources, structures - to do so,” political scientist Sciarini says.

Kaufmann agrees there is a de facto restriction.

“I do not think such initiatives will proliferate because it is not easy to get enough signatures, on the federal stage at least, especially if people are not used to this and if many citizens appear rather sceptical, perhaps even hostile, to companies using people's rights.”

Gross is not convinced either that this will set a precedent.

“You could even envisage an initiative being launched by a group of companies but that seems rather improbable because these people have more efficient channels to make their voices heard by the government, the parliament and the administration. These entrepreneurs wield enough power and we expect that they will not resort to initiatives very often.”

Translated from French by Beatrice Murail,

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