Democracy is the ‘best of all bad forms of government’

Martina Imfeld and Claude Longchamp: "The system of direct democracy shows its limits when dealing with issues of cultural and religious minorities".

In the Swiss system of direct democracy voters have the final say. But approval of divisive initiatives such as a minaret ban or the deportation of convicted foreigners has prompted a debate over possible disadvantages of the Swiss system. 

This content was published on January 16, 2015 - 10:45

“Direct democratic decisions push the system to the limit when it’s about how to deal with cultural and religious minorities,” says political scientist Claude Longchamp. interviewed the head of the leading GfS Bern research and polling instituteExternal link together with his colleague Martina Imfeld. Recent popular votes, such as a ban on new minarets, the deportation of criminal foreigners, caps on manager salaries, the life-long imprisonment of convicted paedophile criminals or immigration curbs, have often resulted in symbolic decisions. Can the system of direct democracy, which only leaves the options of Yes, No (or abstention), really do justice in such highly complex issues?

Martina Imfeld: As a social scientist I’d say it all depends on how the questions are framed and which ones are fed into the decision-making process. The democratic system is the best of all bad forms of government. 

The point is not how voters respond but the fact that certain problems are neglected or tackled too slowly by the system. 

Direct democracy has many advantages. A majority decision is the best way to resolve conflicts. But there is one flaw: how to deal with minorities. 

Our research has found that it is highly problematic if majority interests are imposed on minority interests in an insensitive way. 

If we come back to the minaret ban, Muslims, who make up about 4% of Swiss residents, have no chance in a majority-ruled democracy of realising their wishes to have minarets. 

The system of direct democracy shows its limits when dealing with issues of cultural and religious minorities. Decisions by a majority can even become a form of tyranny. 

Claude Longchamp: Legal experts are very familiar with this, for example, when dealing with the issue of whether or not democratic decisions can overrule human rights. 

Switzerland would be well advised to define the legal boundaries a little bit more precisely. But this does not mean calling direct democracy into question altogether, as it is something deeply rooted in the Swiss mentality. You warn too much opposition could make Switzerland ungovernable. What should be changed in order to boost the system of equilibrium, proportionality, continuity, stability and rule of law? People’s rights or checks and balances?

C.L.: The introduction of direct democracy into the constitution in 1874 led to periods of crises. 

The system of government and opposition of the 19th century was complemented with elements of direct democracy. But nobody had any experience how both should go together. By the 1930s it was felt that a mediation procedure had to be introduced. 

This is a mechanism of controlled conflict management that occurs before the government and citizens take any political decisions. 

The classic example is the social partnership between employers and employees – a kind of informal conflict management outside political channels. 

At a political level it was acknowledged that all relevant parties had to be represented in government, leading to the established system of practical concordance. 

But over the past 20 years moves have been underway to dismantle informal conflict management methods and concordance. This is a real problem Switzerland is facing. We are back in that pre-1930s period. 

My theory is that it is impossible to modify a direct democracy system once it is introduced. But it is advisable to boost cooperation between society and business given the federalist system and diversity of the country. 

The most important message for people abroad is that direct democracy will inevitably result in forms of cooperation that are non-confrontational. But the more confrontation there is within direct democracy, the more problems are generated. The biggest issues for Switzerland at the moment are its relations with Europe and immigration. What cooperative forms do you suggest here?

C.L.: I’m deeply convinced that Switzerland’s membership of the European Economic Area treaty [a half-way house to full European Union membership] was voted down at the ballot box in 1992 because employers and trade unions could not find common ground. 

They disagreed whether the treaty would result in more or less regulation. The average citizen therefore concluded: ‘If they can’t agree then let’s not say ‘Yes’’. 

It is only afterwards that most Swiss, especially business groups, learned that the bilateral treaties with the EU were a project for the economy in which partners have to find common solutions together. This goes for the protection of labour rights and for a deregulated economy. 

This was the success of the bilateral accords; we managed to find a form of regulated participation without being a member of the EU. This is the formula showing us the way forward. There have been various debates on the negative sides of direct democracy but mainly among experts. How can citizens get involved?

M.I.: We have made a start as there are discussions about ways to cope with the result of the February 9 vote [on the re-introduction of immigration quotas]. 

More people are now aware that we have to decide on issues which can have potential legal complications. 

C.L.: The Swiss have been living under the false impression that saying ‘No’ at the ballot box does not come with any downsides. 

This is a typical Swiss notion of being able to do what we please, while insisting others simply take note without taking it seriously. 

In an interdependent world such an attitude has become an illusion. 

Switzerland is in for a big surprise if it believes it can stay outside the EU while making demands and insisting on having the final word without imagining the outside world takes an interest. Was the February 9 vote on immigration curbs a turning point for direct democracy in Switzerland?

C.L.: Not just for the direct democracy but for Swiss politics in general. For a long time politicians have been frivolous enough to believe they can have their cake and eat it. 

That’s all over now. Maybe things will change if the economic situation in the EU changes. 

The bilateral accords were successful because Switzerland accepted the finality of EU membership. In return the Swiss were able to hold onto certain advantages. 

Today even EU membership in the distant future is doubtful and Brussels is closing the loopholes. Switzerland is facing a new situation. Could Brussels also learn from Switzerland’s system of direct democracy?

C.L.: Perhaps the EU should learn that direct democracy is sometimes slightly annoying. 

But it also has one huge advantage: the system is based on trust in citizens and their involvement. You could call it the idea of collective intelligence. 

M.I.: In France and Russia they put faith in a few ‘supermen’ who are supposed to know what to do. In Switzerland there is a perception that the collective will not take a stupid decision, at least not in the long run. 

This is the message the direct democracy has for other systems of governance.

Claude Longchamp is a political scientist and historian and head of the GfS Bern research and polling institute. 

Its activities include carrying out opinion polls on behalf of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation –’s parent company – ahead of nationwide votes and elections. 

Longchamp is the lead commentator on public television and radio on polling day and the institute publishes projections on the day. 

Martina Imfeld, a political scientist and sociologist, works as project leader at GfS Bern. She is in charge of analysing political topics, notably at nationwide votes and elections.

Publications by Imfeld include the 2014 Youth Barometer, VOX trend 2013 report, 2013 Worry Barometer, 2013 Identity Barometer.

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