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Downside of Swiss democracy Are direct democracy and civic rights just ‘nice to haves’?

Polling booths with blue curtain

Three polling booths, but one is empty: The complexity of a vote issue can be discouraging for citizens to take part in a ballot.

(© Keystone/Ti-press / Benedetto Galli)

Women, the younger generation, as well as people with a lower level of education and income are not only underrepresented in political parties and institutions; they are also less likely to participate in votes than other groups of society.

Hence, their political interests remain largely unheard in the democratic process. Political scientist Sandro Lüscher explains why.

The fight for civic rights and direct democracy in Switzerland was a hard decade-long struggle that was partially fought on the blood-soaked soil of a civil war, the Sonderbundkrieg in 1847. Today, there is no other country that grants its citizens as many political participation rights as Switzerland.

The peak of voters’ participation was reached in 2016, when 63.5% of the Swiss went to the ballot box to vote on the construction of a new transalpine Gotthard road tunnel.

Downside of Swiss democracy- our series

Switzerland ranks first internationally as regards the number of popular votes held. But even with its world record of 620 national votes (as of 2017), model democracy Switzerland is far from perfect.

The author studied political science at the University of Zurich and runs a blog on political life in Switzerlandexternal link (in German).

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The lowest point came in 2018, when a mere 34.6% of the population voted on the ‘sovereign money’ initiative, a monetary reform even the initiators found hard to explain.

On average, not even half of the 5.5 million Swiss voters make the effort to cast their votes. One of the reasons is the inter-relation between the complexity of an initiative and the turnout in a public vote. It’s high time to take a closer look at this as it has been neglected so far.

Participatory democracy

Switzerland has a layman’s democracy. Just as the village baker has a say in a reform of the corporate tax system, the computer scientist can decide whether farmers who keep cows with horns should receive more subsidies from the government.

What sometimes causes amazement abroad is conventional in Switzerland. Direct democracy is the institutional and even slightly romantic belief of the government in the political astuteness of citizens.

The close relationship of trust between citizens and the government is needed for a grassroots democratic political system to work.

Between demand and excessive demand

But do the Swiss voters receive enough information on the issues up for vote to form a well-balanced and differentiated opinion in times of increased complexity?

Could those low turnouts actually be attributed to the fact that the government demands too much from its people as our world is getting increasingly complicated? And does it expect more from certain population groups than others?

These questions address a core problem that democracies now struggle with. Namely, the rift between the reality of democratic rule and what such democratic governments expect from their citizens.

As shown below, this means that the turnout has mostly plummeted in the 20th century. At its lowest point in the early 80s, voter turnout was still at an average of 42%. Since then, it has slightly recovered and currently stands at 45%. These figures certainly fail to impress. 

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chart with voter turnout betwen 1911-2018

The more complex, the lower the turnout?

Citizens’ participation in the political process is the underlying ideal of any democracy. However, it requires the citizens to understand what an initiative is all about and to be able to form their own opinion based on different arguments and positions.

It is not surprising that people shy away from participation if an initiative is complex and written in a language even experts cannot understand.

There is a simple trick though: citizens can turn to politicians, experts or parties they trust and adopt their stance, believing that they know what’s right.

It’s more likely, however, that voters don’t even bother to cast their ballot if an initiative seems too daunting. As shown in the chart below, there is an inter-relation between the degree of complexity of an initiative and voter turnout.

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Chart showing inter-relation between complexity of issue and voter turnout

The more complex a bill, the greater the likelihood of a low turnout. This significant inter-relation still exists if other factors such as the intensity of the campaign or the importance of a bill are taken into consideration.

Low turnout increases inequality

But is a low turnout really a problem for a democracy? Does political abstinence not express contentment?

Research has a clear answer to this: No! Low turnout constitutes a problem! There are two aspects to this. Firstly, voter turnout is key for the political legitimacy for a public vote. The lower the turnout, the more unstable the political legitimacy of a ballot.

Secondly, the voters’ abstinence is not equally distributed across the various social classes. It follows a social logic and thus puts into doubt the democratic principle of equality. 

More diversity through mobilisation

The lower the turnout, the more visible the social rift. In other words, public votes with a high turnout represent a larger part of the population than votes that are difficult to grasp and only a small circle of die-hard direct democrats take part in. 

If a democracy seeks to represent the interests of the whole population and not only of a well-off minority, it has to find a solution to this dilemma of direct democracy. This is where Switzerland is challenged as it gives its citizens the most comprehensive people’s rights in the world.

Introduction of the “random citizen” in Switzerland

However, there are solutions to the problem. One of them is a citizens’ jury much like what exists in the state of Oregon in the United States. There, a group of randomly selected people discusses an initiative and consults with all involved parties as well as experts and specialists.

Once this is done, the panel presents the results of their discussions in an independent and easily comprehensible document to the voters. Experience shows that the citizens very much appreciate these independent documents as they help them form an opinion and take a decision.

Switzerland plans to test such a citizens' jury in the town of Sion in November ahead of a planned vote in canton Valais. For this, the Swiss National Science Foundation has endowed Nenad Stojanovic with a professorship at the University of Geneva.

Public votes and information

A direct democracy offering public votes needs broad, well balanced, high quality and independent information.

In Switzerland, private and public media as well as the Swiss government provides the public with information on a proposal at stake. Nationwide public ballots take place up to four times per year.

The government explains the pros and cons of an initiative in a so-called vote booklet, which is sent out to all Swiss households, and releases short videos with the same information. The authorities also inform voters about the political positions of the key players and issue vote recommendations.

Criticism on the dual role of the government is increasing, especially when information turns out to be erroneous. This was the case during the 2016 vote on the abolition of tax incentives for unmarried couples.

Independent and well-balanced information is also available on easyvote.chexternal link. The platform of the umbrella organisation Swiss Youth Parliaments mainly aims at young people. The brief information is written in a language aimed at youth, and surveys have shown that its videos are now popular among voters of all age groups.

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Sandro Lüscher studied political science and history and works as research assistant at the universities of Zurich and St Gallen. He also contributes regularly as a journalist to swissinfo.ch's coverage on direct democracy.The latest text is based on Lüscher's  Master’s thesis supervised by Daniel Kübler and Thomas Milic at the institute of political sciences of Zurich University.


Adapted from German by Billi Bierling/urs, swissinfo.ch

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