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Opinion Democracy gives more satisfaction even if not used

The possibility of political participation makes happier citizens according to researchers


Kurt Fluri Opinion

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By Stefan Rey

Direct, or to be precise, semi-direct democracy in a particularly important form of political participation in Switzerland. There is some evidence of a direct correlation between the extent of direct democracy and the level of democratic satisfaction among citizens. The means to participate in direct democracy is more important for democratic satisfaction than the a

ctual use of these instruments.

No other country in the world offers citizens as extensive means to participate in and influence political decisions on a national level as Switzerland.

But even on a federal level, there are only very few states which offer their citizens as much of a say in how they are run as the Swiss cantons.

With 26 cantons, Switzerland provides an excellent laboratory to examine the effects of direct democracy on the level of satisfaction of citizens.

Stefan Rey


Uncontested Advantages

Direct democracy is a hotly debated and somewhat glorified subject in Swiss politics. Political forces have glamourised direct democracy.

Sometimes, the field of tension where democracy conflicts with the constitutional state is stretched to its limits and put to the test.

Nonetheless, it is indisputable that this form of political participation has advantages for the electorate. It hinders the political elite from pursuing its own interests.

Because the electorate is an important player in the political process, its concerns have to be taken seriously.

People more content?

In my bachelors dissertation I looked into the question of whether people who live in cantons with more direct democracy are happier with the way democracy functions that those who live in cantons with less direct and more representative democracy.

Direct democracy means that citizens have a direct vote on certain issues. The more citizens can engage in the political decision-making process through the instruments of direct democracy, the more attention the political elite will pay to their political preferences.

This benefits the population and, so we can assume, has a positive effect on their level of satisfaction with democracy.

Two possibilities for participation

It is possible to distinguish two main types of participation in direct democracy: 

  • The technical possibility to participate in political processes. This offers the electorate a means of controlling their political elite.
  • The actual use of political institutions, for example referendums and the right to initiate legislation. With these, citizens show the elected politicians their political preferences.

The control that the people exercise over politicians serves primarily to hinder politicians from seeking to benefit their own selfish goals and interests.

Direct democratic plebiscites allow the electorate to pass on information to the elite and mean the electorate must be treated as a serious player in political life.

This refers to the hurdles required to activate the relevant direct democracy instrument, an initiative or a referendum. Among these are the absolute and relative number of required signatures and the window of time allowed to gather the signatures. For financial referendums, the per capita expenditure of the population necessary to initiate a referendum is also taken into account in addition to these hurdles.

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I examined these two different mechanisms of co-determination by analysing the height of the hurdles (see infobox) voters need to overcome to initiate direct democratic instruments such as constitutional and legal initiatives and referendums and the actual use of these instruments, in terms of the number of plebiscites.

Significant Variations

My analysis shows that the citizens of cantons with more direct democracy and those in which the available instruments are used more often for political participation are more satisfied with democracy.

When you go into more detail and monitor for other factors, the statistical significance, however, disappears.

The linguistic and cultural identity of the region plays an especially big role in democratic satisfaction in Switzerland.

It is a well-known fact that the German-speaking cantons are more oriented toward direct democracy than the French- and Italian-language cantons, which are accustomed to a more representative form of democracy.

The means to participate in direct democracy is therefore more important than the actual use of these instruments.

End of quote

Difficult research

The reasons for these language-regional differences are not easy to determine. We have to assume that different historical developments are responsible for the variations between German-speaking and the other language regions.

It seems more probable that the availability of direct democratic participation is more important than the actual use of these instruments.

This was not necessarily to be expected. But it does answer the question of whether one can differentiate between the two mechanisms – control and information.

The effect of the control mechanism should be revealed both in the purely technical availability of direct democratic participation and in the actual use of it.

The effect of the information mechanism should however only be revealed in its actual use.

The fact that stronger – if not significant – effects could be found in the technical instruments suggests that the control mechanism plays a more important role in the electorate’s level of democratic satisfaction than the information mechanism.

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. The selection of articles presents a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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Existence and actual use

The means to participate in direct democracy is therefore more important than the actual use of these instruments.

The existence of means to influence politics forces the political elite to consider the concerns of the electorate.

One could extrapolate from this the assumption that such instruments wield an indirect influence over political activity and that as a consequence, there are fewer optional referendums and therefore fewer votes in those cantons.

 The finding of my work is therefore that the means to take part in democratic decisions has a stronger impact on citizens’ satisfaction than actual participation.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of This is a slightly adapted text that was first published by DeFactoexternal link, an online platform for political and social sciences.

Translated from German by Catherine Hickley

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