At a European forum on democracy being held in Lucerne, Swiss President Simonetta Sommaruga welcomed the fact that the number of people’s initiatives in Switzerland had increased in recent years, calling it an “opportunity” amid renewed criticism of the Swiss direct democracy system.
At her keynote address at the Europa Forum, which regularly brings European leaders together to discuss key political, economic and societal issues, Sommaruga compared discussions about Switzerland’s direct democracy to discussions over rules in the game of football.
In sports as in politics, she said, people who question certain rules aren’t proposing removing the underlying system – or game – altogether. But specific reforms could improve those systems, and it is important to continue to question and improve aspects of the Swiss political system.
At its origins, Sommaruga said the people’s initiative had developed as a way for people to gain access to institutionalised political processes. In particular, conservative Catholics fought for the right to influence politics at the end of the 19th century.
Today, however, the Swiss leader said that initiatives are increasingly being used as an instrument for political marketing. They are often launched by parties with a lot of power in parliament and can be specifically aimed at influencing election outcomes.
And, Sommaruga warned, a growing number of initiatives go against international law or tenets of the Swiss constitution. She said that growing unease over the direct democracy is therefore understandable, as is the growing number of people who want to have Swiss initiatives declared null and void if the European Court of Human Rights rules that they breach international law.
But, Sommaruga called for restraint in introducing new reasons for declaring initiatives invalid.
“The broader the reasons are made for their invalidity, the greater the risk becomes that those reasons could be misused in order to stop initiatives that aren’t popular politically.”
Despite the challenges at hand, Sommaruga called Switzerland’s direct democracy system a “unique success story” that requires a culture of respect and consideration to keep it that way.
In the last two centuries, 500 people’s initiatives have been brought to votes around the world – 300 of them in Switzerland.
“I’m proud to be president of a country that is home to 60% of all the initiatives voted on worldwide,” Sommaruga concluded.
swissinfo.ch and agencies