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‘Let’s not fool ourselves: democracy is not doing well’

Bruno Kaufmann

Swiss President Guy Parmelin is one of 112 government representatives at the first Summit for Democracy. Our democracy correspondent has imagined the speech he thinks Parmelin should deliver.

“President Biden, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Many of you already know me a little. I am the friendly winegrower from the French-speaking part of Switzerland who spoke to you over two months ago in a speech to the United Nations General Assembly.

This week Swiss Vice-President Ignazio Cassis was elected Swiss president for 2022, so on New Year’s Day I will once again become a very ordinary economics minister.

Switzerland is taking part in the Summit for DemocracyExternal link, held by the United States from December 9-10.

The two-day summit was an election promise by US President Joe Biden. The world’s largest economy has invited presidents, prime ministers and ambassadors from around the world. They will discuss how to strengthen human rights and the fight against corruption, and how to deal with rising autocracy and authoritarianism.

Russia, China, Turkey and Hungary were not invited to the summit; India, Iraq, Kosovo and Taiwan were. Conditions to attend include committing to concrete measures to improve democracy at home and globally within the next year.

Today, however, I am speaking to you as a committed and concerned citizen of Bursins, a municipality of just under 800 inhabitants. I grew up there on the shores of Lake Geneva in canton Vaud and have experienced how the “least bad of all forms of government” – to paraphrase Winston Churchill – works. Or often doesn’t work.

Because let’s not fool ourselves: democracy is not doing well worldwide.

It is true that today we are all – at least almost all – supporters of democracy in principle. Even government colleagues from countries that have not even been invited to this summit. Take China, for example. A few days ago, Beijing published a white paper entitled “Democracy That Works”. What is meant by this is made clear in the second chapter of the paper: “China is a democratic dictatorship”. And the term “dictatorship” is then repeated seven more times throughout the paper, just to be on the safe side.

But it is not only colleagues in Beijing who act today as if the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948 and all its subsequent agreements – such as the European Charter of Human Rights – had never existed. Around the world, the basic concepts of democracy are increasingly being bent by governments so that even the most obvious enemies of the Enlightenment and human rights can now proudly present themselves as democrats.

The consequences of this development are obvious: fewer and fewer people today actually live in democratic states. Currently, only 39% (compared with 46% ten years ago). Whereas three decades ago democratic societies accounted for over 80% of global economic output, this figure has fallen to below 50%. In addition, political leaders who work to dismantle democracy in the name of democracy have gained power around the world. Or as my Philippine counterpart Rodrigo Duterte put it very frankly: “Forget laws and human rights.”  

Friends of democracy, it is high time to confront the undemocratic aspects of our much-praised democracies. And for that, we don’t even need to look far away – to Beijing or Manila – but simply to our own front door. And I say this as the former mayor of Bursins and as the current Swiss president. In other words, as a member of democratic communities that do not fare so badly in international comparisons.

We have to acknowledge that there is a more strained atmosphere back home in Switzerland. And this despite a referendum just a few weeks ago in which, in absolute numbers, more people participated than ever before in the democratic history of Switzerland*.

This referendum at the end of November was about the measures adopted by my government with the support of parliament to contain the Covid-19 pandemic. A referendum was held against these measures. This is a right that all citizens in Switzerland have: they can oppose every new law, provided they collect 50,000 valid signatures within 100 days. The law helps to ensure that all voters have the final say on controversial proposals.

In the shadow of a highly emotional campaign, self-proclaimed friends of democracy and freedom repeatedly attempted to use violence against the seat of government and parliament in the capital, Bern.

Declarations were made that the whole voting process was manipulated and therefore the popular decision was not to be respected. These developments are new in Switzerland and a wake-up call. Even in our traditionally stable country, the democratic foundation is showing visible cracks for all to see.


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Superficially covering up such fractures is not enough: the world, Switzerland and Bursins now need a leap forward in democracy.

One leap? No, that is not enough, of course. It needs at least three: first, a leap forward in participation, so that those inhabitants who have not yet had the right to vote and to be elected can do so, both at a regional and national level. In other words, democracy must become more inclusive so that the existing direct democratic rights of the people – which currently exist in 95 of the 112 states represented here – can actually be used by as many people as possible in these states.

Second, we need a leap forward in innovation. Digital voting must be made possible, and the increasingly rampant spread of fake news on social media must be curbed. Clear journalistic responsibilities and investments in a transparent and independent media infrastructure serve this purpose.

And finally it is high time for a leap in democratic globalisation: because regardless of whether I am pruning the vines at home, giving an interview in my office or stopping off at a sausage stand in Beijing on a trip, I – and all of you – are also part of a political community in which many big issues, such as climate, health and ultimately also democracy, can only move forward if we work together.

That is why I support the proposal for a World Citizens’ Initiative developed within the framework of the UN75 consultations. This new instrument should in future enable a group of at least five million people from at least ten UN member states to submit a binding draft resolution to the UN General Assembly or the Security Council.

This will build a formal democratic bridge between citizens and the world’s most important common institutions. This is already possible today at the European level with the European Citizens’ Initiative, the right of popular initiative in Switzerland and my home canton of Vaud – and with the possibility to speak and make proposals at the municipal assembly in Bursins.

I thank you for your attention and I am now eager to hear your suggestions on how we can strengthen democracy in the world in the coming 12 months until the next Summit for Democracy.”

* The referendum with the highest number of votes received (Yes/No/Invalid) to date was the EEA referendum (Bill 388) in 1992 (3,580,094). For the Covid-19 referendum on November 28, this number (according to provisional figures, i.e. excluding invalid votes) was 3,583,654. [Source: Federal Chancellery].

Here’s is Parmelin’s actual speech:

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