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The pandemic as a test and a chance for a more inclusive democracy

The Swiss are the only people in the world who will have the chance to have their say on government coronavirus measures in a nationwide vote. Keystone / Peter Klaunzer

Polarisation, distrust, and inequalities that have worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic are damaging democracies. Experts, however, say that the pandemic merely exposed fundamental problems that existed for a long time in Switzerland. This has led to renewed calls for a more inclusive government.

This content was published on November 23, 2021 - 09:00

“During the Covid-19 pandemic, many privileged people have experienced what it feels like to lose their jobs or be unable to move around freely for the first time,” says Estefania Cuero, a diversity and inclusion expert and doctoral student at the University of Lucerne.

However, this is the harsh reality that many people with a migration background or with disabilities have faced for years.

“Socially disadvantaged groups have been excluded in our democracy. For them, others’ privileges and high living standards mean exclusion,” she says.

Cuero believes that including underprivileged groups is a must for a just democracy, but this requires people with privilege to share their resources. However, Cuero, observes a resistance to this in Switzerland.

Lack of representation

Sanija Ameti, co-president of Operation Libero, an organisation of young people fighting populism and exclusion in Switzerland, shares Cuero’s view.

“In Switzerland, many people have lost confidence in the government because they don’t see themselves represented.” Ameti speaks from personal experience: the Bosnia-born lawyer had to flee her country during the war.

Everyone seems to agree that the effects of the pandemic are damaging, if not threatening to democracies. Cohesion and solidarity, two important pillars of a diverse Swiss society, are currently showing cracks that have grown bigger in the past few decades.

Cuero, Ameti and other experts agree that Switzerland must promote more equality and tolerance. Including underprivileged groups is not just a nice thing to do – it is necessary to fulfill the country’s commitments to human rights and anti-discrimination.

According to Cuero, more inclusion doesn’t require new instruments in Switzerland but simply a change in perspectives. “Our politicians should base policies on the needs of the most marginalised and disadvantaged and show solidarity with them. It is about being on an equal footing.”

Growing inequalities

Cuero says that the opposite has happened. Instead of more inclusion, she has observed more inequality in Switzerland as well as an increase in racist and anti-Semitic statements during the pandemic. "If, as was the case in Lucerne, people without Swiss citizenship who receive social benefits even in times of severe restrictions and instability such as lockdowns are then reported directly to the migration office, inequality increases," says Cuero.

She thinks it is unacceptable that the Swiss authorities don’t allocate money to cover translation of political information into sign language, for example, considering 1.7 million people out of a population of 8.6 million in Switzerland have disabilities, according to the Swiss umbrella organisation Agile.

Personal experience

Sanija Ameti, a Swiss expert on international law, knows first-hand the impact of inflammatory rhetoric, exclusion and persecution, which her family experienced when they fled the war in the former Yugoslavia. They were forced to leave their home in Bosnia, arriving in Switzerland in the 1990s.

Even though Ameti’s life was no longer at risk, she still suffered exclusion when she arrived. “Being excluded motivated me to get engaged in Swiss politics,” she explains.

Ameti is currently responsible for public relations in the campaign for the European Initiative. This aims to put Europe back on the Swiss agenda after the government rejected plans for a framework agreement with the European Union earlier this year.

Warning signs

Ameti sees polarisation and societal divisions as the biggest threats to democracy. “One of the reasons for the war in the former Yugoslavia was that many people ignored the warning signs or didn’t take the development seriously enough.”

It is the loss in confidence in the government and its institutions that makes people particularly susceptible to populist propaganda, she says. Ameti proposes a few ways to address this: firstly, she believes that half of the Swiss parliamentarians should be chosen by lot; and secondly, foreigners, who make up a quarter of the population, should have the right to vote at a local level.

International sceptics

German-American political scientist Yascha Mounk is disillusioned by how vulnerable democracies have been during the Covid-19 pandemic.

“They have fared worse than I expected,” says the Harvard University professor and author of The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.

“Democracies have become more polarised during the pandemic. Some countries have shown a certain Schadenfreude towards other governments and their policies, which can be hard to bear.” Mounk refers to politicians who criticised governments of other countries for pandemic measures that weren’t effective.

Dishonest authorities

Mounk also worries about people’s increasing distrust of government and state institutions. He doesn’t chalk it all up to “fake news” though. He places much of the blame on the way governments and authorities have communicated with constituents during the pandemic.

“When masks weren’t available at the start of the pandemic, the public was told that they were effective for healthcare workers but didn’t prevent the spread of the virus. Given this misinformation, why should people now believe that vaccines work? Governments need to be transparent and admit their mistakes.”

Mounk agrees that the problems didn’t just emerge from the pandemic. On the contrary, there have been mounting authoritarian tendencies and a trend of governments curbing basic rights and freedoms.

Switzerland – stronghold of anti-vaccine sentiment

Switzerland is far from becoming an authoritarian state. However, the country, which has a strong tradition of research and innovation, has become a stronghold of vaccination skepticism in Europe. While the reasons are varied, vaccine sceptics are united in their deeply rooted distrust of the government and parliament, which are the primary democratic institutions.

The Swiss anti-vaccine groups have successfully launched two referendums challenging the Covid-19 law that underpins many of the government’s coronavirus measures.

‘Good timing for a democracy offensive’

Swiss media expert Roger de Weck disagrees with the rather pessimistic perceptions of Cuero, Ameti and Mounk. “I am a true optimist. The anti-enlightenment movement is declining all over the western world such as in the US, Germany, France, Italy and Switzerland. Now is the time for the offensive promotion of democracy,” says de Weck.

This, however, would require democratic societies to take the inclusion of all minorities seriously. De Weck agrees with Estefania Cuero that the privileged play an essential role in this.

“We must oppose the freedom to protect our own privileges in order to ensure the freedom for all," says De Weck, who is the former Director General of the Swiss Broadcasting Cooperation, SWI swissinfo.ch’s parent company.

International Forum Zofingen

The discussions and interviews in this article were conducted during the first International Forum ZofingenExternal link, co-hosted by SWI swissinfo.ch, which took place in autumn 2021. The event assessed the state of democracies in the times of Covid-19. More than 100 representatives in the fields of research, politics, economics, media and civil society participated in the forum which was organised by Stiftung Demokratie SchweizExternal link.

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Translated from German by Billi Bierling 

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