What’s new in Swiss and international democracy

Haven of democracy: the Eichholz campsite on the Aare river in Bern. Keystone / Anthony Anex

The abstract world of democracy reporting doesn’t suffer from a lack of options when it comes to a choice image or metaphor.

This content was published on July 28, 2020 - 16:08

Democracies are “fragile constructions”, we often hear. They are threatened by the “rise of populism”, or “backsliding” amid a “wave of autocratisation”.

But this week, in honour of the Swiss National Day on August 1, President Simonetta Sommaruga has pushed the metaphoric boat out to new lengths. In an address to Swiss citizens around the world, she makes the bold claim that democracy is a lot like a holiday campsite.

Not just any campsite mind you: Sommaruga comes to us from Bern’s beloved “Eichholz” – a site by the Aare river where thousands of locals (and non-locals, if they behave) gather in summer to grill sausages, jump in the flowing water, and have a generally good time.

The president explains: people in Eichholz experience in miniature what democratic societies experience every day, she says. People of all shapes and backgrounds come and rub shoulders and enjoy the relaxed setting. “It can even happen that an unexpected frisbee lands on your towel!” she chuckles.

If only things were so idyllic…

Because it’s not all fun and games: such a place (the campsite, that is) is ripe for strife, Sommaruga warns. Overcrowded, overheated, and over-inebriated, it’s inevitable that misunderstandings pop up – about the best patch of grass or that stray frisbee, say.

And yet, she says: “Those who gather on the grass of Eichholz get along rather well.” Why? “Because they know that not everyone shares the same interests, and that it’s important to talk with one another when there’s a problem”.

And though “not all of you live in places with democratic structures,” she goes on gravely, “in each of your countries, you represent Switzerland and its democratic values, and each of your interactions is a reminder that peaceful coexistence is possible.”

Thank you for being such good ambassadors of Switzerland, the president finishes, as the sunbathers behind her look on blithely. A little imagery can go a long way…

No troublemakers allowed

Elsewhere in Swiss democracy, the more serious issue of the deportation of foreign criminals has come up again.

In 2010, voters approved a controversial initiative demanding that non-Swiss be automatically deported if convicted of committing certain serious crimes. If you’re not an official citizen camper, the law says, you’d better abide by the rules: otherwise, you and your deckchair are out.

Ten years on, new stats show that the law – and particularly a “hardship clause” invoked to avoid sending people back to difficult or inhumane situations – is applied differently around the campsite, with various regions showing more leniency than others. On average, just 42% of such troublemakers are kicked out.

The People’s Party, a large and loud group sitting in the middle of the grass on a Swiss-cross-emblazoned towel, is not happy about it.

This amounts to “a destruction of the rule of law”, politician Adrian Amstutz said last week. “Our rules clearly say there is no room in Switzerland for rejected asylum seekers, criminals, or welfare-scamming foreigners. But courts are making a mockery of this.”

The Richard Gere-esque Amstutz, one of the rightwing party’s chief holidaymakers, appeared before the press with his sun-screened colleague Thomas Aeschi, threatening that if the situation didn’t change, they would launch another initiative to demand the rules are kept.

It’s not the first time the party is disgruntled about decisions not being properly implemented; the 2014 anti-mass immigration initiative – another controversial idea that was narrowly accepted, but only lightly implemented – will be back before voters again this September.

But it’s a tricky balance to find, the harried campground supervisors say: we make our rules, but we also have to abide by the overarching regulations of the international campground federation. No campground is an island…

Un-appy campers

Another disgruntled group are the opponents of the recently-released SwissCovid app – the coronavirus contact tracing software so far downloaded by around a million people.

Angry about this blatant attempt to keep tabs on how many sausages they have grilled and where they have grilled them, the anti-SwissCovid group said last week it would start collecting signatures to force a vote on the legislation underpinning the app.

Fearing a Chinese style “digital dictatorship”, the committee is not satisfied with the data protection guarantees given by the government-backed software. They also reckon “false positive” notifications could lead to pointless quarantines or extra social hysteria.

Will they succeed in revoking the law? This could be a moot point: the app has been in circulation for over a month now, and judging by the speed at which issues make their way to camp-wide votes in Switzerland, it’s unlikely this will come before citizens before the end of the pandemic.

But they have made a splash, which in the democratic scheme of things is a success in itself. They have three months to collect the 50,000 signatures to force a referendum.

Camp warfare

Finally, if you can stomach a final round of metaphors, we would like to draw your attention to another newly published ‘Focus’ page on the site.

Fifty shades of democracy” looks at the increasingly common practice of measuring, comparing and ranking democracies around the world in order to say which one is best.

Written by our global correspondent Bruno Kaufmann, the Focus not only dives into the question of which is the world’s best campsite, but also the question of who is doing the judging, and what they are judging: is it the quality of grass? The fair application of swimming pool rules? The participation both of backstrokers and frontcrawlers in making these rules in the first place?

Is it even possible to say which is best, or is it all in the eye of the beholder?

Let us know if there’s any other democracy topics you’d like us to report on. Get in touch with our correspondents Domhnall O’SullivanExternal link or Bruno KaufmannExternal link.

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