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Direct democracy: its strengths and weaknesses

Right-wing party leaders making a political point about Europe when they handed in the referendum signatures. (archive) Keystone

Direct democracy is a very important part of the Swiss political culture. It dates back to the second half of the 19th century, when it was introduced on a national level. Before that, it had existed at a cantonal and sometimes local level.

Two distinct elements make up direct democracy. One is the referendum and the other is the initiative. The referendum allows the Swiss people to have their say on a parliamentary or governmental proposition. An initiative is a proposal by the citizens or their organisations to the government.

At a federal level, a referendum can occur when the government proposes a change of law. If a group or organisation is opposed to that change and it can collect 50,000 signatures, the proposal has to be put to a referendum.

An initiative is when a group or organisation feels something has to be changed within the law. If it collects the necessary 100,000 signatures, it can then put its proposal to a vote.

The timetable for a referendum and an initiative is different. A referendum does not usually take very long to be put to the vote because the government has already formulated its proposal and the matter can often be put to the electorate within a year of the 50,000 signatures being collected.

The process often takes longer with an initiative because it has to be put to parliament. All other groups concerned with the issue also have to be asked what they think about the proposal in a consultative process.

In the past it took up to seven years for some initiatives to be put to a national vote. In recent years, that time has been reduced to a maximum of three and a half years.

Direct democracy also takes place on a cantonal and a local level. Andreas Ladner, head of the political science institute at the University of Berne, says this can mean Swiss citizens may be called on to vote on an enormous number of issues during their political life.

“In the city of Zürich,” says Ladner “it has been calculated that a person would have to vote on something like 1,800 issues altogether if you take into account local, cantonal and national issues.”

Ladner says this accounts for the desperately low turnout in many referenda and explains a certain amount of voting fatigue among the electorate. There can be votes on anything between 10 and 14 issues every year. Not all of them will be on a federal level and not all of them will be deemed important enough by voters for them to want to cast their ballot.

“Foreign policy is a very delicate topic in Swiss political life,” says Ladner. “But I don’t expect there to be the same sort of turnout in the referendum on the bilateral agreements as there was in 1992, when over 78 per cent of people turned out to vote “no” to Switzerland joining the European Economic Area.”

Political analyst, Michel Walter, agrees. “But there is a major problem with direct democracy, and that’s the complexity of some of the issues on which voters are being asked to decide,” he says.

Walter maintains that if the topic is too technical for people to understand the vote will not be truly representative. Similarly, if the subject is too general, the elector will vote on the grounds of their feelings and this introduces the risk of populism.

In direct democracy, a way has to be found of putting a clear and concrete question to the electorate. Ladner says this is one of the system’s strengths.

An issue may seem complex, but the question is somehow very simple. It only requires a “yes” or a “no”. Should Switzerland say “yes” to these bilateral agreements or should it say “no”. Ladner stresses that the decision can be made without knowing all the details.

“The agreements are rather complicated,” he says. “And although they are being discussed in the newspapers and the government does quite a lot to bring all the implications to the people, I don’t think everybody will understand.”

But he maintains that Switzerland is a part of Europe and that the Swiss people are able to recognise that the bilateral agreements are a way of establishing a legal basis for the process of integration that has been going on for some time.

Ladner and Walter both agree that one implication of direct democracy is that it gives the impression that parliament and politicians are relatively weak. It would be hard to imagine a Thatcher, a Mitterrand or a Kohl surviving long in Swiss politics, they say.

But the system puts power firmly in the hands of the people and this means they can prevent a proposal that has been passed by parliament from coming into force. Ladner says this can work to the country’s advantage, as it provides a balancing check on the government’s activities.

But it can also put a brake on political and social change. Walter says that parliament in Switzerland, as in most other countries, is more progressive than the electorate. But it has failed to introduce a general system of maternity leave because the electorate rejected draft legislation.

Of course the pace, or lack of it, with which the process of direct democracy enables new legislation to be introduced in Switzerland, has brought with it accusations of inefficiency, particularly at a federal level.

“Democracy and great efficiency are rarely compatible,” says Walter. “If you want great efficiency, if you want rapidity, then you cannot have democracies in most cases. I think we have to accept that.”

Ladner too says political decisions sometimes take longer in Switzerland than in other countries. But he maintains that when a decision has been reached, it is a legitimate one that has been accepted by the people and there is no need to reverse the decision after the next election when another government comes to power.

Recent studies, says Ladner, have shown that where there is more decision-making through direct democracy, the more content people are with their government. He says this is especially true at a cantonal level.

Direct democracy is also becoming a remedy for a growing disenchantment with politics in other countries. Ladner says Germany is trying to introduce it at a local level because it is seen as a way of offering citizens a more direct way of influencing politics.

“I think it could become a model for conflict resolution”, he argues, “or even integrating people in the decision-making process.”

by Jonathan Summerton

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