sirodoht blog

Direct democracy features of the Swiss kind

There is some colloquy in political discussions that Switzerland has the best kind of democracy.

Introducing the Confederation

Officially the Swiss Confederation, Switzerland is a federal democracy, theoretically, resembling that of the United States1. Instead of states, there are cantons. However, Switzerland, as a semi-direct democracy, also has a lot of mechanisms that enable direct democracy. Even though I have often invoked the Swiss democracy as worth copying, I was in the dark—until recently—about specific details of how the political system works. Except, only, for the famous high frequency of their referenda.

Three of the main voting mechanisms in Switzerland that enable directness are:

  1. Mandatory referenda, for important changes, eg. in the constitution.
  2. Legislative referenda, optional, for changing laws passed by the parliament.
  3. Popular initiatives, which are initiated by the people to change the constitution in any way.

It would be great for other western countries to have a higher quality democracy, like the Swiss. But, it seems infeasible. Something that would require an unimaginable amount of change both in policies and in perception of politics by the people.

Assumptions

I’d love to try it, though. Nowadays, I'm under the impression that the vast majority of the world’s democracies are spiralling down rather swiftly. But, technology is booming, so what’s wrong? It would seem it's not a case of humanity being out of luck and experiencing a one-off event. Rather, something is wrong at a foundational level. Is technology not enough to solve all of humanities problems?

In addition, by enabling more directness in a democracy, the power is more divided among the people, which—in case of dangerous people—makes direct democracy more dangerous, not more desirable!

Both the importance of technology and the case of freedom versus safety are philosophical discussions out of the scope of this text. Thus, let’s assume:

  1. Technology is of supreme importance.
  2. We prefer not to distribute power if that means people with an education of lesser quality get it.

Educating voters

Under these assumptions, education and knowledge are the foundational stones of direct democracy. For the common people to decide about policies, they need to know about policies. Are Swiss people more educated than, say, other western countries? Even so, how much more educated?

I would guess not by that much, that it would justify a complete overturn of who holds the political power. To counter for the lack of education and specific knowledge about each referendum, in Switzerland, each ballot is accompanied with a handbook. The handbook explains in great detail what each vote means. For instance, what cost would each option incur, how would it be covered, what is the recommended vote by each level of authority (canton, parliament, municipality), what is the minority’s opinion and, of course, why.

An acceptable way to educate the public on what they vote for, but also an imperfect way. It raises many questions. Namely one, how many people do actually bother to vote, given the handbook's overhead? According to Wikipedia, the number has varied since the 1970s between 42% and 50%, with few extreme cases going over 60%, such as the matter of Switzerland joining the EU.

Those numbers do sound close to an average election turnout in many western countries, if not worse. Which raises another interesting question: how do they manage to maintain their direct democracy quality (and do they?) given these meagre voter turnouts2?

Other features of the system

If we examine the example of a Swiss citizen, who has been living in Zurich since 2000, they have had the opportunity to vote in 548 referenda in the last 21 years. With an average of ~1 referenda every two weeks, that sounds unreal. How could this work?

They vote in bulk. They may hold bulk referenda four times every year, voting for ~6 issues each time. It makes one wonder how many tricks like that they have devised in order to scale direct democracy to 8+ million people3.

Among other interesting properties of the Swiss political system is the fact that Switzerland has no constitutional court. The power of interpreting the constitution lies again only with the people.

But, the most interesting one is probably that there is no single human that is the face and embodies the represented power of the Swiss government. There is a Federal Council that is represented by seven members, each having one vote. There is also a Federal Chancellor, but they are not important at all as they hold no vote of those seven.

I'm inclined to argue that this property of dividing a country’s top executive by seven, doesn't even need that much of a perception shift to happen—it's only a policy to be voted for, with no (?) negative side effects yet with the distribution-of-power positive main effect.

Conclusion

As I'm reading more and more about all the various mechanics the Swiss have, each one solving and improving on the drawback of the previous, my realisation is this: there is no perfect system, of course; the decision is which fundamental ideas we want to adopt and build upon.

At the end of the day, the foremost inquiry is: do we want to try something new or is this indeed the end of history? I understand the need to remain with the devil we know, yet, I'm excited to discover the one we don't. Only because the fundamental idea of power distribution sounds better than the lack of it.

Epilogue

Martin Sústrik's blog posts at 250bpm is where most of the above findings were found. They were extremely interesting to read, and I recommend them especially for the parts that I did not mention. Examples include how the number of popular initiatives soared in the 1970s (before that they hadn't figured out how to do them productively!), how they dealt and are dealing with their serious problem of immigration, how to face dangerous referenda (read Brexit), and one that could be a book of its own: concordance versus competitive democracy (it's in Part 3).

Other references include:


  1. SWI swissinfo.ch: Swiss and US democracy: twins separated at birth? 

  2. In the last paragraph of Part 3, Martin reveals something interesting: "It turns out that about a quarter votes almost every time, a quarter almost never, and the rest votes occasionally. That being said, 90% of people have voted at least once in the past five years. This suggests that people vote selectively." 

  3. Here, one could argue, they have actually scaled to 5.2m people (rather than 8.5m), because that's the amount of Swiss people eligible to vote. Which is yet another interesting problem: how much of a democracy is it, if only ~61% of the population take part? N.B. that in addition to expats, I have included ignorant children in this number, too. 

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