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Swiss democracy: a model for the US

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SURVEY: SWITZERLAND

Voting as a way of life
Feb 12th 2004
From The Economist print edition

Being a Swiss citizen is hard work. Well, that's democracy


We have 700-odd years of practice

“FORTUNATE events have put me at the head of the French government, but I would consider myself incapable of governing the Swiss,” Napoleon Bonaparte told a Swiss delegation in 1802. “The more I think about your country, the more convinced I become that the disparity between its constituent parts makes it impossible to impose a common pattern on it: everything points to federalism.”

Napoleon came and went, but the Swiss disparities remained. They culminated in a religious quarrel that led to a civil war in 1847. Fortunately this turned out to be short and not very bloody. The new constitution drafted in 1848 (loosely modelled on the American one), which became the foundation of modern Switzerland, enshrined the principles of a federal system and direct democracy, and was itself ratified by referendum.

Switzerland's federalist past goes back much further, however: to August 1st 1291. After the death of Emperor Rudolf I, a particularly unpopular Habsburg overlord, the people of three small cantons in central Switzerland, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, got together to conclude a co-operation pact, the Bundesbrief. In 1315 the three cantons won the battle of Morgarten, prevailing with a tiny band of men against a huge Habsburg army, which encouraged other cantons to join them. In time these voluntary agreements formed the basis of the Swiss Willensnation—a nation created by acts of free will by a diverse people.

The Swiss still use that term, albeit with a slight weariness. It takes an act of will, they say, to hold together a country made up of so many disparate elements. Switzerland has four official languages, German (spoken by 64% of the population, mostly in a number of Swiss variations that Germans find hard to understand, though the written version is the same), French (20%), Italian (6%) and Romansch (0.5%), as well as a large foreign population that adds further variety to this mix of tongues.

Superimposed on those divisions are geographical, ethnic and religious ones that do not necessarily coincide with the linguistic ones. Lifestyles in, say, German-speaking Basel, French-speaking Geneva and Italian-speaking Lugano appear to have more in common with those in their respective big neighbours than with each other. It is a wonder that the place has not fallen apart long ago.

For that, the Swiss have their political system to thank. Federalism and direct democracy are not just desirable political features; they are a necessity to keep the country together, says Annemarie Huber-Hotz, Switzerland's federal chancellor and guardian of its political institutions. The key to it all is that old tongue-twister, subsidiarity, meaning that all decisions must be taken at the lowest appropriate level.

Swiss democracy works from the bottom up. Starting at the lowest level, much of the action takes place in Switzerland's 2,800-odd communities. Some of these elect their own parliament, but most have a traditional community assembly (which generally meets indoors these days, though a few still assemble on the village green) where all citizens over 18 can turn up and speak their mind. The communities are responsible for local schools, social services, energy supply, roadbuilding and such like—mostly modest stuff, but people like having a say in such matters. “I feel a lot happier about paying my local taxes if I can see where they are going,” explains a senior banker.

The next tier up consists of the cantons, the original states that in 1848 formed the Swiss federation. There are now 26 of them, and they vary enormously in size and population, from a mere 15,000 people in the smallest, deeply rural Appenzell Inner-Rhoden, to 1.2m in the biggest canton, Zurich. But each of them has its own constitution, parliament, government and courts, and each is responsible for a wide range of services, from education to policing. And even the smallest canton enjoys considerable political power. Each is entitled to at least one seat (the bigger ones get two) in the 46-member upper house of parliament that represents the cantons, and at least one seat in the 200-member lower house of parliament. The small cantons also get a disproportionate say in referendums on important national issues (of which more below).

The top, federal, tier is responsible for such things as foreign and security policy, national legislation, and customs and currency matters. The Swiss have always aimed to keep this tier as small as possible, but have recently found it increasingly hard to control federal expenditure. Very roughly, the breakdown of spending among the different tiers is around 30:40:30. Each tier raises its own taxes, but there are also transfers of funds within and between different levels of government.

Vote early, vote often
So far, so familiar from other federal countries, except that Switzerland devolves more activities and more tax-raising powers than most to lower levels of government. However, the Swiss cast their vote not only in federal, cantonal and communal elections but also in federal referendums on specific issues three or four times a year, as well as in cantonal and communal ones. Adding all these obligations together, this means they may have to pop along to the polling station (or, more likely these days, cast their vote by post) every few weeks to decide on anything from building a local bypass to joining the UN.

All amendments to the constitution and other big changes proposed by parliament must be put to a referendum, and need a double majority, both of voters and of cantons. The Swiss are quite pragmatic about their constitution. The original 1848 constitution was comprehensively revised in 1874, and an entirely new one was approved by referendum in 1999.

For new laws or changes in existing ones, as well as some international treaties, a referendum is optional, and is held only if objectors can collect 50,000 signatures within 100 days. The main effect of an optional referendum is to slow things down. Threatening to mount one can be a useful way of getting a proposal modified before it is passed.

But Swiss voters can do more than pour cold water on other people's schemes. They also have the right to launch initiatives of their own, provided they can collect 100,000 signatures in support of their proposal within 18 months. Such initiatives have a low success rate: typically, only one in ten gets through, whereas proposals put forward by parliament have a one-in-two chance of succeeding. But they provide an airing for grievances, and if they do not succeed their supporters usually accept the people's verdict. Sometimes even the failures are instructive.

When important issues are turned down, they are often put to the vote again after a decent interval, say a decade or two, and sometimes win a majority in the end. Universal voting rights for women, for example, were heavily defeated in 1959 but were passed by a two-thirds majority (of an all-male electorate) in 1971. Likewise, Swiss membership of the United Nations, which was decisively turned down in 1986, was approved in 2002 with a small majority. The creation of the new canton of Jura in 1979 required several referendums, first to separate it from the canton of Bern and then to allow parts of it to make their own arrangements, but it settled local unrest that had turned to violence.

All this direct democracy is hard work for Swiss voters. Ahead of any referendum, they are supposed to read piles of documents to inform themselves about the issue. Some referendum campaigns are sponsored by interest groups that spend a good deal of money on publicising their cause, though a few have been won with very little promotion. Some of the subjects may be of no great interest to particular voters, others may be too technical to be readily understood. A referendum in 2002 to open up Swiss electricity markets to competition was lost even though the proposal seemed to offer a way of bringing down the country's high and locally very variable electricity prices. Its promoters remain convinced that the proposal went above many of the voters' heads.

In recent years Swiss voters have been getting less enthusiastic about doing their civic duty. In federal elections turnout has declined to around 45%, from 80% a century ago, and in federal referendums it is now around 40%, rather than the 50-70% it averaged in the first half of the 20th century. In cantonal and local votes even fewer people turn up.

There are several perfectly reasonable explanations for this. First, the number of referendums has greatly increased as interest groups have learned how to use them as political weapons, leading to growing voter fatigue. Second, the enfranchisement of women in 1971, while doubling the number of voters, noticeably reduced turnout. That is what you would expect: new groups of voters have always been slow to take up their rights. Third, as people work harder, travel more and are busier than they used to be, they seem less inclined to take part in the political process. Participation among the young is especially low, leading to worries that the voting habit may be dying out.

None of this means, though, that the Swiss have gone off the whole idea of direct democracy. Considering how often they are expected to cast their vote, an average turnout of 40% still seems pretty remarkable. Most people appear to put a high value on their right to influence specific political decisions, even if they do not exercise it every time.

The system ensures that all big issues are thoroughly aired, and that the decisions eventually reached are generally sensible and command widespread support. It may be slow; it may sometimes get hijacked by special interests; and it may need a little tweaking. But it still seems to work a lot better than anything else.
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