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Swiss direct democracy is nation’s bedrock

Published on May 19, 2014

As regular as a Swiss watch, the electorate is called out every quarter for plebiscites on issues ranging from heavyweight national affairs through to local-level votes on whether to back building projects.

On Sunday, voters will decide whether to introduce the world’s highest minimum wage, to back a multi-billion-dollar deal to buy fighter jets from Sweden, and ban paedophiles from working with children.

In February, they narrowly approved measures to roll back free access to the Swiss labour market for citizens of the European Union Switzerland is not a member of the 28-nation bloc.

That made Switzerland the darling of right-wing eurosceptics across the continent, in the same way that a 2013 vote to restrict top executives’ bonuses saw the country lauded by the left.

"Direct democracy is what keeps politicians close to the people," said lawmaker Ruedi Lustenberger, of the centre-right Christian Democrats.

"It’s the core of our system," he said, standing beneath a vast stone statue in parliament symbolising the oath sworn in 1291 between three Alpine regions that formed the nucleus of Switzerland.

According to official data, of the 1,645 referendums held worldwide since the French Revolution, 591 have been in Switzerland.

Underlining the role of people power, Lustenberger, a carpenter by training, is constitutionally the nation’s top politician by virtue of being speaker of parliament for a year.

The Swiss president is lower down the pecking order, with the largely ceremonial job rotating annually among the seven members of the cross-party national government of this highly-federal country.

The contrast is clear with the likes of highly-centralised France, where the president wields wide-ranging powers, or Britain, whose prime minister is the hub of power.

"It’s something tied very specifically to our history," said cabinet chief of staff Corina Casanova, explaining the country’s bottom-up politics.

"We’re a nation of peasants, we’ve never had a monarch," she joked.

Under the Swiss system, parliament can call a referendum, or citizens themselves can muster 100,000 signatures in order to put so-called popular initiatives to the vote.

The government sets out its position on the issue and has won 75 percent of plebiscites but does not fall if voters ignore it.

"Popular initiatives give the people the last word on what’s going to be inscribed in the constitution. Its up to the politicians, the government, to come up with proposals to implement that," said Casanova.

"It’s a means of finding solutions that’s different from what you find in the framework of a purely parliamentary system."

"It’s something tied very specifically to our history," she added.

The modern Swiss confederation was crafted in 1848, after a short civil war between its Protestant and Catholic regions.

Voters endorsed a federal constitution that aimed to temper the clout of the victorious Protestants, as well as that of the German-speaking majority over the French and Italian-language minorities.

"Direct democracy is a tool created as a way to give minorities a means of protection," said Tobias Schnebli, a left-wing Geneva city councillor who makes boat propellors for a living.

"It’s especially been used by political movements outside the mainstream," he added, as he took a break from campaigning against the fighter deal.

Popular initiatives were introduced in 1891 to add an extra layer of consensus-based democracy.

Seen as a safety valve, they rarely pass. According to official data, only 21 of the 168 initiatives since 1891 have succeeded.

"It’s become a kind of defining feature of Switzerland," said Clive Church of the Centre for Swiss Politics at the University of Kent in England.

"It does make decisions more legitimate," Church said, noting that referendum campaigns also help draw people into politics.

"But you do have to be careful, because even the Swiss get fed up with turning out four times a year and having to read all these referendum documents."

Critics also note that referendums can be used by parties to bang their drum between elections with the right-wing populist Swiss People’s Party among the most skilled at deploying hard-hitting campaigns.

Each referendum costs the state around seven million Swiss francs (EUR 5.7 million, USD 7.8 million) to organise roughly 1.50 francs per citizen, Casanova noted.

The rules on non-government campaign spending are hazy, however.

"There is very little control or transparency over campaign finance," said Schnebli, warning that reforms were needed to make it harder for money to tip the balance.

"But direct democracy in itself is good, as it enables the people to pull the emergency brake if they want," he added.


Jonathan Fowler / AFP / Expatica