the limits of (swiss) democracy

// first draft 20/1/2013-5/2/2013, rev. on 11/2/2013

Some contemporary initiatives by the Swiss people have for a long time made me question the legitimacy of the Swiss democracy as well as its usefulness for the future. I'm talking about initiatives like the Minarettinitiative [1], Abzockerinitiative [2], Ausschaffungsinitiative [3], and the Verwahrungsinitiative [4]. The Swiss derive a large part of their presumed national identity from their particular legislative system which grants the people a very high involvement into governmental affairs. This shows its manifestation in militia system, which means that many legislative functions are carried out extra officially. The culmination of this high public involvement into the legislative procedure is the popular initiative, which allows the Swiss people to create their own constitutional rights (called Volksinitiative). However it seems to me that in recent times this system has been more often than not been abused and rarely been used for constructive criticism.

A popular argument of the Swiss, when asked about the raison d'être of the initiative, is that it allows the people to raise concerns about the current state of affairs. A lot of the above mentioned initiatives can be explained with this statement. However whatever concerns the public perceives as a pressing issues doesn't mean that they actually are. As we all know the public opinion can be easily manipulated and misguided. Example: Fake issues can be raised (stopping "islamization" [1] and Ausschaffungsinitiative [3] used as a front for increasing xenophobia), small issues exaggerated (obligatory muzzle for some dogs, Kony 2012) or important ones marginalized (Swiss bank employees as active assistants in tax evasion). However a few misjudgments can't be the reason to revoke any legislative competencies of the people.

Nothing gained nothing lost?

One might argue that although the Swiss popular initiative might not produce any tangible results (only about 10% actually of the initiatives get accepted), at least they don't do much harm (besides the occasional infringement of basic human rights, see [1], [3]). But this reasoning is misleading, because it ignores how an initiative shapes the political discourse and influences the decision making process (the fact that its very time consuming for a militia system to work out a counter proposal is just one aspect).

What's more pressing is that in Switzerland the people have the unique ability to vote their own legally binding articles into the constitution. Which means that a popular misconception can form the basis for an article in the constitution. This is particularly problematic in the case of initiatives like the Minarettinitiative (which banned the construction of more minarets in switzerland) which are in conflict with public international law and basic human rights. It is absolutely embarrassing seeing such an article becoming law - yet here we are. The fundamental misconception of a subtle islamization of our society seems so utterly wrong, yet it was apparently the major opinion and perception in our society. It is seems absolutely ironic to me and kinda like a bad joke, that there's a whole of 4 minarets in Switzerland. 4 minarets in a country of 8 million! However the ability to deny basic human rights is not the only problem with initiatives.

Other initiatives like the Abzockerinitiative might be harmless (meaning they affect very few people if any at all) but they still take their toll. When a popular initiative comes about, a whole legal apparatus gets set into gear, checking the validity of the initiative, the parliament might devise a counter proposal and the concerns of the initiative becomes the focal point of many sessions and commissions. I'm not aware of any numbers, but considering that the median salary of a parliamentarian is 77'727, the cost of such an initiative becomes somewhat more evident (especially because an initiative is usually taking more than just a year to come into effect, if it does at all). As a consequence our apparent benefits of the militia system (ie. being cheap) get jeopardized, because the members of parliament waste a lot of time on groundless public concerns and issues and are forced to neglect the real issues in this country. What's more is that those initiatives lead to stronger and stronger polarization in our country, making lots of important topics (CH joining the European Economic Area (EEA) ) a matter which gets tabooed, whereas parties waste all their efforts and campaigning on recurring themes such as immigration instead of letting the public form a reasonable consensus about the more important topics.

National matters are complex in the 21st century

It hence seems evident to me, that one cannot expect the public in the 21st century to be knowledgeable enough to make sober decision about which problems are currently important to our society. The aforementioned initiatives ([1-4]) are strong testaments to this. On the contrary there are still no initiatives which would effectively combat the disparity in salaries, reform the national executive (federal council), liberalize agriculture, or forbid the legality of tax evasion practices by banks (however a law has been initiated by the federal council) or liberalize labor laws for (non-Schengen) foreigners, just to name a few.

The direct democracy had many merits in the past, but it has approached the end of its life cycle. We should abandon popular initiatives on the national level and replace it with an alternative system: petitions to force the legislative to draft a new article about a pressing issue, requiring half a million signatures and allowing people to sign it online. Make basic human rights and international public rights binding for all instances (ie. that is we need a constitutional court). Initiatives have been widely abused in the past for pointless initiatives, which only serve the propaganda machinery of a few parties and block the whole decision making process in Bern for years.

We are now at an inflection point for Switzerland. We can either reform our political system and acknowledge the fact that the Swiss sovereign is not infallible - or we can keep on boasting about our old principles of popular sovereignty and just hope that future political debates will be more sober and closer to the true issues of our society. But I doubt that will ever be the case. [8]

An afterthought:

Recent moves by the Swiss executive have shown how troubling the relationship with the direct democracy has become. A rather recent attempt by the federal council is exemplary: They argue that a second Gotthard Tunnel (a long road tunnel through the alps) will be necessary in order to keep traffic connections to the Tessin (southernmost canton) open when they need to perform a general overhaul of the current tunnel [6]. The other argument is that they need to increase safety (granted, that's a valid point). They further added that this second tunnel will not increase traffic going through Switzerland. This latest and clumsy attempt by our government to push thru a second tunnel can probably only be explained by increasing pressure from the EU and a rising frustration within the federal council about the ongoing resistance of the population. It seems obvious to me that the second tunnel will be used for an increase of traffic (and rightfully so) and that the argumentation of the federal council is just a poor attempt at covering up its real intentions. Yet the federal council knows well that initiatives (ie. the Alpen-Initiative [9]) which prohibit an increase of traffic capacity have been approved (though the matter remains controversial with only 52% of the votes in favour). This puts the federal council into a position where the majority of the people oppose a second tunnel, yet such an increase in traffic is necessary for the Swiss as well as the European economy. The deferral of traffic onto the rails on the other hand is a purely political product, oblivious to any economic realities and an obviously fruitless attempt (take a look at page 3 of the SBB Cargo annual report and imagine how profitable this company would be without ever increasing subsidies [10]).

The Swiss need to come to terms with the fact that this is a transit country. The current situation is as unfortunate as pointed out by Andreas Münch: "Die Schweiz ist in der Mitte Europas und steht damit allen im Weg" [7].







[7] Member of MIGROS ZH general management, SBB Cargo slides, transport management course at UNISG

[8] Guess which pressing concern of the swiss became the first popular initiative and made into a national issue? Banning shechitas, the ritual slaughter of animals. Xenophobia sure runs deep in this country...