Switzerland could improve its direct democracy

This content was published on June 27, 2014 - 11:05
Matthew Feldpausch Zipf

Since the minaret ban in 2009, a consistent battle cry of red, white, and black has accompanied every major conservative initiative. The formula – outsiders, coated in black, imposing on Swiss prosperity – seems to work: conservative parties continue to dominate the quarterly votes. 

The Swiss take pride in their direct democracy, and the merits are plentiful – involving citizens directly in matters of the state has brought decades of stability and strong governance. But the dangers are becoming increasingly obvious, as recent initiatives have exposed the system’s Achilles’ Heel: the marginalisation of minorities.

Rather than building on the people’s rational interests, proponents of the minaret ban and anti-immigration measures – the two most important ballots of the past five years – resorted to fear tactics and reactionary politics.

Matthew Feldpausch Zipf

A Swiss-American student pursuing his international baccalaureate, Matthew Feldpausch Zipf works for an immigration law firm in the Washington, DC, area. He created the blog Project Swiss, and his essay on the modern Native American reservation was published on the online version of The Washington Post. He plans to study international relations at university.

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The votes have fostered resentment within immigrant communities, greatly limiting the government’s ability to encourage assimilation. Direct democracy has essentially stopped protecting citizens’ interests and instead begun to institutionalise discrimination.

Abuse of direct democracy

The recent campaigns of the rightwing Swiss People's Party promote the image of Switzerland as a prosperous, closed, and traditional nation – an appealing image, but one that is unsustainable.

So long as Switzerland has low birth rates and more jobs than naturalised workers, it will remain dependent on immigration, relatively open borders, and integration with the European economy. Diversity, far from being a choice, is an economic necessity for Switzerland. And no ballot will change that.

However, the ease of proposing an initiative is allowing political parties, especially on the conservative end of the spectrum, to simplify complex issues into a yes-or-no format and then rouse supporters through fear tactics. As with the recent campaign posters, politicians have become adept at agitating and capitalising on dormant prejudices, especially those against immigrants and Muslims.

The role of the initiative in the Swiss Constitution was to provide a bottom-up tool for citizens to directly elicit change, but it has instead become a means for party leaders to institute radical, top-down policies. More than anything, the Swiss need to raise the number of signatures necessary to bring an initiative to the national ballot; direct democracy is too powerful and simple a tool to be so easily manipulated by politicians.

Creating a more responsible democracy

The simplistic, yes-or-no format of ballots is not fit for issues that would benefit from further debate amongst economists and legislators – as such, introducing an initiative should not be the go-to method for political parties to advance their agendas.

Raising the threshold number of signatures for an initiative is the first step in creating a more responsible direct democracy and repairing Switzerland’s tarnished image in the international community. Xenophobia and Islamophobia, despite current notions, are not hallmark qualities of Swiss society, but rather traits drawn out by politicians.

Direct democracy is part of Switzerland’s uniqueness, but it needs to adapt to the country’s growing global character, population, and heterogeneity. Forming a more responsible democracy does not mean abandoning the strong relationship between people and government – but it does require citizens and politicians to acknowledge that initiatives cannot be the primary means of change.

Opinion series publishes op-ed articles by contributors writing on a wide range of topics – Swiss issues or those that impact Switzerland. Over time, the selection of articles will present a diversity of opinions designed to enrich the debate on the issues discussed.

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