‘The perfect system does not exist’

In Appenzell, a rural region of eastern Switzerland, decisions are still taken by the annual open air assembly - a landmark of Swiss direct democracy Keystone

The Swiss system of direct democracy is one of the oldest and most advanced in the world, so it is little wonder that young democracies in South America have turned to it as a model when drawing up their constitutions.

This content was published on December 11, 2015 - 15:00

Swiss political scientist and post-doctorate researcher at the University of Sâo Paulo, Brazil, Rolf Rauschenbach tells some South American countries are doing better than others in introducing democratic processes, but singles out Brazil in particular for being “negligent” it its duty to its citizens. You say that the Brazilian system of direct democracy is “negligent”. How does the current debate in the congress on political reform sit with this idea of negligence?

Rolf Rauschenbach: It’s not an exaggeration to say it. For example, after the protests in 2013, President Dilma Rousseff called for plebiscites. These were proposals for the least complicated things that came from nowhere and led to nothing. So it is reasonable to ask if these proposals were really serious or whether it was simply a strategy to calm popular anger. Your comparative study of direct democracy in South America shows that the constitutions of almost all the countries refer to initiatives, referendums, plebiscites, etc. Which regions are the most advanced in this area?

R.R.: This analysis shows that all the constitutions refer in some way or another to direct democracy. But the concept is quite broad and, when we look at it more closely, there are a lot of particularities. It is not easy to rank them, because there may be progress in some areas that is offset in others.

If we take into account only those with processes of direct democracy, Uruguay [constitution 1987] is the most advanced.

Political scientist Rolf Rauschenbach is an expert on direct democracy in Brazil. He has worked as postdoctoral researcher at São Paulo University, and participated in exchange programmes in the US, France and Belgium. Born in Switzerland, Rauschenbach graduated from the University of St Gallen. Divulgação

To give one example, any modification of the constitution must be endorsed by the people. Since 1990, the mechanisms of direct democracy have been used seven times. More recently [in 2008], the constitution of Ecuador also guaranteed quite a broad direct participation. Have the South American constitutions been inspired by the Swiss constitution?

R.R.: It’s a fact that Switzerland has – in modern times – the oldest tradition of direct democracy at a federal level. The new constitutions always draw on the texts that already exist. The reference to Switzerland is one of the most obvious. This contact certainly existed during the drafting of the Brazilian constitution.

I have not studied the histories of other Latin American constitutions, but it is logical to suppose that the Swiss experience had either a direct or indirect influence. How is it that Switzerland has the oldest tradition of direct democracy?

R.R.: Some cantons already practised direct democracy, for example with the 'Landsgemeinde' [open-air assemblies]. These practices were adapted to the constitution. In 1848, the people obtained the right to modify the federal constitution by vote, next followed the introduction of the optional referendum (1876) and the people’s initiative (1891). Does the Swiss democracy have faults?

R.R.: The perfect system does not exist. I would say that as they stand, the mechanisms for direct democracy work well. In my opinion, the problems stem mainly from the context and are not exclusively inherent to direct democracy. I would like to illustrate this with three issues: the scope, the right to vote and financing.

The processes of direct democracy, like all formal political processes, always refer to a defined territory. This is inevitable and not a problem in itself. That said, it sometimes happens that there are political questions that are not always limited to territories whose borders were defined centuries ago. There are small or border cantons like Geneva or Basel City that have responsibilities which go beyond cantonal borders.

I believe one of the fundamental problems is that Switzerland actually has a cantonal division that does not reflect reality. That’s why we often have decisions made through direct democracy that are perhaps not the most appropriate. This is not a problem inherent to direct democracy. It’s the context which has changed and it has not yet been possible to adapt the territorial issue.

The second fundamental problem is the right to vote. Switzerland is known for having excluded women from the right to vote until 1971.

Today, the foreign population in Switzerland is over 20%. This major part of the population is excluded from political life, even though it pays taxes. This means that the decisions made through popular consultation do not represent the will of everyone impacted by the results.

A third problem is the question of political financing. In Switzerland we have laws that are weak and lacking transparency. Again, it’s not a problem exclusively linked to the processes of direct democracy, but it also impacts it. You say that in South America, the instruments of direct democracy are complementary to representative democracy. In Switzerland however, direct democracy is at the centre of the political system.

R.R.: From a philosophical point of view and in terms of legitimacy, the first article of the Brazilian constitution, like the first article of the Swiss constitution, says that “all power comes from the people and is exercised in its name”, or something similar. In this sense, the people are at the heart of everything. It’s the same in all democratic constitutions.

The configuration of the constitution defines how this power is divided and organised. There are thousands of variations. It is obvious that the direct influence of a Swiss citizen is greater than that of a Brazilian citizen. That said, there are a lot of decisions that are made by parliament, the administration and the courts in Switzerland as well.

But given that the Swiss people have the possibility of intervening at the highest sphere - the constitution - they really play a central role. But there are a lot of decisions made through direct democracy that conflict with international accords signed and ratified by Switzerland…

R.R.: I like to say that a democracy is only a true democracy when there are no predefined results. We could say that the fact that there are conflicts between popular decisions and international agreements does not help to foster good relations between neighbours, but international agreements are not divine laws either.

They are the result of political processes, they can change and evolve. So conflicts can occur and it is up to us to find solutions, obviously in a civilised manner. It is not because a certain result is inconvenient that the entire system is bad. Has direct democracy contributed to the politicisation of citizens?

R.R: Without a doubt. But the politicisation of the people requires a certain regularity of votes. You lose the habit of doing something if you don’t practice regularly.

The processes of direct democracy are complex because everyone can participate. To understand something, you need to know it, to have concrete experiences. If these experiences only happen once every ten or 20 years, they end up being dominated by chance. If there is a politicisation, why is the level of participation in votes and elections generally low?

R.R.: In Switzerland, participation is low but it varies according to the importance of the issues put to a vote. I don’t think that it is problematic. Democracy is the freedom to vote “yes” or “no” but also the freedom not to vote.

There are different reasons why people don’t participate. Switzerland votes up to four times a year. There are people who think that the result will suit them either way, others who are not interested in the issue, etc. I think that is legitimate. If nobody was interested in politics there would be a problem, but that is not the case.

Fundamental problems also have an impact on participation rates. The more a political process is fair and appropriate, the more people will have confidence in it and want to take part.

The problem of the complexity of some issues put to a vote is also often mentioned. It’s true that we live in a complex world and that this complexity is also reflected in politics. Today the people must adapt; there is no other solution. They cannot expect to benefit from social and technological progress, etc., without assuming their responsibilities.

To come back to Brazil, we have an enormous and very diverse country. I believe this complexity is not often reflected in political decisions. We often find things are reduced to Brasilia, to the two main parties, etc. Brazil is so much more than that. The mechanisms of direct democracy could help to broaden the vision.

Articles in this story

In compliance with the JTI standards

In compliance with the JTI standards

More: SWI certified by the Journalism Trust Initiative

Contributions under this article have been turned off. You can find an overview of ongoing debates with our journalists here. Please join us!

If you want to start a conversation about a topic raised in this article or want to report factual errors, email us at

Share this story

Change your password

Do you really want to delete your profile?