Has Switzerland’s local democracy lost its soul?

Nightmare scenario: The local authorities call citizens to a town hall meeting, but hardly anybody turns up Keystone

Participation in town hall meetings has reached a new low, marking a 30-year decline in Swiss democracy at a local level. But all is not lost.

This content was published on February 18, 2018 - 17:00

Local democracy has been haemorrhaging for quite a while, reaching dramatic proportions. Research shows that only 4.6% of the population living in municipalities with between 2,000 and 5,000 residents went to town hall meetings in 2016.

Such gatherings are often considered the cradle of the Swiss system of direct democracy: They decide about everything from local taxes, building projects and social issues and ideally reflect the way a community is organised.

There are currently just over 2,550 municipalities with considerable political autonomy across the country.

The research shows a striking pattern: The bigger the municipality the lower the rate of participation.

While turnout at these meetings was 21.5% in municipalities with fewer than 250 residents in 2016, the figure dropped to a mere 2.1% in municipalities with 10,000 - 20,000 residents.

Experts say even more worrying is the fact that the trend has been unchanged since 1988.

The decline raises fundamental questions about local democracy in Switzerland, which is often considered a model for other countries.

Political scientists argue that several factors play a role, including the waning identification of citizens with the place they live, a general trend towards individualisation as well as a lack of personal interest in matters discussed at town hall meetings.

Democratic justification

Critics say that decisions have no democratic legitimacy, if just 2% of citizens or even fewer, have participated in the process.

Based on the findings of the survey, which the Graduate School of Public Administration at Lausanne UniversityExternal link carries out with the Zurich’s College of Applied SciencesExternal link, political scientist Andreas Ladner says it is a problem when there are major political issues at stake, or procedural ones. These questions should be resolved at the ballot box. 

But Ladner adds that as a rule, decisions by town hall meetings can be challenged in referendums.

Some municipalities have taken radical measures, abolishing tall hall meetings and replacing them by local parliaments. In such cases, citizens have the final say on parliamentary decisions.

However, such a system of indirect democracy limits the personal contact between citizens and local institutions. 

The upside is that turnout in local votes is much higher than participation in town hall assemblies.

Village hope

But there is reason for hope, as the example of the mountain village of ZeneggenExternal link in canton Valais shows. It is trying out new ways to approach its voters and raise their interest in local politics, and encourage contributions to improve village life.

Together with experts of the Association of Swiss MunicipalitiesExternal link, the Zeneggen authorities invited citizens to a Day for the FutureExternal link, to brainstorm ideas.

With about 25% of the population participating, the event was widely welcome, according to Judith Wenger of the Association of Swiss Municipalities.

She says the municipality previously had considerable trouble involving the population in local matters, and over the past decade village council members were appointed to their posts without confirmation in a formal public election.

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