In the interest of the people
For a society to function, it needs an order only a government can provide. Over time more and more people came to believe that a government should work in the interest of its citizens. That is quite a leap. Traditionally governments were often a kind of crime syndicate providing a protection racket. Citizens paid taxes to a lord or a king who provided them with security against other lords, kings and ordinary criminals.
Even today many governments work in the interest of their elites while officials take bribes. Except for Northwest Europe, Canada and New Zealand, governments range from a bit corrupt to highly corrupt. Even when a government isn’t corrupt, it might be incompetent. If a business provides poor service you often can go to a competitor. Poor-quality governments are harder to avoid as it often involves relocation.
The above graph from Transparency International gives an indication of corruption in each country. Poverty is a cause of corruption but corruption is also a cause of poverty. If a government is corrupt, money is transferred to unproductive people. Investors will be wary of making investments so interest rates need to be higher to attract capital. This makes fewer investments profitable so the country will be poorer.
Non-corrupt high quality government isn’t easy to come by. And democracy doesn’t guarantee that a government does its job well. But if a government already is of good quality, democracy can make it more responsive to the interests of its citizens. But democracy can undermine the effectiveness of a government if citizens allow their narrow personal interests to prevail over the general good.
The Swiss have the most trust in their government.1 That may be because of the unique features of Swiss democracy. Switzerland is also a wealthy country, partly because Swiss banks have been a safe haven for criminals, tax evaders and dictators all around the world. For instance, Switzerland has been important for Nazi Germany’s war effort by facilitating trade with the outside world.
These issues shouldn’t cloud the evaluation of the Swiss political system. The Swiss have a unique combination of representative and direct democracy. The government and parliament administrate the country but if citizens feel the need to take matters in their own hands, this is possible.
Switzerland uses direct democracy in the form of referendums more than any other country in the world. These referendums are binding. The government must respect the outcome.2 The Swiss use the following types of referendums:
- mandatory referendums on changes in the federal constitution
- optional referendums on other federal laws that will be held when 50,000 eligible voters demand for it
- similar rules exist on the state and communal levels, but the constitutions of the states deal with the specifics
- citizens can propose a change in the constitution via a popular initiative, and the electorate can decide whether to accept the initiative, an alternative proposal from the government or parliament, or to keep things unchanged
Switzerland is a federation of 26 member states called cantons. The member states have a large degree of independence. The Swiss constitution promotes making decisions at the lowest possible level and delegating power to a higher level if that is deemed beneficial.
The citizens of the Swiss states elect the Council of States (Senate) by majority vote. They can cast as many votes as there are vacant seats. Voters can propose representatives and influence the fractions of different political parties.
The Swiss elect their National Council (Congress) every four years by proportional representation. The people vote for a political party. Optionally they can vote for a specific person on the candidate list of the party.
Executive power has been distributed in Switzerland. The daily affairs of government are performed by the Federal Council consisting of seven members. It is customary that all major political parties are represented in the Federal Council.
Constitutional changes need a double majority, which means that majority of the electorate as well as a majority of the cantons must support it.
Most Swiss communities use direct democracy to make decisions. In a few small cantons people can vote directly by the show of hands.
The use of representatives in combination with referendums means that citizens aren’t burdened with the daily affairs of government but still are in full control as they can vote on any issue if they feel that is needed. Direct democracy allows for a more fine-grained alignment of government decisions with the wishes of the citizenry as on some issues the majority might be liberal and on some others it might be conservative.
Before laws are introduced, interest groups such as state governments, political parties and non-governmental organisations are consulted, and their concerns are taken into account. As referendums tend to come down to yes or no questions, this consulting is important.
Proportional representation allows for multiple political parties that more closely match the preference of voters. New parties can emerge more easily. It also means that small shifts in voter preferences tend to have little effect on the political landscape.
Swiss voters can influence the make up of the political fractions of multiple political parties, which means that the people who are elected in parliament for one party are more likely to be acceptable to voters of other parties as well.
All major political parties work together in the Federal Council as there is little room to forward political agendas. That is because citizens can always call for a referendum. In this way referendums can contribute to political stability even when parliament consists of several smaller parties.
The use of direct democracy in Switzerland makes it less relevant who is in government so that political discussions tend to focus on issues and content rather than people and rhetoric. The Swiss tend to be well-informed about the issues that are at stake.
Proportional representation as opposed to win or lose elections foster cooperation as individual political parties don’t have a majority and need to work with other parties to achieve their political objectives.
Proportional representation reduces the need to spend large amounts of money on political campaigns and other manipulations like gerrymandering, voter fraud and vote suppression as the effects of these actions tend to be limited. In the United States a small margin in a swing state might decide who becomes President.
Many countries have strict limits to political donations and campaign spending. Switzerland does not have them. This is not as harmful as it might be without proportional representation and referendums.
Direct democracy undermines the work of lobbyists for a law doesn’t pass if it is not supported by a majority of the voters. And so interest groups need to convince the citizenry rather than politicians.
In Switzerland the Congress represents the nation as a whole while the Senate represents the states. A decision needs the consent of a majority of the parliament of the nation as well as a majority of the cantons.
Most countries have a Congress and a Senate but they aren’t federations like Switzerland. In unitary states the role of a Senate varies. For example, it can focus on protecting the constitution against laws that violate it.
Switzerland doesn’t have a Constitutional Court or a Senate to protect the Constitution. There is no good safeguard of human rights. The majority can vote for stripping the rights of minorities. Switzerland is bound to the treaties it signed but safeguards to protect human rights could be an improvement.
The Swiss are satisfied with their political system. Even though it has a few weak points, there is good reason to believe that other countries can benefit from implementing a similar political system in which the citizens have the final say. Yet, different nations might opt for somewhat different versions of direct democracy.
Some people think that a better political system is possible. There are many ideas but few of them have been tested thoroughly. The Swiss political system has proven to work in practice. It allows citizens to vote on proposals to alter and improve the political system. So even if a better system is possible, the Swiss political system may be the way to get there.
To make direct democracy work, there are conditions that need to be met. The citizens must be informed, reasonably educated and willing to engage in rational discussions. Laws must be thoughtfully crafted with extensive consultations as referendums often boil down to simple yes or no decisions. Mistakes can be made, but they can be learning opportunities as people need to deal with the consequences of their choices.
The Swiss federation can be a model for the European Union and the United States. By delegating responsibilities to the state level it might be possible to reduce bureaucracy in the federation while increasing the legitimacy of the centralised institutions. Swiss democracy might also be a model for a world government if that ever comes to pass.
The Swiss political system promotes a political culture of compromise and cooperation. It is built into their system and therefore their political system is a strong design. For those who are accustomed to divisional politics or politics centred around people rather than issues, it may be difficult to understand that a completely different way of doing politics is possible and that it can work out better.
Featured image: The assembly of the canton Glarus. Democracy International (2014). [copyright info]
1. Government at a Glance Fact Sheet OECD. (2013). [link]
2. Switzerland’s Direct Democracy. http://direct-democracy.geschichte-schweiz.ch/ [link]
2 thoughts on “Swiss democracy”
Switzerland is so rich because of their banking secret and support of tax evasion. Switzerland was a refuge for the money of corrupt leaders that looted their countries. Switzerland also hosts undemocratic elite gatherings like the World Economic Forum. Swiss democracy never prevented that from happening.
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Democracy is not perfect. For instance, people may rather vote for committing suicide than fixing climate change.
Switzerland has been some kind of parasitic state because of tax evasion and the large number of elite gatherings.
But it is better to evaluate their democratic system on its own merits. It can help to fix many ailments of existing political systems.
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