Swiss Direct Democracy – a Utopia for the Majority at the Expense of the Minority?

3 mins read

Moving to a new country is never easy, especially when you are confronted with new things. The aspect of Switzerland that surprised me the most was its system of Direct Democracy. What is known as “direct” democracy is a legal system that enables all Swiss citizens over the age of 18 to vote on how the country is run. Moreover, it is a system that allows citizens to participate regularly in the political decisions of their parliament regarding referendums and popular initiatives. This means Swiss citizens have a right to vote on every conceivable issue, from protecting children from tobacco advertising to the abolition of the army. Switzerland is the only country where its citizens can participate in decision-making at all government levels, from local to national. 

There are three instruments of direct democracy in Switzerland: 

  1. The Constitutional referendum is where a referendum is necessary to amend the constitution as well as some international treaties. A double majority is needed for an amendment to pass, meaning a majority of the people, as well as a majority of the 26 cantons. 
  2. The Optional referendum enables all ordinary laws to be subject to an eventual referendum if 50 000 citizens demand it. In this case, the law in question must receive the majority of the eligible voters or candidates to become ratified. 
  3. The Popular Initiative entails that 100 000 individuals can sign a proposition for an amendment of the constitution. Thereafter, the government and the two Chambers of Parliament then give propositions of whether they accept or reject the popular initiative. For the proposal to be accepted, a double majority is necessary. 

I would argue that this system of Swiss democracy seems utopian in essence, or similar to the democratic system in ancient Greece, which was a true representation of democracy by the people wherein citizens seek to exercise the greatest possible control over all political decisions. However, dissimilar to ancient Greece, Switzerland is a complex, highly-developed, and industrial society. This raises the question:

Is direct democracy efficient in such a society? Are there flaws to this system that, at first glance, can seem so advantageous? 

Looking at the social justice of Switzerland, the flaws of this system are immediately made apparent. With women’s suffrage passing in 1971 (in the case of one canton as late as 1991) and the legalization of gay marriage only instated this year, making Switzerland one of the last countries in Western Europe, there are clearly some aspects of this system worth discussing. 

The Main Consequences of Swiss Direct Democracy

One can ask – why does social change happen slowly in a direct democracy, if at all? 

When looking at the case of women’s right to vote, a paper published by Koukal and Eichenberger in 2020 writes that “direct democracy prevented men from extending political rights to women”. The writers claim that despite direct democracy’s ability to enable the majority to act in its best interest, it consequently marginalises the minority. 

The problem that arises is that in a direct democracy, individuals who are reluctant to share influence with others are enabled. Since the majority of the citizens rule, social minorities are marginalized since they do not make up the voting majority, which makes social change happen slower.

As Churchill said – “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter”

Another problematic aspect of direct democracy is letting nearly all matters be handled by the population. As aforementioned, Swiss citizens vote on almost every issue, ranging from complex financial policies of the government to financing retirement insurance. Many voters may not have insight nor experience in these issues, making their right to vote on them almost unnecessary. It also invites the use of propaganda by political parties to position the issues in the minds of the voters. In Switzerland, every citizen has a right to cast their vote, this means that foreigners, who make up almost 30% of the population of around eight million inhabitants, are not allowed to vote. On average, only around 40% of the remaining 70% of the population cast their vote. From surveys, it has been made clear that people with a low level of education and lower incomes feel that the proposals are complex and participate noticeably less. 

In my discussions with the Swiss students I have met so far, one said something along these lines: “Sometimes the topics we vote on are complex and not always so easy to understand, like questions on pension funds or taxes. Sometimes people will vote anyway even if they don’t understand the question, usually what their party says to vote.” Reflecting over our chats, it is questionable though if in the end, the Swiss political system truly represents their own opinion. 

In spite of the disadvantages of direct democracy discussed above we should not draw a paint brush over this system of democracy as an all-bad model that is bad for minorities and leads to less vote participation. There are of course positive nuances, like every vote carrying the same weight and the transparency of the government. A study showed that roughly 65% of Swiss citizens are satisfied with their government. 

When asking another Swiss friend why they might think the Swiss enjoy their system to be this way even though social change happens slower, they explained the common phrase “eile mit weile”, directly translating to “haste makes waste” but entailing something along the lines of: even if it is clear that changes should be happening faster, we like to take our time. Slow and steady wins the race. 

It is not surprising, therefore, that social justice takes longer when the minority has to wait for the majority to hand it to them, a group with a questionable historical track record.

By: Aydan Latifi

Photography: Nicolas Jossi

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