Should Switzerland Promote Direct Democracy More?

Should Switzerland Promote Direct Democracy More?

Should CH promote DD

Question (6/7): I know that Swiss citizens regard their political system as an exception – and probably it is. But also, they were always looking inwards and avoided to “spread the good news” of direct democracy. I know, for example, that back in the 19th century politicians like Henri Druey and Jakob Stämpfli were quite vocal regarding the need to spread democracy in neighbouring countries but eventually a more conservative approach prevailed and Switzerland didn’t “rock the boat”. Is this correct, and if yes, do your fellow citizens still feel the same? Is direct democracy something that each country should discover by themselves or should Switzerland play a more active role in this? If there is a role for Swiss institutions to play, what will this be?

Answer: I think you are right, there are two traditions in Switzerland, the tradition of 1848 which is cosmopolitan, and an inward looking nationalist tradition which came later with the rise of nationalism in Europe in the late 19th century. Today the struggle between these traditions manifests itself in conflicting views on Switzerlands integration in Europe, migration and refugees.

To stigmatize direct democracy as a Swiss particularity is a way of fighting against power from below. For example, in a recent conversation at the Bookings Institute about economic policy Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, said that direct democracy might work in Switzerland but not elsewhere: “I’m quite sure that democracy will only work on the basis of representative democracy” (Source: video ca. 46:33 – 47:07).

In 19th century Switzerland different small and mini-states, which had their own history and culture, had to be integrated into a nation state. There are certain parallels between this historical process and 20th century European integration. Although European integration happens on a more complex level and is different in size, there are partly the same mechanisms at play but the sequence between integrational steps can be different. Two elements of the Swiss experience seem of particular relevance for future European integration: direct democracy and federalism. Direct democracy allows people to codetermine integration and to develop a European political identity. Federalism protects the smaller member states in the federation and enables each member state to further develop its own culture and national identity and to remain sovereign to a maximum degree. Unfortunately European integration in recent decades has been increasingly dominated by non- and anti-democratic processes, which trump the interests of the people in favor of corporate and financial interests. Europe urgently needs more democracy, otherwise it will continue to fail and eventually fall apart.

I know that there are projects and cooperation between Swiss institutions and other countries, having been involved myself in a number of cases. Recently swissinfo started a multilingual platform on direct democracy. Perhaps the best Switzerland could do for (direct) democracy is to improve its own system, which has severe shortcomings with respect to (1) the regulation of funding and, more generally, limiting the direct and indirect influence of money on politics and public opinion; (2) providing infrastructures for citizen participation; (3) providing and improving political education; (4) supporting independent media and investigative journalism; (5) the inclusion of “foreigners”; (6) the protection of fundamental rights of minorities. It is certainly true that democracy cannot be imposed from outside, it must be built by the people who need it, and this insight could provide a good basis for cooperation and mutual learning.


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