Life with Direct Democracy

Astrid R. lives in Zurich. As a resident and voter of Switzerland’s biggest city, Astrid took part in six elections and 30 referendums in a single year (2003). For her, this is not too demanding. She is happy to shoulder the responsibility that direct democracy needs.

However, the exercise of direct democracy is a real challenge, which requires interest and preparation. On referendum day a citizen may decide on a variety of issues such as fair rents, affordable health insurance, four car-free days per year, equal rights for the disabled and non-nuclear electric power. Follow the annual political life of one woman in Switzerland’s biggest city. [*]

“We get two daily papers, I watch the news and political programmes on TV and I like listening to the car radio on my way to work. But what I find especially important are the discussions I have with my female friends and with Spyros, my husband. At home we talk about politics a lot and our political discussions have become much more intense since our daughter reached voting age.”


Ballot this weekend
On a Sunday in May, Astrid was able to vote on nine federal, one cantonal and two local issues. There were also elections for office holders in the church authorities. This was a particularly intense day of decisions, even for the election- and referendum-hardened Swiss.

In the press and from a number of commentators there was talk of too much being asked of the voters. It wasn’t realistic, they said, to expect that the voters would be able to judge for themselves and decide on nine complex issues. Putting so many issues to a popular vote on the same day was only over-burdening an already demanding direct democracy.

Astrid doesn’t share at all this scepticism about the voters’ capabilities. “It’s not a burden”, she states emphatically, “it’s living politics.” There was just as little panic in evidence in the voting offices of the Swiss towns and municipalities on that Sunday in May; rather the mood was relaxed, with a confidence born of long experience that the vote counting would not cause any particular problems.

The results of the popular votes confirmed an established trend: all seven citizens’ initiatives were rejected by a clear majority, both of the total voters and of the cantons. “A defeat for the political Left,” agreed the papers the next day.

A nation of idiots?

“Seven intelligent initiatives, seven resounding “Noes”: why do the Swiss vote against their own interests?,”

asked Constantin Seibt from the leftwing “Wochenzeitung”, clearly puzzled at the way citizens had voted.

“The question is why a majority of people obstinately vote against proposals which would benefit them socially, and even against their down-to-earth selfish interests. Are Swiss voters simply idiots?”

If we were to follow Seibt’s way of thinking, we would have to conclude that the Swiss are 1) politically incompetent, 2) bribable or easily manipulated by propaganda from financially powerful interests, 3) easily led, like sheep and, 4) they have always been like that: Out of the total of 174 popular initiatives only 18 (up to March 2011), and mainly symbolic and toothless ones, have been approved.


Citizens are counting the votes
That brings us to one of the big challenges of Swiss direct democracy: isn’t it annoying that the majority of voters repeatedly vote differently from the way they ought to vote – at least in the opinion of those who believe that they know better? Isn’t it annoying that people want to and are able to decide for themselves what they are concerned about and what not? Fair rents, affordable health insurance, four car-free days per year, equal rights for the disabled, non-nuclear electric power, a renewal of the moratorium on building new nuclear power stations, a better choice of professional training for young people: the “Wochenzeitung” had recommended a “Yes” vote on all seven issues – and both the people and the cantons gave a resounding “No” to all seven.

Most Swiss voters support the “bourgeois” parties. They are cautious about change, especially if it costs money – and nearly everything costs money, as everyone knows. Not all the losers quarrelled with the verdicts on May 18th: “To put it simply, we on the Left ought to accept the defeats of last Sunday like a football team: we just weren’t good enough in the second half ”, is how one Zurich city politician from the “alternative list” expressed it.

Astrid R. is very familiar with the sense of frustration which comes when the majority has once again voted against what she considered to be right. All Swiss citizens have experienced political defeat, everyone has been part of a minority many times: there is no majority position which can be predicted in advance. “People voted “No” to the popular initiative “equal rights for the disabled” because they didn’t feel concerned, or because they thought it was going to cost too much money. That doesn’t mean that the initiative was a waste of time. There has been a lot of debate, which made people more aware of the issue; something has been achieved.”

Highly valued citizens

The 18th May was not the first test which politicians had had to face that year. The first elections and popular votes were on 9th February. As always, three to four weeks before the vote every citizen had received the appropriate official documents in the post. At the federal (national) level, the votes were about an extension of direct democracy and one other issue.

Astrid R.: “I think it’s good in principle that we can vote. The government always makes its own recommendations, it talks to the people and tells them how they should vote – but what happens is, of course, what is decided in the popular vote. The government has to bow to the people’s decisions. So no-one can say that we citizens do not have a say in political decisionmaking. I don’t feel overloaded by the fact that there are more and more popular votes; I don’t think that there are too many. I can very well decide for myself whether I want to vote on a particular issue or not; no-one is standing with a gun to my head and telling me what to do. We can vote if we want to, if we feel that we ought to. That’s why I think that here in Switzerland we are more down-to-earth about politics. Your opinion is really valued, you get the ballot paper and referendum booklet in an envelope with your name on it and you can decide what you think.”

Her husband Spyros finds big differences between the political systems in Greece and Switzerland, even at the structural level: “Greece has only had a more or less functioning parliamentary system since 1974. So despite their ancient inheritance, the Greeks cannot look back on a long tradition of democracy. The political parties still play far too great a role in the political process. The state is still far too centralised and there are hardly any direct-democratic rights.”


Start of the citizens’ initiative “Youth + Music” in 2007
The referendum debate on the proposed reform of civil rights had not made waves. The very low turnout (29%) showed that citizens put a relatively low value on the importance of this reform. On the other hand, the clear “Yes” to the increase in citizens’ rights – the introduction of a “general initiative” (which, however, later turned out to be too complicated to be implemented) and an extension to the optional referendum on international treaties – showed how well-rooted direct democracy is in Switzerland.

On this occasion, only the most conscientious voters took part – such as Astrid R. and particularly Spyros, who always votes on principle (“If I believe in the democratic system, then I must exercise my democratic rights”). But the strong support for the increase in citizens’ rights came from all social strata, and was especially marked in women voters and in voters from the rural areas.

In addition to the two federal proposals which went to referendum vote on 9th February, voters also had to decide on a number of other substantive issues at the local (City of Zurich) and cantonal (Canton of Zurich) levels. As so often, it was about the spending of public money. As a voter of the City of Zurich, Astrid was able to vote on a proposal to borrow money to upgrade the city’s power station; as a voter of the canton of Zurich, she was being asked to vote on a cantonal subsidy to the Glattal railway. There were also Justices of the Peace to be elected.

“I only vote when I’m happy that I know enough about the issue and have made up my own mind on it. I listen to others, but I form my own opinion. I don’t follow any particular party line, but I am, of course, influenced by what the parties say. If I haven’t come to any clear view, then I don’t go to vote – as with the Justices of the Peace, for example. I don’t know the people, don’t know if they’re good or not, so I didn’t vote,” explains Astrid.

Elections in the Canton …

April 6th was the day for the elections to the cantonal parliament (“Kantonsrat”) and the cantonal government (“Regierungsrat”). They took place in a society and a party-political landscape which had changed a great deal since the end of the Cold War.

After a hot summer break the political caravan resumed its progress: the election campaigns for the federal parliamentary elections in October started up. As the canton with the largest population, Zurich sends 34 members to the 200-member National Council. In the Council of States, by contrast, all 20 full cantons – big and small alike – are represented by two deputies each. The former six “half cantons” (Basle City, Basle Country, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Appenzell Outer-Rhodes and Appenzell Inner-Rhodes), have one representative each. The National Council (the “Big Chamber”) and the Council of States (the “Small Chamber”) have the same status and rights and together form the federal parliament – the Federal Assembly.

… and in the Confederation

At the parliamentary elections the developments which became visible already in the 1990s continued. Voter turnout at these elections had risen steadily over the preceding ten years. The results show that changes in society are transforming the party system in Switzerland too – national developments corresponded to developments in the canton of Zurich. The most significant changes in the distribution of power between the parties were not between Right and Left, but between the parties of the “bourgeois” majority, which, under the influence of the European question and the reawakened struggle for national identity, split into the centre-right FDP and CVP (Christian Democratic Party) and the nationalistically oriented right-wing SVP. The SVP became the most powerful party in the national parliament, which had a knock-on effect on the composition of the federal government’s college of seven, elected in December 2003. For the first time in 131 years, one of the federal councillors was not confirmed, and the “magic formula” for deciding the distribution of seats in the federal government (2 FDP, 2 CVP, 2 SP, 1 SVP) which had stood since 1959 had to be changed.

The Swiss Government (Federal Council) 2007
Astrid R. followed these developments – the consequences of the October elections – with interest. She also had the opportunity to vote on nine more cantonal issues on 30th November: some of them non-controversial (such as the division of responsibilities between the canton and the local authorities) and others contested (such as a change in the relationship between church and state). Astrid R. is happy with her right to be involved in political decision- making – even if many issues are hard nuts to crack. But it’s the same for almost everyone in this country at the heart of Europe, in which every year is a year of decisions.
[*] This is a slightly shortened version of an essay that has been written for the Guidebook to Direct Democracy , which was first published in 2004. The 2010 edition is available online. (Download PDF here) It contains an election and referendum diary for the canton of Zurich 2003 (Factsheet 1, pp. 114-118).

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