So long as it’s clear who’s in charge – The Economist 12/21/96

A Survey of democracy: Happy 21st century, voters! (part 2 of 8)

Take Switzerland for both a model and a warning


THE first lesson from Switzerland is that direct democracy is hard work. The second is that, though it makes politicians less important than they like to be, it does not remove the need for an intelligent parliament; the system works most efficiently when politicians stop assuming they know best, but do their proper job with modest zeal.

This proper job, as with any parliament, is to sit down, discuss the problems of the day, and propose solutions for them. The difference in a direct democracy is that the parliament’s solutions are not necessarily the last word in the matter until the next general election, which may be years away. In Switzerland, 50,000 signatures on a petition, a bit over 1% of the current total of qualified voters, are enough to haul any new countrywide law before a vote of the whole people. Twice that number of signatures will put a brand-new idea for a law to the people’s decision, even if parliament wants nothing to do with it. Because of a Swiss quirk, new federal laws coming from outside parliament have to take the form of amendments to the constitution, with the result that Switzerland’s constitution has come to look like an over-stuffed cupboard; but there is no reason why the same process could not put such new laws on the ordinary statute-book, as happens in many American states and in most of Switzerland’s own cantons.

From the ridiculous to the sublime

In all, almost 450 nationwide questions have gone to a vote of the whole Swiss people since the current system got going 130 years ago-over half the world’s all-time tally of national referendums, and overwhelmingly most of the genuine, non-Napoleonic, sort. At three and a half a year, that may not sound all that much. But the pace has been accelerating lately; and, when you add the votes in which the Swiss decide what to do in their cantons and communities, it means that three or four times a year they are invited to read in the meticulously impartial documents sent to them through the post, or watch on television, or pull off the Internet, the arguments for and against up to a dozen assorted issues, and give their decisions. That is hard work.

Those decisions, at the all-Swiss level, range from the tiny to the huge. Last March the country’s voters solemnly decided to let the French-speaking Catholics of the hamlet of Vellerat (population 71) leave the mainly Protestant and German-speaking canton of Bern to join the French-Catholic canton of Jura, which had itself for the same reason been allowed to break away from Bern in 1978. In September 1993 the Swiss rather belatedly gave themselves a day off work every August 1st, the anniversary of Switzerland’s birth a mere 705 years ago.

Such things bring a condescending smile to the foreigner’s face. But, a few months before the holiday vote, a band of signature- collectors who wanted to stop the Swiss air force buying any new fighter aircraft for the rest of the century, and to reduce the number of bases the army is allowed to use, had got within a few percentage points of winning their case. And six months before that the voters, against the advice of most of their leaders, had momentously decided not to join the European Economic Area, lest even this small step to Euro-cohesion should eventually enmesh them in a European political union most of them do not want.

It should not be deduced from that act of defiance, however, that direct democracy spells chaos for Switzerland. In return for the parliament’s acceptance that the people are the boss, the people are quite often willing to heed the parliament’s views.

Only a handful of the measures that could under Swiss rules have been summoned to a referendum in the past 130 years actually have been summoned. Of the laws written by parliament which have been called before the people’s judgment, half have then been given the people’s okay (see the table above). Nine-tenths of the new legislation proposed by the signature-collecting process has been turned down by the voters. When parliament puts up a counter-proposal, it is accepted two times out of three. If anything, people and parliament get on better these days than they used to; only about a quarter of the acts of parliament put to the referendum since 1960 have been rejected, compared with well over a half 100 years ago.

Still, a certain weariness has crept into the proceedings lately. The turnout for referendums, once pretty regularly 50-60% or more, went into a decline in the 1950s. Despite a few moments of big-issue excitement, it has been floating around the 40% mark for most of the 1980s and 1990s. The people of Switzerland have lost some of their enthusiasm for voting, compared with people in most of the big representative democracies (see the chart below).

It does you good, in moderation

This almost certainly does not mean that the Swiss no longer think direct democracy a good idea. The much likelier explanation is that, as the population has grown (and since women won the vote in 1971), the number of signatures needed to summon a referendum has become a much smaller proportion of the total number of voters than it used to be. This means not only that there is a lot more voting to do-ten nationwide votes a year on average in the 1990s, compared with three in the 1920s and 1930s-but also that a fair number of referendums are the work of small and excited groups of enthusiasts. This turns people off, and some of them stop voting. The politicians thereupon explain that direct democracy is dying, so they themselves should be put back in charge.

This can be remedied when the Swiss overhaul their voting system, as they plan to do in the next few years, especially if they look at what some of their more adventurous cantons are already doing; see the next article. If the number of signatures needed to call a referendum is raised to something nearer its old share of the electorate, there will be fewer referendums. If the procedure for collecting signatures is made a bit sterner (some Swiss supermarkets will let you do it at the check-out counter), maybe more of the referendums that do take place will be seriously thought through. The voting turnout will then presumably go up again; the fear that referendums are becoming the voice of excited minorities will subside; and the superior look on the politicians’ faces will duly disappear.

There is still a solid basis for partnership between the politicians of Switzerland and the people with their special power. The voters are content to let the politicians do most of the routine work of politics, and to listen to their advice on many complicated issues. The politicians, for their part, have learned that ordinary people are often surprisingly (to politicians) shrewd in their decisions.

In the 1970s, the voters refused to be frightened by anti-immigrant propaganda into sending home most of the foreigners working in Switzerland (and this December they declined to tighten the rules against asylum-seekers). In the 1980s and 1990s, they were persuaded to dig into their pockets to start paying value-added tax. And not long ago there was a splendid moment after most of the political class had shaken a furious fist at the voters’ refusal to accept an anti-urban-sprawl planning law. The politicians then discovered that just as much sprawl could be prevented, more cheaply, by a different scheme. Politicians and people may occasionally snarl at each other, but they have learned how to work together. The Swiss will go on doing democracy their direct way.

It’s not a war outcome of Swiss referendums, 1866-1993

(Accepted, Defeated, %Successful)

115 Parliamentary laws and decrees brought to people’s vote (56 59 48.7%)

110 New laws proposed from outside parliament (11 99 10.0%)

27 Parliamentary counter-proposals (17 10 63.0%)

143 Constitutional amendments proposed by parliament (104 39 72.7%)


Source: ‘Referendums around the World’ edited by David Butler and Austin Ranney

© 1996 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved