Here is how it can be done better – The Economist 12/21/96

A Survey of democracy: Happy 21st century, voters! (part 3 of 8)

Some of the Swiss do it even more directly

IF THIS does not sound quite like the way your own national government operates, take a look at the next level down in Swiss politics. The country’s 26 cantons (six of them technically ‘half-cantons’, but for all practical purposes separate entities) are powerful bodies. They raise and spend almost as much tax money as the central government does-and a larger share, let envious over-centralised countries note, than half a century ago, when the central government swept up more of the total tax take than it does now. The cantons control all of the country’s police forces, virtually all of its education system, much of the law-making power over each canton’s economy, and a large chunk of Swiss welfare spending. And these sturdy bodies are, in the matter of direct democracy, generally even more people-friendly than the central government. Here are three examples.

The biggest canton, Zurich, with one in six of the country’s voters, gives to these voters a considerably wider range of supervision over the cantonal government than they have over the central one. Any law emerging from Zurich’s parliament, or any expenditure of more than SFr2m ($ 1.6m) a year, automatically has to go for public approval. The number of signatures needed to bring smaller matters to a referendum, or to start a new law on its way, is an even smaller proportion of the electorate than at the federal level. This means that Zurichers vote on about 16 cantonal subjects a year, ranging in recent months from the provision of SFr873m for the expansion of Zurich airport (approved) to an indignant signature-backed demand for ‘separation of church and state’ (defeated).

Indeed, Zurich has one voting device that goes beyond anything on offer in any other canton. Under its Einzelinitiative, the ‘single initiative’, one solitary signature on a petition can be enough to put a proposal for a change in the law to the people’s vote, provided the signatory gets some backing in parliament. This may sound like democracy gone daft. Yet in March 1995 one Albert Jorger was able to bring about by this device a sensible (and voter-constraining) change in the way Zurich’s schools are run. Before, the teachers had been appointed by each community’s voters, and this had led to some odd choices. Thanks to Mr Jorger and his signature, they are now picked by a professional selection committee (itself, to be sure, chosen by the voters). Most people reckon this has improved things. One part of the machinery of direct democracy has corrected another part’s excess.

Not too often, please

In the second-biggest canton, Bern, they have decided that the correction process needs to go further. The Bernese are a slow-speaking, circumspect lot, not given to dramatic action, but in 1995 they made some radical changes to the way their canton’s direct democracy works. They had come to the conclusion that they wanted not to have to vote so often, but when they did vote they wanted to be able to aim their votes with greater precision.

The voting-less-often part has been achieved by abolishing most of the mandatory referendums in which petty issues had to be brought to the people’s vote whether or not anybody asked, and by stiffening the signature-collection requirement for optional referendums. Other cantons, and the central government, may decide to imitate the Bernese in this; it seems a sound way of slowing down the now rather over-hectic Swiss referendum tempo.

Bern’s most adventurous innovations, however, are those in the precision-aiming category. The voters of Bern can now make up their minds about the general shape of a new law without having to wait until it has been drafted and enacted by parliament; this December, for instance, they were able to choose between five different ways of reorganising the canton’s hospital system. They can also pass judgment not only on proposed new laws but also on their government’s bigger administrative decisions. Since such decisions-the building of a new reservoir, say, or the expansion of an airport-can arouse a lot more passion than many minor laws, the extension of direct democracy into this field should encourage more people to vote.

Both of these things seem good ideas. There is more doubt about the new Bernese constitution’s other innovation, which is to let people vote not merely yes or no to a proposed law but to offer amendments to it, which the voters can then decide upon. There is a certain amount of grave head-wagging that this is going to produce laws which contradict themselves. The Bernese will find out, on behalf of the rest of the Swiss, whether this is so.

The face-to-face way

The other way of running a canton, of course, is not to bother about putting crosses on pieces of paper but to turn out once a year in the town square, call out your opinions, and stick your hand up to vote. Glarus, up in the mountains of eastern Switzerland, is one of five small cantons that make their laws by the Landsgemeinde, the cantonal get-together. Its 24,700 voters employ the usual paper-consuming method for choosing the canton’s seven-member government and 80-member parliament (and for doing their bit in federal referendums) but when it comes to the serious business they can assemble on a Sunday in spring to do the canton’s law-making, elect their judges, set their income tax and decide about any cantonal spending over SFr500,000 ($ 400,000) in the good old face-to-face way.

Last May about 6,000 of them turned out-almost exactly the same number, as it happens, as the voters in the direct democracy of ancient Athens, but in Glarus a third of them were women-and, having sworn the formal oath to do the right thing, settled down to an 18-item agenda. It went on for about four hours; most people stayed on their feet, there being few benches in the square, and some slipped off for a quick drink round the corner during the proceedings. It was decided to build a new hospital and, more reluctantly, a new roundabout on the main road at Nafels, a bit to the south of Glarus town. A proposal to stop schooling on Saturdays was rejected, and there was a tremendous row about limits on hunting. All in all, those ancient Athenians would have felt quite at home in Glarus town square, except for the sight of women voting.

As this suggests, direct democracy at the cantonal level is still in reasonably good shape. It is a puzzle that the French-Swiss cantons make less use of the referendum than the German-Swiss cantons do, or Italian-Swiss Ticino; perhaps, like their cousins across the border in France itself, they are more willing to tip their cap to the wisdom of those in authority. The Swiss should also take note that the turnout for cantonal referendums, as for federal ones, is less than it ought to be: only a quarter of Glarus’s voters came to that stirring Sunday morning last May. But these things will doubtless come right if the cantons absorb the lesson the central government is slowly learning. The people want to have the big decisions in their hands, but they do not want to spend so much time on fiddling ones.

© 1996 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved