Life at the democratic roots – The Economist 12/21/96

A Survey of democracy: Happy 21st century, voters! (part 4 of 8)

The places where you realise what a sense of community means

KILCHBERG, a community of 7,000 people, sits n a hillside that slopes sharply down to the southern shore of the lake of Zurich. It would not be fair to call it a typical specimen of the 3,000-odd Gemainden (communes in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, comuni in the Italian part) which are the foundation of the country’s politics. Most of its people are comfortably well-off, many of them refugees from the higher taxes of the next-door community, the city of Zurich; less than a quarter are native citizens of Kilchberg. Only about 100 of the 7,00 are employed. From the graveyard of the Reformed church at the top of the hill the mortal remains of Thomas Mann and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer look out on a summer’s day at the silent snows of the mountains of eastern Switzerland.

Still, Kilchberg is a fair example of how Swiss politics works at the roots. Its 7,000 people hold all power not specifically allocated to the federal or the cantonal government. It raises its own income and property taxes (in all, the comunities dispose of more than a quarter of all Swiss tax money, not all that much less than the federal government).

It runs schooling up to the age of 16, including building the the schools and choosing the committee that appoints the teachers. It distributes up to a monthly SFr3,000 ($2,370) per person to its poor—admittedly not very numerous in Kilchberg—as well as providing help to a handful of foreign refugees, mainly from Sri Lanka. It has its own volunteer fire brigade; two police boats on the lake; a couple of car-born policemen who keep an eye on illegal parking and look after the lost-and-found office; an old people’s home; and a community farm where, if the fruit-seller is out for lunch, you just leave your money on the counter.

The government of this busily innocent little place consists of a seven-person council, elected by the people, which supervises a modest staff of professionals (unlike some Gemeinden, whose part-time workers combine their work for the community with their ordinary jobs). The real power, however, is wielded by the voters who assemble up to four times a year to listen to the council’s recommendations and decide whether it is handling things properly. It is at these meetings that tax levels are fixed, new laws are passed, the community’s accounts are inspected, building regulations are decided (a crowd-drawer, this) and anything else anybody wants to bring up can be discussed.

Voting is by show of hands, but there can be a cross-on-paper vote if a third of those present demand it; they never have, so far. If somebody feels the council’s ideas are inadequate, he or she can be collecting 15 signatures insist on putting a proposed new law to the voters; it has not happened for a decade. A single person can demand some specific other action from the council, with the right, if the council does not agree, to take the matter up to the cantonal and federal levels. Only one such demand has been made in the past ten years, for the community’s farm to use organic farming methods. This smooth record suggests that Karl Kobelt, president of the council for these ten years, is a model politician of the Swiss School.

The cloud on the horizon is the fact that no more than about 400 people generally turn up at these meetings or maybe 700 when something especially exciting is on the menu. As a percentage of Kilchberg’s 4,000 or so qualified voters, that is worryingly smaller even than the quarter of the electorate the canton of Glarus brings out for its annual assembly. Nothing seems to have gone badly wrong as a result; if it had, the protests would have been heard by now. But something odd is happening when a system designed to deploy the power of the people turns out to be actually using only a tenth of that people power.

Dealing with this problem is harder for the little units of Swiss politics, which like to bring their people together for a fact-to-face talk about everything, than it is for the bigger units. The big ones, which call their people to referendums only on selected issues, and usually do the voting by post, can reduce the voting burden fairly easily—fewer mandatory referendums, suffer signature-collecting rules, and so on. That will probably get more people to vote.

To achieve the same result, unless their people rediscover a more general willingness to abandon the television set and assemble for a meeting very few months, the smaller cantons and communities may eventually have to renounce the intimacy of their talk-about-anything get-togethers, and turn to more prosaic methods of selective voting. It will be a sad loss of a vivacious piece of old-fashioned politics. But if that is the price of keeping the 21st century’s people at their democratic work, so be it.

© 1996 The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved