The World Around Us
October 6, 2020
Swiss Lessons in Democracy

Switzerland is a relatively small, mountainous, landlocked country in Central Europe. Zurich and Geneva are two of its most internationally known cities – the former for its banking and financial sector and the latter as a centre of global diplomacy. Switzerland is also well known for its chocolate, its wine and of course, the Swiss Alps. Less well known or appreciated about Switzerland is the fact that it has a system of people-centred democracy which serves it exceptionally well and from which many other countries can draw lessons.

Just over a week ago, Switzerland held a referendum on two critical issues – its free movement of people to deal with the European Union (EU) and a multi-billion-dollar purchase of new fighter jets. Separately, the Canton of Geneva held a referendum on introducing a minimum wage. Switzerland is not a Member of the EU, but it is an Associate Member of the Schengen Area which provides for a common visa policy and a single jurisdiction for international travel purposes for several European countries, the majority of which are Members of the EU. Switzerland is also part of a regime for the free movement of people with the EU, which affords citizens from both sides the right to live and work cross-border. In this era of hyper-nationalism, it came as no surprise that certain pockets of Swiss society wanted to review the free movement regime with the EU, partly due to concerns about jobs for locals and the strain on social services.

The move to restrict immigration between Switzerland and the EU was proposed by the Swiss People’s Party (SVP), but opposed by the government. On September 27, the Swiss people were asked to weigh in on this issue via a referendum. Nearly 62 percent of voters said they wanted to keep free movement, while 38 percent were against, representing a major victory for the government.

The second issue included in the national referendum had to do with defense spending on new fighter jets for the Swiss air force. In the end, 50.1 percent of the roughly three million voters who cast ballots approved the CHF6 billion ($6.49 billion) funding packet.

Voters in the canton of Geneva also voted separately on a union-backed proposal to introduce a minimum wage for the canton. Nearly 60 percent of voters came out in support of introducing a minimum wage, guaranteeing every worker at least 23 francs ($25) an hour. This is said to be the highest minimum wage anywhere in the world.

Swiss people are given a direct say in their own affairs under the country’s system of direct democracy. Under this system, the people are regularly invited to vote on various issues in national or regional referenda through popular initiatives, an optional referendum or a mandatory referendum. The popular initiative gives citizens the right to propose an amendment or addition to the Constitution. The optional referendum allows the people to demand that any bill approved by the Federal Assembly is put to a nationwide vote. Meanwhile, all constitutional amendments approved by parliament are subject to a mandatory referendum, that is, they must be put to a nationwide popular vote.

The form of direct democracy which has been a feature of the Swiss political system since the 19th century, offers its citizens the possibility to directly influence how their tax dollars are spent and how their society is organised. Importantly, Swiss direct democracy not only helps citizens to keep politicians in check, but it also allows for a form of power-sharing between the people and their government throughout the lifecycle of an administration.

The Swiss system will not fit the socio-political culture of every country. However, at a time when democracy appears to be broken in many countries around the world (recall a few weeks ago I wrote about democratic backsliding), finding a way to have a more inclusive form of governance might be key to curing some of the democratic ills that many countries are currently facing.

Finally, small and resource constrained countries may lack the financial and institutional capacity to have a form of direct democracy akin to the Swiss. However, what is important here is the principle of having a more people-centred democracy which could also be achieved through a more deliberative form of democracy. Deliberative democracy prioritises discussions and debates between the people and their government which could go a far way in ensuring that people feel a greater sense of ownership in their country’s development.