The historical roots of Swiss direct democracy

Switzerland as a special case and model of democracy – Published on Current Concerns, by Dr. René Roca, Research Institute of Direct Democracy, Oberrohrdorf-Staretschwil, Switzerland, Feb 3, 2014.

I. Introduction:

Various empirical studies in economic sciences that, in addition to economic sub-areas, also address the research in happiness come to an interesting conclusion: The more democratic and federalist a political system is, the happier the people are. This condition is greatly responsible for the economic development of a country, because “the burden of government debt is the smaller the more direct democracy is. Fewer cases of tax evasion occur, because people have a better relationship with their state”1 … //

… II. Cooperatives, natural law and popular sovereignty:

II.1 The cooperative principle in Switzerland: … //
… II.5 Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his idea of popular sovereignty based on natural law: … //

III. Direct democracy in a European Context:

  • Since 1830, an important element for the democratic development in Switzerland as well as in Europe has been the development of a specific culture of assemblies which was taking up older forms of protest. In Switzerland these assemblies were called “Volkstage” (people’s days). So in the years 1830/31 “Volkstage” were held in the cantons Thurgau, Aargau, Luzern, Zurich, St. Gallen, Solothurn and Berne. They initiated a phase of “regeneration”. Citizens from the cities and the countryside and from diverse political backgrounds met in a casual manner and discussed current political issues. Within the context of these “Landsgemeinden”, as they were also called at the time, especially catholic conservatives and early socialists demanded more direct participation. Resulting from this culture of assemblies, popular movements were often formed which developed substantial vigor due to their wide political support. The liberals were opposing demands for more direct democracy because they were just starting to form a new political elite themselves. At most they voted for a representative democracy.40
  • An essentially liberal cause was, however, the freedom of the press which, in combination with the principle of public access to official records, had to be won in tedious struggle in Switzerland and the rest of Europe. In parallel, the establishment of a primary school was an essential topic in the European countries. Thus the education issue received attention as a postulate of enlightenment.
  • However, next to the USA, as far as European countries are concerned, only England, and temporarily, France, developed a liberal-representative constitutional system. In the other European countries the democratic development was arduous and frequently brutally oppressed. Thus, except for a short period after World War I, the democratic principle asserted itself only after the fall of the Berlin Wall after 1989. Positive examples are the new states in former East Germany which introduced more direct democracy in their state constitutions, trying to strengthen the democratic awareness bottom-up. Recently it was Hamburg – of the old states – that drew attention. Several times, Hamburg citizens succeeded in making their main political points by means of initiatives. But several times, the political elites in Germany were able to prevent the reduction of unnecessarily high obstacles or the introduction of direct democratic rights on a federal level.41
  • Slovenia can be recognized as another example. This country that became independent twenty years ago has introduced a wide range of popular rights on the federal and the local level. Practicing direct democracy and developing the political culture connected with it, however, takes time and patience and is often characterized by severe conflicts. As mentioned above, this was not different in Switzerland. Since Slovenia has a competitive and not a concordance system, the current opposing party repeatedly misused direct democracy for making a name for themselves. This is increasingly polarizing the political system. The population can only stop this process if they take politics into their own hands, enriching the political interaction with their own referenda and initiatives (this is increasingly true also for Switzerland). Another complication in Slovenia is certainly that it became a member of the European Union (EU) in 2004 and Brussels’s increasing tendencies towards centralization are not exactly fostering the national and sovereign rights of the citizens.42
  • In the Treaty of Lisbon the European Union has introduced, in its own wording, the “revolutionary instrument” of a European Citizens’ Initiative. With this right, one million citizens from at least one third of the EU member states can initiate legislative action in the Brussels Commission. But the initiative is only a right to apply or to make propositions. The EU Commission has the right to decide what is going to happen. There is no guarantee for a vote in the EU.43
  • Since the successful “Abzocker” (rip-off) initiative the number of voices in the European countries admiring the Swiss political system has grown again. In the “Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung”, economists even entitled their article “Mehr Schweiz wagen!” (Dare More Switzerland!) and came to the conclusion that direct democracy in Swiss style would be beneficial also for the EU. The more citizens were able to decide on politics directly and also control it, the state would become leaner and the public debt would decrease.44

IV. Direct democracy in an international context:

  • In the international context direct democracy is one of the top issues. In Africa, Asia and Latin America, various countries are trying to test participatory forms of politics following from their own history and culture. In western countries, these developments are little noticed. Three examples may illustrate this development in a nutshell.
  • In the African country Mali the civil society tried to put the country on a new basis after the colonial period and a period that was characterized by military dictatorships. They wanted to split political power not only horizontally but also vertically. In 2002, the public administration reform was started by considering this purpose. This meant the promotion of a decentralized development from bottom to top with the formation and strengthening of cooperatively working communities. The resulting village citizenship began to break the traditional clan-economy and partly successfully fought corruption. Such a development requires time.45
  • Unfortunately, the promising beginnings in Mali were again destroyed. In March 2012, the military staged a coup, with a resulting increase of internal Mali conflicts. With the military intervention of France in January 2013, Mali sank back to the status of a neo-colonial country, whose democratic development the European countries sacrificed in favor of their geopolitical interests. It is hoped that after the presidential elections the country will be able to follow again its independent democratic way.46
  • In Asia for example, Mongolia aims at establishing direct democracy following the Swiss model. The Mongolian President visited Switzerland several times. On these occasions he informed himself about Swiss direct democracy and federalism. The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) supports such concerns and tries to contribute the democratic model of Switzerland to the discussion around the world. This is an important work performed with respect to the global promotion of democracy, and generates the fruitful exchange of ideas and policies between countries.47
  • Today, the Latin American countries are at the top of direct-democratic developments. Bolivia can be presented as an example with a new constitution since 2009. The Constitution was drafted by a directly elected constitutional assembly and subsequently adopted by the population with a constitutional referendum. Never before had such a Constitution been anchored in the population, as citizens were directly involved in drafting it. Important paragraphs for instance relate to the nationalization of mineral resources, the introduction of co-operative business models and the granting of rights to the indigenous population. Furthermore, the introduction of popular rights was codified. According to the constitutional assembly, popular rights should lead to more participation in the shaping of the political community. The promotion of direct democracy is, however, hindered or restricted in practice by the powerful position of the executive, consisting of the President and other institutions. Bolivia’s path is certainly still a long one to further reduce the distance between society and state and to increase the citizens’ control of political leaders’ actions. But in Bolivia and other Latin American countries much has been achieved.48
  • Overall, with these and numerous other examples one can quite confidently speak of a global development of direct democracy. In Western countries we should pay more attention to this development.

V. Conclusion:

  • The historical experiences of Switzerland show that the introduction of direct democratic instruments requires a lot of time, persistence and perseverance. Meanwhile, direct democracy has become an integral part of Switzerland’s political culture. But each generation must appreciate anew the value of this institution and realize that you have to defend it as well. This is the only way to preserve and further develop direct democracy. It is not simply a political instrument that can be used somehow but it requires the necessary sense of proportion and proper respect, certain virtues which must be acquired in one’s upbringing and education.
  • Switzerland can be proud of its democratic system and should represent the model of direct democracy on a global scale even in a more offensive approach as well as further encourage such sharing between the countries.

(full long text and notes 1-48).

(First published as brochure, editor: Aktion für eine unabhängige und neutrale Schweiz AUNS / Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland, 2013).


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