Direct democracy: The Swiss experience



Photo: Madhu nair


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For Swiss citizens, the experience of direct democracy is rather intense: typically four times a year, they are called to the polls to vote on a variety of political issues. In 2016 for instance, we decided on phasing out nuclear power at an enhanced pace (the proposal was rejected), on introducing an ambitious roadmap towards green economy (rejected), on granting everyone an unconditional income (rejected), on speeding up asylum procedures (accepted), and more.

I am very fond of Swiss direct democracy. It keeps citizens tuned in with Swiss politics. So as to be able to make a reasoned judgement, you need to be informed about the issues at stake. The media and political parties play a crucial role in that respect. Direct democracy pushes Parliament to work towards broad-based compromise solutions, because draft laws can easily be challenged in a referendum. I also have the hope that direct democracy can work as an antidote to populism - by making voters aware of the complexities of policy making. Finally, direct democracy disconnects policy issues from anti-Government protests. Swiss voters know that their Government will not step down after a lost vote.

Direct democracy, of course, also comes with drawbacks. There is the risk that people decide on complex issues without sufficient understanding. Some time back, we for instance voted on a law regulating genetic research on humans. Direct democracy instruments have also been used as tools to promote a populist agenda. An example is the 2009 vote against the further construction of minarets in Switzerland.

While there are downsides of direct democracy, I think that advantages clearly prevail. Citizens take responsibility for politics; and Government, Parliament and political parties have to engage in a constant dialogue with the people.

About the Author

Ambassador of Switzerland to Sweden
Christian Schoenenberger