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Direct democracy. The Swiss experience


Direct-democratic procedures give rise to various hopes and fears. On the one hand, people expect such procedures to make democratic ideals come true. Thus, the adherents of ‘strong’ or ‘participatory’ democracy (such as Benjamin Barber 1984) put high hopes in the extension of democratic procedures beyond representative democracy. They assume that active participation in collective political decision making will have an educative and empowering effect on the citizens and will, ultimately, create better citizens. On the other hand, fears are widespread that such procedures would ask far too much of the average citizen. Thus, Giovanni Sartori (1987: 120), one of its most vocal critics, suggests that direct democracy ‘would quickly and disastrously founder on the reefs of cognitive incompetence’. Plato, in his treatise on the Republic, already called into question the Athenian direct democracy of his day and suggested that only a minority of intellectual guardians - of ‘competent public policy elites’, in our contemporary parlance - was fit to govern.

Switzerland is the only country where politics at all levels - including the national level - is decisively shaped by direct-democratic institutions. Thus, more national popular votes have taken place in Switzerland so far than in any other country. Therefore, the Swiss experience with direct democracy is of utmost importance - for its critics as well as for its supporters, even if the pertinence of this experience has been called into question by some of the critics. Schumpeter (1962: 267), unsurprisingly one of the greatest detractors of direct democracy, has, for example, put into question the relevance of the Swiss experience, because, as he argued, ‘there is so little to quarrel about in a world of peasants which, excepting hotels and banks, contains no great capitalist industry, and the problems of public policy are so simple and so stable that an overwhelming majority can be expected to understand and to agree about them’. In Switzerland, he suggested, direct democracy could be an effective mechanism of political decision, ‘but only because there are no great decisions to be made’.

Admittedly, this was in the early forties. Today, it would probably be difficult to find a serious political theorist who would doubt the relevance of Switzerland for the evaluation of the implementation of direct-democratic procedures.

Contemporary Switzerland is a complex, highly developed modern society, closely integrated into the world economy, and characterized by the coexistence of multiple linguistic cultures and an exceptionally high share of foreigners in the resident population. If Switzerland is a relatively small country and in many ways a special case - among other things precisely because of the importance of the direct-democratic procedures for political decision making - it certainly no longer represents the backward province Schumpeter was making it out to be.

In this chapter, I start out with a brief presentation of the key direct-democratic institutions of Switzerland. Some, even superficial, knowledge of these institutions is indispensible for understanding how direct democracy may be able to function under contemporary conditions. Next, I would like to give an idea of the utilization and the success of the available instruments. Third, I shall present some empirical results about the ways citizens are making their choices in direct-democratic campaigns and about the role the political elites play in pre-structuring their decisions. To conclude, I would like to draw attention to the (largely favourable) economic and social consequences of these procedures in the Swiss context.

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