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Direct-democratic practice: the use of these instruments and their success

From 1848 until the end of 2006, the Swiss citizens have voted on a total of 543 proposals at the federal level. Figure 2.1 shows the numerical development of the popular votes during the entire period. What catches the eye when looking at this figure is the enormous increase in the number of votes since the seventies. More than half of all the votes have taken place during the last thirty-five years. This indicates that the direct-democratic institutions are quite alive in Switzerland, and that their significance has considerably increased in the more recent past. On the one hand, the increase in the number of votes is a result of the increasing legislative activity in an ever more complex world; on the other hand, it results from the increasing use of the direct-democratic instruments by the citizens. Thus, the number of initiatives has increased strongly: more than two thirds of all initiatives, which have been submitted to a vote, fall in the period since the seventies.

Turning to the use of the optional referendum in particular, what strikes the observer is that of all the 2370 legislative proposals that were exposed to the optional referendum in the entire period, only 7 per cent (160 proposals) have actually been challenged by such a referendum (see also Geissel in this volume). Moreover, as Figure 2.2 shows, if the share of the proposals, against which a referendum was launched, was very high after its first introduction and again reached a peak during the thirties, it remained below average after World War II. The share of proposals that have eventually been rejected in a popular vote is even lower, and has continually decreased since the seventies. In the more recent past,

44 Hanspeter Kriesi

Optional referendum

Figure 2.2 Optional referendum: share of proposals against which a referendum has been launched, and which have been attacked successfully

Source: Kriesi and Trechsel 2008 this share does not even reach 2 per cent of all legislative projects. This does not mean, however, that the optional referendum has become more or less irrelevant. As we have seen, it exerts an indirect, system-building effect by its considerable impact on the design of the decision-making processes, and it also deploys its effect in the cases where it is not used. Moreover, the optional referendum has been used, in particular, to attack some of the most important legislative projects of the more recent past.

Traditionally, the optional referendum has primarily allowed the conservatives to prevent the adoption of reform proposals (Kriesi and Wisler 1996). Thus, because of the optional referendum, the development of the Swiss welfare state has been delayed for a long time (Obinger 1998; Armingeon 2001). Since the eighties, however, the situation has changed: in the more recent past, it has been the left that has had more frequent recourse to the referendum than the right. This is a consequence of the fact that the parliament has tried to avoid far reaching social policy reforms, has only adopted minimalist modifications of the status quo, or has even contributed to welfare state retrenchment. In a period of neoliberal reforms, the optional referendum surprisingly proved to be an effective instrument in the hands of the left to prevent welfare state retrenchment (Bonoli 1999).

However, we should add that the optional referendum has become a less forceful instrument. This could already be seen in Figure 2.2, but becomes even more evident in Figure 2.3, which presents the development of the number of governmental defeats over time. As this figure shows, the optional referendum has provided the opposition with less and less success throughout the post-war period. Especially in the more recent past, that is, in the period where the left has used this instrument more frequently, its forcefulness has diminished. Conversely, the compulsory referendum, which no longer gave rise to governmental defeats

Share of governmental defeats, by instrument Source

Figure 2.3 Share of governmental defeats, by instrument Source: Kriesi and Trechsel 2008

in the thirties, has become increasingly menacing for the government and has led, in absolute, but also in relative terms, to more frequent governmental defeats than the optional referendum. As far as the initiative is concerned, it generally appears to be a rather blunt weapon. Roughly a third of the initiatives (30 per cent) have been withdrawn by their sponsors before it came to a popular vote in the first place. In the remaining cases, the electorate generally followed the recommendations of the government, who, as I have already argued, usually decides to reject the corresponding proposals. Overall, only fifteen initiatives (6 per cent) have been adopted in popular votes. As is shown by Figure 2.3, the share of successful initiatives has increased in the more recent past, admittedly based on a smaller number of initiatives submitted. After a period spanning several decades without any success, eight initiatives have been adopted since 1981.

However, in the case of initiatives, one should not deduce from their limited success at the polls that they are generally ineffective. Some initiatives have some success, even if they are not adopted in the popular vote. Their impact is often indirect, as they may influence the legislative process. Their withdrawal is often the result of such indirect effects. Thus, the initiatives of the left had a decisive impact on the reform of the old-age pension system at the beginning of the seventies, which would not have been so generous had it not been for those initiatives (Kriesi 1980).

One question that is often posed concerns the possibility of buying success at the polls. This question has been studied in detail in the US, where it has been shown that a lot of money does not necessarily mean a lot of influence with regard to the outcome of the votes. Although the investment of a lot of money may buy a certain amount of influence, the relationship between money and influence on the vote is much more complex and more limited than many critical observers care to believe. Thus, Gerber (1999) has found that economic interest groups may have the capacity to prevent the passage of propositions they oppose, but they find it very difficult to pass their own propositions. By contrast, the citizens’ groups - grass-roots organizations, public interest groups or social movement organizations - are much more successful at modifying policy through the direct legislation process. Gerber was able to show that initiatives that received majority support from citizens’ groups passed at a substantially higher rate than measures that received majority support from economic interest groups. Matsusaka (2004) confirmed these findings by showing that it is the large number of citizens who profit from direct-democratic procedures, rather than the few interest groups.

In Switzerland, too, the relationship in question is more complex than usually suspected, and the Swiss experience generally serves to confirm the American studies. The relationship between the overall direction of campaign expenditures and the outcome of the vote is generally weak. On the one hand, this is due to the fact that almost all initiatives - independently of the financial effort of the adversarial camps - are rejected by the citizens. Figure 2.4 illustrates this relationship by showing that the government is generally successful in the case of initiatives (that is, the initiatives are rejected), independently of the overall direction of the campaign (horizontal axis), and of its intensity (different lines are drawn for the different degrees of campaign intensity). As we have seen, the optional referendum proves to be more dangerous for the government, and the relationship between the financial effort and the success at the polls is somewhat tighter in their case. However, even then, it remains relatively weak. This has, among other things, to do with the fact that the intensive minorities, who typically launch such referendums, usually invest large sums in the voting campaign, even if their chances of success are rather limited. Only when the campaign becomes very intense, and when the government’s opponents have a financial advantage in such an intense campaign, can they count upon a good chance of success, that is, they are able to block the government’s proposal. In this very special case, financial investments can be decisive, as is shown in the second part of Figure 2.4.

Before concluding that it is possible to buy a vote in some cases, we should, however, not forget that the challengers of the government can often count on broad support from the bourgeois camp. The successful launching of optional referendums often leads to a fragmentation of this camp (Trechsel and Sciarini 1998). Given that this camp possesses a ‘natural majority’ in Swiss politics, and that it has much more financial resources at its disposal than the left, its fragmentation proves to be particularly dangerous for the governmental position. Based on my own analyses (Kriesi 2005), it is, in the final analysis, the coalitional configuration that decides on the fate of a proposition. This, however, implies that even in those cases where we find a close relationship between the overall direction of the campaign and the outcome of the vote, the financial means did not necessarily prove to be decisive.

From the point of view of the elected representatives of the Swiss political system, the picture that emerges is, therefore, anything but dramatic. Even if they are not able to completely control the direct-democratic procedures, they have succeeded in considerably reducing the uncertainty that is necessarily linked to the direct-democratic opening of the policy-making process. Conversely, from

Probability of governmental success for initiatives and optional referendums (estimates based on statistical models)

Figure 2.4 Probability of governmental success for initiatives and optional referendums (estimates based on statistical models)

Source: Kriesi 2006 the point of view of the challengers of the government and the parliamentary majority, it seems to be apparent that they are not able to modify fundamentally the procedures of representative democracy. But they may get a hearing for their cause at all levels of the policy-making process and if they don’t get a fair hearing, they may sometimes successfully appeal to the general electorate.

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