“Switzerland is the gold standard of direct democracy”

Direct Democracy in action: A committee boxes up lists of signatures it has collected to force a national vote on its initiative keystone

No country in the world is more democratic than Switzerland. So says Uruguayan political scientist David Altman. As co-leader of a major international research project to measure and compare democracy in 200 countries, he should know. Is Altman an ardent defender of direct democracy? Not exactly, as became clear in conversation.

This content was published on November 17, 2015 – 11:00

Renat Künzi, swissinfo.ch

Comparative politics is the work of David Altman. The professor from the Pontificia Universidad Católica in Chile is co-leader of the V-Dem research project, in which a group of 3,000 researchers established 400 indicators to monitor democracy in 200 countries (for more details, see box below). In 2014 he published the book “Direct Democracy Worldwide”.

AltmanExternal link was recently invited by a colleague to speak to students at the University of Bern. swissinfo.ch met him beforehand.

swissinfo.ch: Wars in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, conflict in Ukraine, refugee crisis in Europe, deterioration in Turkey: in these gloomy prospects, is there good news for democracy?

David Altman: In some places there is progress, in others there is regression. Democracy is a very diffuse set of instruments and mechanisms for reaching decisions: initiatives, referendums, plebiscites, the right to make counter-proposals, etc.

David Altman is professor of political science at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile. He is also an associate researcher for the National Research and Innovation Agency of Uruguay. Altman is the author of Direct Democracy Worldwide and directs the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project. wilsoncenter.org/David Owen Hawxhurst

There is no linear upward development towards progress. If we do not maintain these institutions, one day they will disappear.

swissinfo.ch: What impresses you about direct democracy in Switzerland? What troubles you?

DA: Switzerland is in a way the gold standard of direct democracy. Here, every citizen can change every aspect of life. Of course, do not act alone, but only if they belong to a group.

If we look at the extent of direct democracy at national, cantonal and municipal level, Switzerland is the most democratic country in the world.

Those who do not understand the significance of the institutions of direct democracy and federalism do not understand Switzerland. In stations and on trains, announcements are multilingual and everyone understands them. Switzerland is an example of how a multi-ethnic society can work.

The Swiss have always been sensible, sober and mature. They have a long experience with these institutions. The way they combine and interweave representative democracy and direct democracy is very clever.

But direct democracy is not without problems and tensions. The dark side is that some groups trying to advance their own agendas can abuse it.

swissinfo.ch: Is there any other country where the will of the people is as important as in Switzerland?

DA: No. But there is a very pronounced direct democracy in some American states. For example in California, but especially in Washington and Oregon.

As with all institutions, direct democracy can be used correctly or it can be abused. This can lead to unintended consequences or negative external effects. A majority can make a bad or even odious decision. The process is one thing, the content of the decision is another.

swissinfo.ch: What do you think of this prioritization of the will of the people above all? Should it be limited?

DA: Modern democracy is a combination of three main lines of thought:

One of them is the Athenian democracy with the principle of absolute majority; one is the republicanism of ancient Rome, in which opposing forces check each other, the other is the British and French form of liberalism.

If there is no force opposing the majority principle, then it is easily possible for a tyranny of the majority to develop, which can tip over into a dictatorship. The principle of majority and the sovereignty of the people must therefore be controlled. This too is realized by the people, in the form of laws.

The rule of law is decisive. It sets out rights that cannot be limited or taken away. The Swiss cannot reintroduce slavery. Or the death penalty. Certainly not.

A recent case concerned the banning of minarets. She showed how the will of the majority can oppose individual rights. It is important to be extremely careful. Power to the people: that sounds great! But only under certain conditions and within certain limits.

swissinfo.ch: Who should set these limits and when?

DA: There are several options. It is important that a body such as the Constitutional Court can review decisions before they are taken or after.

The latter model is used in the United States, for example. A complaint may lead to the withdrawal of a referendum decision.

swissinfo.ch: You mentioned the initiative to ban minarets, which Swiss voters approved in 2009. What do you think of the SVP and its policy of putting the will of the people above all else? The right-wing conservative party even explicitly places it above international law?

DA: I don’t like it at all. Yet they have the right to do so. The instruments of direct democracy are accessible to all.

Whenever someone calls loud and clear for direct democracy, I always say this:

‘Stop and close your eyes! If you like the idea of ​​direct democracy, then imagine your biggest political enemies and how they would campaign for a proposal you don’t like at all. From time to time, a proposal like this passes through the ballot box. Are you ready to accept the decision of the people? If you answer yes, then you are ready for the democratic game. If you say no, then you are not.

The People’s Party can follow its own political agenda. Other parties also use direct democracy to grab headlines and win over voters. They are playing the direct democracy card to improve their position in the competition for representative democracy.

The People’s Party succeeded in getting its demands put to the vote. However, in most cases, Swiss citizens were wise enough to reject their initiatives at the ballot box.

swissinfo.ch: In Europe and the United States, many citizens are losing faith in establishment politics. Could direct democracy be an appropriate remedy to regain this trust?

DA: In part. With popular initiatives and referendums, I can register my opinion. It’s very healthy if people collect signatures because they feel the government doesn’t take them seriously enough or because they want to change the constitution. It can strengthen the love between citizens and politicians.

If, however, a leader asks me to re-elect him for the umpteenth time by plebiscite, I have to say no to that very loudly. Plebiscites are the dark side of direct democracy.

Instruments should not all be judged in the same way. Some ensure the power of the people. Others, however, are the instruments of the powerful and can be very dangerous.

Direct democracy can have many colors and flavors, both positive and negative.


Name: Varieties of Democracy

One of the biggest international research projects of recent years.

Objective: precise measurement of democracy in all its forms.

Team: 3,000 researchers, led by 20 professors.

Measurement instruments: 400 indicators (200 objective, 200 subjective. The latter are weighted fivefold.)

Measure: The quality of democracy in 200 countries over 120 years.

Publication: December 31, 2015, as a global database with 15 million data on the Internet. Access is free for all.

Target audience: politicians, businesses, civil society and academic disciplines such as political studies, sociology and history, etc.

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