What is the plural of referendum? Political disengagement…

Chris Terry, Former Research Officer

Posted on the 15th October 2015

Switzerland. A land of chocolate, neutrality and a surprisingly well-armed population. Switzerland is also home to a unique democratic system, the closest to direct democracy in the world.

Citizens have the ability to force two types of referendums. The first requires 50,000 signatures and allows citizens the option to veto any law going through parliament. The second requires 100,000 signatures and allows the voters to change the constitution.

There is much to admire about Switzerland’s democracy. It has a highly decentralised federation, and an extremely powerful version of open list proportional representation which allows for voters to cast votes for multiple parties, for candidates within parties, and even negative votes against candidates (in which it shares similarities to the ERS’s preferred Single Transferable Vote system). Each Swiss citizen has perhaps more power than any citizen of any other country.

Yet, this weekend will see Switzerland go to the polls and turnout will likely be the lowest of any country in Western Europe. The last time a Swiss federal election saw turnout higher than 50% was 1975. Turnout bottomed out at 42.3% in 1995, though has risen recently to 48.6% in 2011. This turnout is perhaps even more embarrassing as in some of the smaller cantons voting is compulsory.

The low turnout in Swiss elections is partially due to the referendums system. Since last October there have been nine referendums held at a federal level on three separate dates, and countless more held at a cantonal and municipal level.

But whilst Swiss citizens have the chance to change things, they rarely do. Switzerland’s record is a stark reminder that referendums usually result in a vote for the status quo. Of the nine referendums in the last year I mentioned, only two have passed. Most Swiss initiatives fail to pass. Famously Switzerland did not give women the vote until 1971 as male voters kept rejecting the idea.

Some small municipalities reject having local councillors all together, with decisions taken by traditional ‘town hall’ meetings of local citizens. These meetings can have huge power – for instance, the approval of your neighbours is often the final hurdle to gaining citizenship.

But all these occasions for citizens to use their power means that the federal political institutions are relatively powerless. It also means that any Swiss government is under threat from any opposition party with a large number of activists. Power is essentially exercised by a minority, constantly, rather than a majority every few years.

For this reason, the four major Swiss parties have been almost constantly represented in the Federal Council (roughly analogous to a cabinet) since 1959. Those four parties, the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, the Liberals and the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) come from very different political traditions. As of the 2011 election, those four parties represent 79% of parliament, actually a historic low.

The forced consensus between these parties only strengthens the view that a vote doesn’t count, and has resulted in dividends for the SVP as it has become increasingly right-wing, anti-immigration, and oppositional in its rhetoric. Ultimately the fear is that a vote for a party in a Swiss federal election cannot hope to change the direction of government. Government composition changes frequently in all other European democracies with proportional representation, either partially or in full, resulting in far healthier turnouts.

Switzerland is a wealthy, broadly well-functioning country. But Swiss democracy is also a stark reminder that there is a difference between widening participation and deepening it. In the latter case we allow citizens to better affect politics, but if those mechanisms are simply used by those who already have the most privileged access to politics, it can serve to skew things more widely, and may work against widening participation.

There is evidence from Switzerland that those who vote in referendums are not representative of the wider population, creating inequalities between those who do and do not have the spare time to take advantage of the Swiss system.

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