Voter Participation (Or Lack Thereof) and Democratic Erosion in Switzerland, by Valentina Wakeman at Yale University
Freedom House has given exceptional democracy ratings to the Swiss Confederation, awarding it near-perfect scores in overall freedom, political rights (39/40), and civil liberties (57/60). Though Swiss political structure is both highly decentralized and dependent on direct democracy mechanisms, the frequency with which the democratic system requires citizens to vote has negatively affected voter turnout, proving a major obstacle to maintaining a robustly participatory democracy that takes advantage of these structural allowances. In addition, the increasing prevalence of polarizing issues, such as Switzerland’s relationship to the EU, and growing distress over the spread of terrorism in Europe, may prove to further stress what I widely regarded as one of the most “functional” and “successful” world democracies.
Both structurally and throughout history, Switzerland seems to represent a “model democracy”, or at least one closest to its theoretical conception, where power is kept as close to the hands of the people as possible. The majority of legislative power is attributed to each of its 26 cantons as opposed to the national government. Policies within individual cantons may vary in both their laws and systems, effectively decentralising power away from the national government, and making local politics a more relevant concern for voters. (World Economic Forum) The most highly revered aspect of Swiss institutional framework, however, is its commitment to direct democracy— the “Sovereign” of the country is the entire electorate. Any citizen can challenge a law passed by parliament, the people can present a constitutional popular initiative to amend the federal constitution, and a majority in both cantonal and overall electorate votes (known as a double majority) must approve any instance of constitutional amendment, joining international organizations, or legal changes that have no basis in the Federal Constitution. A referendum is mandatory for constitutional changes, and is optional (i.e. can be requested by the public) for any change in the national laws; referenda are one of the main pathways by which people express their opinion at the ballots on a myriad of issues. (World Economic Forum)
However, despite what seems like a model democracy, and in contrast to the optimistic picture painted by Freedom House of the country’s political dynamics, The Economist Intelligence Unit has actually lowered Switzerland’s ranking since 2016, placing it ninth out of 167. This is due to a core issue that has received increased attention in the past 3 years—sustained decreases in voter turnouts at the time of elections. On average, approximately four out of every ten Swiss voters appear at polls for every possible election, and overall turnout rarely exceeds 50%. Due to ample and frequent election holdings (referenda, government elections, legislation, contestation, etc.) most voters are overwhelmed by the amount of times they should exercise their right to vote, losing interest in active democratic participation, and choosing to stay home on (any of the) election days instead. This is further exacerbated by a decentralised system, whereby both cantonal and cantonal elections are available. Ironically, it seems as if Swiss democracy is too democratic.
André Blais at the University of Montréal has attributed low turnouts to the widespread perception of Swiss political parties as “a cartel in which the same parties form the same governing coalition year after year…no matter the outcome of legislative elections.” (526) Historically, Swiss government has been characterized by stability, with its political scene consistently dominated by a coalition of its four main political parties: the Christian Democrats (CVP), Social Democrats (SP) on the left, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) on the right. (The Economist Intelligence Unit ) In what is described as the “Magic Formula” of Swiss politics, since 1959 there has been a mathematically-based allocation of each of seven Federal Assembly seats that correspond to the proportional shares of votes each party receives. (Wolff and Karagok) According to political scientist Werner Seitz, “Elections in Switzerland don’t have the importance they have in other parliamentary democracies where elections can lead to a new government.” (“Silent Majority Always Wins Swiss Ballots”) A stagnant, staid system—though stable—could also greatly reduce turnout.
Equally important is the role of voter fatigue, as the electorate may simply refuse to vote because it finds itself overwhelmed with the frequency of elections and referenda in both cantonal and national politics. A study by Anna Kern at the University of Leuven in Belgium, which focused on the difference between availability and use of direct democracy on both democratic participation and political attitudes of the electorate, found positive and supportive attitudes for the larger political system rarely spur from both the availability and use of direct democracy, especially at the cantonal level. However, this does not necessarily mean distrust in larger (i.e. federal) democratic institutions. (22)
Additionally, in their explanation for lower scores of democracy, The Economist pointed out “people’s initiatives are often launched by political parties or interest groups rather than individuals, and in the latest political cycle they have also become instruments for parties to motivate their core voters.” (World Economic Forum) Therefore, even if factors like political polarisation (which could potentially motivate more emotional voters to take to the polls) became pervasive in Swiss politics, it would leave the system susceptible to potential tyranny of the majority, given the decentralised system and emphasis on direct democracy in local affairs, with elections for different forms of laws occurring every 3-4 months. In any case, even a system initially perceived as highly institutionally democratic now confronts the question of democratic backsliding: If the Swiss have been unable take advantage of the privilege of direct democracy—perhaps the most literal interpretation of democratic ideals, which structurally gives the most power to voters— should it be the ideal in the first place?
Recently, attributing so much power to the cantons has become increasingly salient, potentially threatening Switzerland’s democratic stability after all these years in a time where both terrorism and populism are symbiotic phenomena in European politics. In 2014, Swiss voters approved legislation that would limit immigration from EU countries, placing a strain on the current relationship between the two, and undermining many of the bilateral agreements that have been in place for a long time. Additionally, current proposals that would allow the European Court of Justice to act as a mediator between Switzerland and the EU trade disputes has triggered controversial backlash from the Swiss People’s Party, the most conservative of the four dominant ones. (Financial Times) Given their recent success in the polls, and the Swiss system’s foundation on an increasingly polarised electorate, this may threaten the stability of the Magic Formula, overall trust in government responsiveness, and democratic quality overall—especially if people decide to respond by voting less often.
Democracy is not a passive process, even when stably, culturally, and universally implemented over a prolonged time period. Though participation is both an asset and prerequisite to democracy, Switzerland illustrates how an overreliance on direct links between the electorate and implemented laws may still not be enough to keep them engaged in politics. Paradoxically and counter-intuitively, perhaps accessible participation in virtually all political affairs may contribute to the backsliding of democracy, as opposed to its nurturing.
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Freedom House. “Switzerland Profile.” Freedom in the World 2017. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/switzerland
Lucci, Michol. “This is how Switzerland’s Direct Democracy Works.” World Economic Forum. 31 July 2017. Web. Accessed April 1 2018. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/07/switzerland-direct-democracy-explained/
The Economist Intelligence Unit. “Political Stability.” Switzerland. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. http://country.eiu.com/article.aspx?articleid=1746503758&Country=Switzerland&topic= Politics&subtopic=Forecast&subsubtopic=International+relations&oid=1706503754&fli d=1706503754
Norwegian Centre for Research Data. “Party Descriptions and CMP Left-Right Scores.” Switzerland: Political Parties. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. http://www.nsd.uib.no/european_election_database/country/switzerland/parties.html
Mombelli, Armando and Geiser, Urs. “Silent Majority Always Wins Swiss Ballots.” SWI Swiss Info Channel. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/silent- majority-always-wins-swiss-ballots/7746
Burunsden, Jim and Atkins, Ralph. “EU’s Swiss Proposal Could Serve as Brexit Blueprint.” Financial Times. 18 January 2018. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. https://www.ft.com/content/4164a5f0-fc6f-11e7-a492-2c9be7f3120a
Kern, Anna. “The Effect of Direct Democratic Participation on Citizens’ Political Attitudes in Switzerland: The Difference between Availability and Use.” 27 March 2017. Politics and Governance Vol. 5, Issue 2, 16–26.
Wolff, Reiner and Karagok, Yavuz. “Constant Allocation of Cabinet Seats: The Swiss Magic Formula.” University of Fribourg. Working paper.
Blais, André. “Why is Turnout So Low in Switzerland? Comparing the Attitudes of Swiss and German Citizens Towards Electoral Democracy.” 2014. Swiss Political Science Review Vol. 20, Issue 4, 520–528.