Canadians for
 Direct Democracy (CDD)

Direct Democracy -- the right of citizens
to hold referenda on any issue

Full Democracy
by Brian Beedham

(Part 2)


Here is how it can be done better

Some of the Swiss do it even more directly

If this does not sound quite like the way your own national government operates, take a look at the next level down in Swiss politics. The country's 26 cantons (six of them technically "half-cantons", but for all practical purposes separate entities) are powerful bodies. They raise and spend almost as much tax money as the central government does -- and a larger share, let envious over-centralized countries note, than half a century ago, when the central government swept up more of the total tax take than it does now. The cantons control all of the country's police forces, virtually all of its education system, much of the law-making power over each canton's economy, and a large chunk of Swiss welfare spending. And these sturdy bodies are, in the matter of direct democracy, generally even more people-friendly than the central government. Here are three examples.

The biggest canton, Zurich, with one in six of the country's voters, gives to these voters a considerably wider range of supervision over the cantonal government than they have over the central one. Any law emerging from Zurich's parliament, or any expenditure of more than SFr 2m ($1.6m) a year, automatically has to go for public approval. The number of signatures needed to bring smaller matters to a referendum, or to start a new law on its way, is an even smaller proportion of the electorate than at the federal level. This means that Zurichers vote on about 16 cantonal subjects a year, ranging in recent months from the provision of SFr 873m for the expansion of Zurich airport (approved) to an indignant signature-backed demand for "separation of church and state" (defeated).
Indeed, Zurich has one voting device that goes beyond anything on offer in any other canton. Under its Einzelinitiative, the "single initiative", one solitary signature on a petition can be enough to put a proposal for a change in the law to the people's vote, provided the signatory gets some backing in parliament. This may sound like democracy gone daft. Yet in March 1995 one Albert Jorger was able to bring about by this device a sensible (and voter-constraining) change in the way Zurich's schools are run. Before, the teachers had been appointed by each community's voters, and this had led to some odd choices. Thanks to Mr Jorger and his signature, they are now picked by a professional selection committee (itself, to be sure, chosen by the voters). Most people reckon this has improved things. One part of the machinery of direct democracy has corrected another part's excess.

Not too often, please

In the second-biggest canton, Bern, they have decided that the correction process needs to go further. The Bernese are a slow-speaking, circumspect lot, not given to dramatic action, but in 1995 they made some radical changes to the way their canton's direct democracy works. They had come to the conclusion that they wanted not to have to vote so often, but when they did vote they wanted to be able to aim their votes with greater precision.

The voting-less-often part has been achieved by abolishing most of the mandatory referendums in which petty issues had to be brought to the people's vote whether or not anybody asked, and by stiffening the signature-collection requirement for optional referendums. Other cantons, and the central government, may decide to imitate the Bernese in this; it seems a sound way of slowing down the now rather over-hectic Swiss referendum tempo.

Bern's most adventurous innovations, however, are those in the precision-aiming category. The voters of Bern can now make up their minds about the general shape of a new law without having to wait until it has been drafted and enacted by parliament; this December, for instance, they were able to choose between five different ways of reorganising the canton's hospital system. They can also pass judgment not only on proposed new laws but also on their government's bigger administrative decisions. Since such decisions -- the building of a new reservoir, say, or the expansion of an airport -- can arouse a lot more passion than many minor laws, the extension of direct democracy into this field should encourage more people to vote.

Both of these things seem good ideas. There is more doubt about the new Bernese constitution's other innovation, which is to let people vote not merely yes or no to a proposed law but to offer amendments to it, which the voters can then decide upon. There is a certain amount of grave head-wagging that this is going to produce laws which contradict themselves. The Bernese will find out, on behalf of the rest of the Swiss, whether this is so.

The face-to-face way

The other way of running a canton, of course, is not to bother about putting crosses on pieces of paper but to turn out once a year in the town square, call out your opinions, and stick your hand up to vote. Glarus, up in the mountains of eastern Switzerland, is one of five small cantons that make their laws by the Landsgemeinde, the cantonal get-together. Its 24,700 voters employ the usual paper-consuming method for choosing the canton's seven-member government and 80-member parliament (and for doing their bit in federal referendums) but when it comes to the serious business they can assemble on a Sunday in spring to do the canton's law-making, elect their judges, set their income tax and decide about any cantonal spending over SFr 500.000 ($400,000) in the good old face-to-face way.

Last May about 6,000 of them turned out -- almost exactly the same number, as it happens, as the voters in the direct democracy of ancient Athens, but in Glarus a third of them were women -- and, having sworn the formal oath to do the right thing, settled down to an 18-item agenda. It went on for about four hours; most people stayed on their feet, there being few benches in the square, and some slipped off for a quick drink round the corner during the proceedings. It was decided to build a new hospital and, more reluctantly, a new roundabout on the main road at Nafels, a bit to the south of Glarus town. A proposal to stop schooling on Saturdays was rejected, and there was a tremendous row about limits on hunting. All in all, those ancient Athenians would have felt quite at home in Glarus town square, except for the sight of women voting.

As this suggests, direct democracy at the cantonal level is still in reasonably good shape. It is a puzzle that the French-Swiss cantons make less use of the referendum than the German-Swiss cantons do, or Italian-Swiss Ticino; perhaps, like their cousins across the border in France itself, they are more willing to tip their cap to the wisdom of those in authority. The Swiss should also take note that the turnout for cantonal referendums, as for federal ones, is less than it ought to be: only a quarter of Glarus's voters came to that stirring Sunday morning last May. But these things will doubtless come right if the cantons absorb the lesson the central government is slowly learning. The people want to have the big decisions in their hands, but they do not want to spend so much time on fiddling ones.

Life at the democratic roots

The places where you realise what a sense of community means
KILCHBERG, a community of 7,000 people, sits on a hillside that slopes sharply down to the southern shore of the lake of Zurich. It would not be fair to call it a typical specimen of the 3,000-odd Gemeinden (communes in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, comuni in the Italian part) which are the foundation of the country's politics. Most of its people are comfortably well-off many of them refugees from the higher taxes of the next-door community, the city of Zurich; less than a quarter are native citizens of Kilchberg. Only about 100 of the 7,000 are unemployed. From the graveyard of the Reformed church at the top of the hill the mortal remains of Thomas Mann and Conrad Ferdinand Meyer look out on a summer's day at the silent snows of the mountains of eastern Switzerland.

Still, Kilchberg is a fair example of how Swiss politics works at the roots. Its 7,000 people hold all power not specifically allocated to the federal or the cantonal government. It raises its own income and property taxes (in all, the communities dispose of more than a quarter of all Swiss tax money, not all that much less than the federal government). It runs schooling up to the age of 16, including building the schools and choosing the committee that appoints the teachers. It distributes up to a monthly SFr 3,000 ($2,370) per person to its poor -- admittedly not very numerous in Kilchberg -- as well as providing help to a handful of foreign refugees, mainly from Sri Lanka. It has its own volunteer fire brigade; two police boats on the lake; a couple of car-borne policemen who keep an eye on illegal parking and look after the lost-and-found office; an old people's home; and a community farm where, if the fruit-seller is out for lunch, you just leave your money on the counter.

The government of this busily innocent little place consists of a seven- person council, elected by the people, which supervises a modest staff of professionals (unlike some Gemeinden, whose part-time workers combine their work for the community with their ordinary jobs). The real power, however, is wielded by the voters who assemble up to four times a year to listen to the council's recommendations and decide whether it is handling things properly. It is at these meetings that tax levels are fixed, new laws are passed, the community's accounts are inspected, building regulations are decided (a crowd-drawer, this) and anything else anybody wants to bring up can be discussed.

Voting is by show of hands, but there can be a cross-on-paper vote if a third of those present demand it; they never have, so far. If somebody feels the council's ideas are inadequate, he or she can by collecting 15 signatures insist on putting a proposed new law to the voters; it has not happened for a decade. A single person can demand some specific other action from the council, with the right, if the council does not agree, to take the matter up to the cantonal and federal levels. Only one such demand has been made in the past ten years, for the community's farm to use organic farming methods. This smooth record suggests that Karl Kobelt, president of the council for these ten years, is a model politician of the Swiss school.

The cloud on the horizon is the fact that no more than about 400 people generally turn up at these meetings, or maybe 700 when something especially exciting is on the menu. As a percentage of Kilchberg's 4,000 or so qualified voters, that is worryingly smaller even than the quarter of the electorate the canton of Glarus brings out for its annual assembly. Nothing seems to have gone badly wrong as a result; if it had, the protests would have been heard by now. But something odd is happening when a system designed to deploy the power of the people turns out to be actually using only a tenth of that people-power.

Dealing with this problem is harder for the little units of Swiss politics, which like to bring their people together for a face-to-face talk about everything, than it is for the bigger units. The big ones, which call their people to referendums only on selected issues, and usually do the voting by post, can reduce the voting burden fairly easily -- fewer mandatory referendums, stiff'er signature-collecting rules, and so on. That will probably get more people to vote. To achieve the same result, unless their people rediscover a more general willingness to abandon the television set and assemble for a meeting every few months, the smaller cantons and communities may eventually have to renounce the intimacy of their talk-about-anything get-togethers and turn to more prosaic methods of selective voting. It will be a sad loss of a vivacious piece of old-fashioned politics. But if that is the price of keeping the 21st century's people at their democratic work, so be it.

Continue to Part 3

We welcome ALL communications and suggestions, including those from students and researchers: Canadians for Direct Democracy

JOIN our Listserv, put "SUBSCRIBE CDD-L" in the message BODY.

Index  What's New  Top of Page  Home  E-mail  Listserv