DEMOCRACY<br>BUILDING Switzerland's Political System
Direct Democracy
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Switzerland's Political System

Direct Democracy

«It is astonishing how little the rest of the world knows about the way Switzerland runs its politics. Even its next-door neighbors in Europe, though vaguely aware that it is a deeply decentralized country, do not really understand the other, more important part of the Swiss system -- the part that could turn out to be a model for everybody's 21st century democracy.»
Brian Beedham, United Press International, in a book review on Gregory Fossedal's The road to full democracy.

Switzerland is a small country located in the heart of western Europe, at the intersection of German, French and Italian language and culture. Switzerland has been multicultural in its own way for centuries. Democracy and Direct Democracy in particular, has a long, but not undisputed tradition in this country. Switzerland's unique political system is today world's most stable democratic system, offering a maximum of participation to citizens.

Switzerland's Direct Democracy is not the result of pure tradition and harmonic development, however. Much to the contrary, the very basics (decentralisation of power) and the unique instruments of Direct Democracy (frequent referendums and popular initiative) have been established through hard political struggle, including a violent Revolution in 1798, decades of rioting (1830's and 1840's: the term putsch for a violent overthrow of government is one of the few Swiss German dialect words that have been adopted in a large number of foreign languages ...) culminating in a short civil war in 1847.

Basic Features of Switzerland's Political System

  • Switzerland is a Confederation of 26 cantons. The cantons [member states of the federation] do enjoy quite some autonomy.
  • Governments, parliaments and courts on 3 levels:
    - federal
    - cantonal
    - communal
       small villages have reunions of all citizens instead of parliaments,
       local courts are common to several communities
  • Two features of Direct Democracy grant an unusually detailed level of participation to ordinary citizens:
    · Popular Initiative:
    Ordinary citizens may propose changes to the constitution, if they can find a number of supporters (100,000 out of about 3,500,000 voters, smaller numbers on cantonal and communal level).
    The parliament will discuss the proposals, probably set up an alternative and afterwards all citizens may decide in a referendum whether to accept the original initiative, the alternate parliamentary proposal or to leave the constitution unchanged.

Common Features
Shared with other Democratic Political Systems

All democratic political systems share the separation of powers (independence of government/administration, parliament (legislation) and courts of justice). Several political parties compete with each other to propose solutions to the country's problems.
The federal system is not mandatory for a democracy, but it can be found in many other countries like the U.S.A., Germany, Austria etc.
In other words: most aspects of Switzerland's political system are just normal features of a modern democracy.

Exclusive Features
of Switzerland's Political System

The two chambers of Switzerland's national parliament meet several times annually to sessions during several weeks and between them to preparing meetings in numerous commissions. But being member of parliament is not a full time job in Switzerland, contrary to most other countries today. This means that members of parliament have to practise an ordinary profession to earn their living - thereby they are closer to everyday life of their electorate.

The really remarkable thing about Switzerland's political system is Direct Democracy: the extraordinary amount of participation in the political process that is granted to ordinary citizens. In other words: it is not the mere existence of direct democratic instruments (federalism is widespread and referendums are not completely unknown to other democratic systems) but rather the frequent use of them, not only as encouraged by Switzerland's Constitution, but as practised with enthusiasm by the citizens. Frequent referendums do have a stabilizing influence on parliament, government, economy and society:

  • Referendums will increase the willingness to compromise (otherwise a party defeated in parliament will call for a referendum).
    This effect is not so strong, however, as we see from the fact that there are several non-mandatory referendums in Switzerland every year (and even some successful ones leaving the uncompromising majority and the goverment in the rain) despite the fact that every politician should know and "fear" them ...
  • Referendums favour big coalitions:
    Shared power motivates compromise, exclusion from power motivates obstructive referendums.
  • Referendums increase stability:
    As extreme laws will mercilessly be blocked by the electorate in referendums, parties are less inclined to radical changes in laws and voters are less inclined to call for fundamental changes in elections. There is no need to dismiss the government after a lost referendum, because the referendum solves the problem - preventing an extreme law - more efficiently and also more precisely: On the very same day, three new laws may be accepted and two others rejected.

Literature and links concerning Switzerland's Political System:

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