In search of democracy

Rick Salutin is searching the world for the essence of democracy—see here, here and here for the first three instalments—and in Switzerland he considers referendums.

Voter turnout for referendums and elections hovers around 45-55 per cent, comparable to our own elections — but there, voting happens constantly. Not just voting, but weighing and debating. “The whole society is in a constant state of discussion,” says Nik Nuspliger, North American correspondent for Zurich’s Neue Zürcher Zeitung. It’s built into Swiss life, like the legal system itself. Every law passed by parliament that affects the constitution must go to a referendum. Laws not affecting the constitution can also be sent to a referendum if 50,000 people sign a petition — out of population of 8 million. Votes can be based on “popular initiatives” if they’re supported by 100,000 names. That’s how minarets got on.

Parliament then debates and formulates a question and it can also put its own alternative on the ballot. Foreign treaties automatically get referendums. There are provisions for double majorities — both nationally and in cantons — in some cases, and time limits depending on issues. This is the sign of deep integration into normal political life: loads of rules.

The counter to any pro-referendum argument is, of course, California, which at least demonstrates the need to be very careful in designing any such system of direct democracy.