03. Juni 2016

Foreign Desk
Daily News SME

The more you participate and learn the more you will see that populist arguments are often very egoistic and do not reflect the common interests

Interview: Lukáš Onderčanin

Why are referendums (as a strong part of direct democracy) so important for Swiss society?

It became an important part we should stress, because it was not deli­ve­red by the founding liberal fathers of modern Switzerland in the year of 1848. It has been conquered by the opposition movement between 1865 and 1895, when many ordinary people (farmers, craftsmen, workers, but also Catholics, countryside inhabitants and small cantons) had the im­pression, that their interests were neglected by the federal Parliament, dominated by the liberals. They were very elitist and followed the old li­beral/Leninist but very modern attitude: «the issues of the people are so important, you should not leave them to the people ...»

Today the referendum is so important, because it overcomes the gap we see in all modern societies between political class and parliament and the citizens. The citizens feel themselves much more capable than just to elect every four years a parliament - and in between, they have no­thing to say anymore. They feel very comfortable to be able to decide whenever there is something controversial. And for the very diverse society it's important because it's the freest way to integrate diversity, when you allow the society to discuss their differences every three months and important issues have to find its own majority.

There are several referendums per year in Switzerland and turnout is around 50 %. Are Swiss people more used to participate on political life than in other European countries?

I do think, that the long history of direct democracy made the Swiss people today more used to participate in the political life then in other countries. This kind of direct democracy changed the political culture, you get also much more different and you follow the political news every day. Already children get used to the fact, that at home and at the kit­chen table, political issues are debated as others such as sport, culture or personal life. And it's important to stress, that the 50 % who parti­ci­pa­te in general are not always the same 50 %. Only 25 % always partici­pa­te and only 20 % never do. About 55 % do it selectively, when they feel concerned, when they are interested in the issue and knowledgeable. So during 4 years 80 % of all the society participate at least in one refe­ren­dum, what is remarkable.

But there is a great democratic deficit in Switzerland, because in a de­mo­cracy all those who are concerned by a decision should be invited to participate in the decision making: 25 % of those who are concerned are excluded because they do not have the Swiss passport. This is one of the deficits that undermine the beauty of direct democracy. It should urgently be overcome.

Do you think a similar model of direct democracy can be used also in other European countries (let's say in Eastern Europe)? People often use to vote for populistic proposals ...

Absolutely. Mr. Masaryk thought about it already in the 1920's for Cze­cho­slovakia already as well as some leaders in the Baltic States did! Also in the Eastern European Countries people could like to share the power more citizen friendly and not delegate all to the Parliament. And this is a way to overcome populist reflects and attitudes. Because the more you participate the more you learn because you inform yourself better, you discuss more; and the more you learn the more you see that populist arguments are often very superficial, short-term-orientated and egoistic and do not reflect the common interest and especially not the common long-term interests.

Do you remember some Swiss referendums, which surprised you? Or they were controversial?

I remember many controversial referendum votes and often I was sur­prised by the result. I did not expect the Swiss to be so anti-immigrant as two years ago, or so much ignoring the freedom of religion seven years ago, when they banned the possibility of building a fifth or a sixth minaret in Switzerland for the 400'000 peaceful Muslims who live here. But I was also positively surprised when we convinced more than one million of Swiss to vote against the army in 1989, when our wall felt and the Swiss started to live with a desacralized army and stopped seeing they’re society as a militaristic one.

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