3. Nov. 2006

Swiss and Oregonians:
Same system, same experiences, same hopes -
similar problems

By Andreas Gross (Zurich, Switzerland)
(Political scientist, Director of the Scientific Institute for Direct Democracy, Member of the Swiss Parliament, in these weeks in Oregon to follow the debates for the Nov 7th)

What Oregon is in the US, Switzerland is in Europe: The state which is the pioneer of direct democracy on the respective continent and where you may observe the most intensive use of ballot issues in America and Europe. In Oregon and Switzerland people are used to have and to use their political power. Since 1912 Oregon saw 347 initiatives on the ballot (10 % more than in California), which is about 12 % of all citizens-initiatives of the 24 US-States with direct democracy.

In Switzerland since 1891 more than 250 initiatives qualified for the ballot-box; this represents more than 90 % of all European citizens initiatives, because of all 48 European states besides Switzerland only in Italy, Slovenia, Hungary, Lithuania and Poland citizens have the right to impose a people’s decision even against the will of the government or the Parliament.

In other countries - in France by a decision of the president, in Ireland when the constitution is amended, in Austria or recently also in the Netherlands if the Parliament agrees, in Denmark when European matters are in stake or when countries join the European Union - people may vote too, with the consent of the authorities. 636 peoples decisions took place in Europe since 1945, two third of them happened in Switzerland.

There are even global trends which are the similar in Oregon, the U.S., Switzerland and Europe: Since 1970 the use of direct democracy intensives in a way, that in the 36 years since then, you saw everywhere more than the double of citizen-driven initiatives or referendums than in the twice as many years before. And in Europe after 1989, when the number of democratic states more then doubled, you saw in the east and the west more initiatives and referendums that ever before.

Not only the present use and the political culture, not only quantity and quality should stimulate comparison between Oregon and Switzerland; it is also the common history which legitimizes it. What in the first half of the 20th century become known in the U.S. as “the Oregon system” or “the Oregon system of Direct Democracy”, came to Oregon under the label “Swiss system”.

The people’s movement, which introduced 1902 the initiative- and referendum-rights in the Oregonian constitution, started 1892 in Milwaukee at a meeting of the Farmers’ Alliance in the Clackamas County. Farmers, craftsmen and workers came together to discuss a new small book of a New Yorker union-man and journalist, John W. Sullivan, who offered insights of new democratic experiences in some Swiss cantons during the last quarter of the 19th century, the initiative and referendum.

Two years later an emigrated Swiss, now living in Portland, send a letter to the editor of a Zurich based social-democratic newspaper in Switzerland and asked for advice. He wrote, that at the coast of the pacific ocean he witness the same peoples’ movement for the introduction of initiative and referendum rights into the state constitution as he remembered from the canton of Zurich in the 1860ies. The editors’ comment was hopeful: He expressed his joy that the “fantastic idea of direct legislation by the people makes its way around the world”.

The historical parallels were really astonishing: Same experiences by sociologically similar people led them to ask for the same democratic reforms although they lived on two different continents and 30 years away from each other. What in Zurich was called the “System of Mr. Escher” a tycoon of the mid 19th century who owned railway-companies, banks and controlled the legislative as well as the executive side of the government of Zurich was called in Oregon the “control of the legislature by the plutocracy”.

The economic and social effects were the same: Exorbitant railroad rates and tight money supply, prize dumping for farmers goods and products, increase of mortgage rates: Life for ordinary people became more and more difficult, the representative institutions of government did neither represent their needs, interests nor hopes, and that’s why they asked for the last word in the political decision making process.

Of course also direct democracy did not fulfill all political hopes of ordinary citizens, farmers and working class people, neither in Oregon nor in Switzerland. Too divided are the interests of even ordinary people, too often they disagree on speed, substance and perspectives of reforms and changes.

But in both states more then three quarters of the citizens would never want to go back to the monopole of representative democracy; on the contrary: Interesting enough on both sides of the Atlantic both peoples are convinced that direct democracy makes representative democracy more representative. Governors and legislators have to listen more and better and can’t ignore the people’s main concerns.

Of course you hear also in Switzerland elitist views as expressed in these pages by Steven K. Green (“On ballot measures this year: Just say no!” Oregonian, October 13, 2006). But the answers are also similar: Members of parliaments too are not always totally informed of all aspects of a decision they take, they also have to listen to advices by experts and lobbyists. Special interests have strong influences in all democracies, not only in direct democracies and also parliamentary decisions may have unintended consequences. The point is that the existence and the use of the citizens’ rights for initiatives and referendums reduce the risks and the amount of special interest influences, unintended decisions and insufficient knowledge more and better than when these rights do not exist.

The more citizens have to say, the more they are listened, the more decision- makers think about them, deliberate better and the higher the chances are, that the decisions will serve the interest of most and not only of few. These are the experiences with direct democracy in Oregon and Switzerland, and that’s why so many citizens in the United Kingdom, Germany or France miss these rights and are so eager to get them.

Many signs do indicate that we live a worldwide crises of democracy today: But not because people are against the idea of democracy or they have too much to say, but because the system has in many countries not yet been reformed as in Switzerland and Oregon some decades ago and because democracy has not at all yet been installed on the transnational level, where the most dramatic changes happen and people’s voices have really to be heard.

Andreas Gross

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