Newsletter No 2
10. April 2002
Rubrik: Andi's Comment

The swiss 'yes' to the United Nations -
An interesting case for studying the cultures
of direct democracy

By Andreas Gross, IRI Research Director

In many ways the Swiss vote of 3rd March 2002 on joining the United Nations (UN), initiated by a non-partisan popular initiative, was exceptional in the rich history of Direct Democracy in Switzerland. Nevertheless, a deeper analysis of the process which ended in a narrow victory of the Yes-side reveals important elements of the communicative dynamics of the culture of Direct Democracy which are sufficiently interesting to be considered independently of the Swiss and the UN context.

The most important detail was of course the fact that Switzerland is the last country to join the UN, but the first of all its 190 member states to do this by the decision of the majority of the people and of the 26 cantonal-states which form the Swiss (Con)federation. This detail has nothing to do with Direct Democracy itself, but is due to the way the Swiss survived the Second World War and the (wrong) conclusions too many of them have drawn from this experience for the post-war period.

Nearly as rare is a Swiss federal popular initiative (which always aims at constitutional change) which wins a real double majority on election day. The March 2002 occasion was only the thirteenth one to achieve this since 1891, when the right of Swiss citizens to propose constitutional amendments was established - by popular vote, of course. Usually, the real effect of an initiative process is indirect. 50 % of all popular initiatives in Switzerland do have an effect on the change of policies, but in most cases the change is not as deep or as far-reaching as the initiators' intentions.

Even more rare are popular initiatives which are welcomed by the federal government and by majorities in the chambers of the Swiss Parliament. The UN-Initiative was only the second out of more than a hundred popular initiatives in the last 50 years which got the support of the government and the majority of the MPs. This is probably the most significant element, because normally initiatives are launched out of a critical feeling towards parliament and are therefore not welcomed by it.

Three factors may explain this peculiarity: The two MPs who in 1997 launched the project of a popular initiative for Swiss UN-membership were driven by the conviction that the massive 'No' to the UN of 1986 (only 25 % of the citizens and not one of the 26 cantons voted in favour, although the government and the majority of the MPs recommended entry!) had to be «revised» 16 years later based on a popular initiative coming from the same people, rather than once again coming only from a parliamentary proposal. This was even more necessary because without this popular approach the government would not have had the courage to come up with the new proposal to join the UN. Mr. Cotti, then Swiss Minister for Foreign Affairs, admitted this to me very frankly. And without the support of the government the majority of the parliament would not have had the courage to support a new vote on the UN. Too many MPs, especially from the center and the right (which in Swiss parliamentary terms means the majority), underestimated the symbolic value and the dynamic of a public debate and a popular approval of the UN and were more interested in the European debate.

This illustrates one function of the popular initiative: it produces incentives for institutional action which would not happen without the popular push of 120,000 signatures. They legitimise the addition of an issue to the public agenda which the political class itself alone would not choose. Secondly: with the popular initiative citizens may encourage politicians to do what they are too afraid of doing. And thirdly: by collecting the 120,000 signatures, by public and private conversations and discussions initiators may stabilise and strengthen a change in the public mood which the political class is not yet sufficiently aware of. These theses have been fulfilled by the UN-initiators in a paradigmatic way. But they also had to pay a price for it: at the very moment when the government welcomed the launching of the UN-Initiative it became very difficult to find enough citizens with sufficient motivation to undertake the personal effort of collecting the 100 signatures they had each been asked to collect (because the political base of the UN-initiative was not one of the traditional political parties or other associations, but a group of people brought together only for this purpose). Too many of those who were ready to help collect signatures for the UN-initiative did not understand why they had to make a personal effort when the government was ready to do the same. They had to be personally approached and shown that their effort was necessary to persuade the government to be in favour of a vote on joining the UN. These special difficulties were increased by the general tendency in Swiss politics for it to become more and more difficult and energy-consuming to gather signatures. Formerly, the best place to do this was at the polling stations on the weekend of a vote. But today - especially in towns and cities - more than three quarters of the electorate vote by mail and only a minority of the people still go to the polling stations on Sunday morning.

The consequence: if one wealthy man had not helped the initiators by paying for the signature-sheets to be included in newspapers, the signatures for the UN-Initiative would not have been gathered!

At the federal Swiss level, the parliament is not yet ready to draw any conclusions in favour of Direct Democracy out of these developments: proposals to decrease the numbers of signatures you need for initiatives and referenda have been rejected.

It takes a long time to convince Swiss legislators of the need for such reforms - including the one to introduce a new right, whereby 10,000 signatures could propose to the federal parliament an action to be taken by the government in organisations like the UN, the WTO, the Worldbank or the IMF. Even those who criticise these institutions for not being as democratic as they should be have not been ready to support such new national citizens' rights which compensate for the not yet existing equal participatorial rights at the transnational level. Such experiences are sometimes very difficult to digest. When I had to accept the rejection of all these reforms in the Swiss Parliament aimed at strengthening Direct Democracy, I got the impression that even in Switzerland Direct Democracy would not be supported in Parliament if it did not already exist.

Andreas Gross


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