Direct democracy in Swiss municipalities; Zurich

When I tell people how direct democracy will give them direct authority on how their city is administered, they like the idea.

They like to have the power to stop politicians if they spend the money of their taxes in ways they dislike.

The problem arises in the details; when we try to expand representative democracy to direct democracy.

Sometimes the problem is the people themselves. They have not known direct democracy and this scares many.

We are referring to people in stable representative democracies. I am thinking of places such as the English-speaking World, Northern Europe, Japan and a few others. When things are going well, why change?

When a representative democracy is not stable, direct democracy is unlikely to work. In non-democracies the possibility is even more remote.

Polls show that people in stable representative democracies often do not feel represented; this is a problem that endangers democracy.

If you would like to be in control, even with the same elected representatives, direct democracy is the best way to achieve that.

One could say direct democracy is: “control of politicians by the people, for the people”.

Representative politicians sometimes sense voters feel alienated. When this happens they do things to get citizens more involved. For example, they give citizens the opportunity to provide input to the budget, etc. This is not direct democracy.

Direct democracy is not about consulting or listening to the people, it is about the people becoming the direct bosses of the politicians.

Why many representative politicians are not eager for direct democracy?

They have a lot more power than direct democracy politicians; therefore it is logical they will think representative democracy is best.

Representative politicians are not devious people; most of them honestly believe representative democracy is the best democracy.

But ordinary people, politicians and academics, may also say: “I fear direct democracy because I fear the tyranny of the majority”. People who say this do not believe in democracy, or can not appreciate the true meaning of democracy. In democracy we trust the people, there is no other way.

Anyhow, if the majority decides to become a tyranny they can do so in representative democracy too; all they have to do is elect a dictator; remember Hitler, Chaves in Venezuela, etc.

If we trust that citizens are democrats we should have no issue with direct democracy. I agree that in many countries, sadly, the people can not be trusted to make any form of democracy to work, but that is not the case in stable democracies.

In stable democracies, unless a catastrophic crisis drives the majority to desperation, and even then, the majority will choose the middle way. They do so decade after decade, sometimes century after century! How can we think such people will become a tyranny! it makes no sense. The majority in those countries have proven their intelligence, their common sense, decade after decade.

Words are useful but the best way to prove direct democracy works is to know direct democracies that are working.

I will now tell you about Zurich, the largest city in Switzerland. Zurich has a population of 400 000.

Zurich has a representative local parliament of 125 seats and a local executive with 9 seats.

Zurich has four direct democracy tools; mandatory referendum, optional referendum, popular initiative and personal initiative.

The mandatory referendum is for changes to Zurich laws or for any large government expense.

Because the Swiss pay a lot of their taxes locally, they are quite interested in having a say, and a veto. They use referendums to control  significant expenses.

In Zurich any one time expense of more than 10 million Swiss Francs, about 10 million USD, has to be approved by citizens in a referendum.

Citizens also have to approve any established yearly expense of over 600 000 Swiss Francs.

Zurich’s budget is 8,753 billion Swiss francs. As you can see; the citizens of Zurich keep a very close eye on their money. They watch the “pennies”.

The other referendum, the optional referendum, can be called by the city, or as a result of a petition by citizens.

To force the “optional” referendum, 4000 Zurich citizens need to demand it.

The government can also put to a referendum any issue that feels should be approved by the people.

The popular initiative. This is another way to force the government to put to a citizen vote many issues.

Finally, they also have the personal initiative.

Using the personal initiative any citizen, individually, can write a request to Zurich’s parliament. If 42 of the 125 members of the parliament support the request, then the personal initiative has to be considered by the executive. Afterwards, the executive has to come back with a proposal to execute the personal initiative.

The executive’s response is then debated again in parliament. If at least 42 members still support the private initiative, then it is also put to a direct vote by the people.

What a simple and beautiful way to give power to the citizens!

As we can see, Zurich’s citizens have quite a bit of control over what the local parliament and government can do.

There is no reason why any city of any size in any stable democracy can not do the same, or better.

Of course, to get citizen’s attention we may need to change laws. For example, the citizen should pay more of their taxes at the local level. Once that happens, soon they link taxes to expenses and become very interested in how their city spends their money.

Tomorrow I will provide another example.

Your critical feedback and contributions are appreciated.

In two days I will publish the next blog.



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