On May 18, 2019 The Japan Times published an interesting story. The story makes very clear what direct democracy should be, and sometimes is not.
The story also illustrates how, even in Switzerland, sometimes the system can not resist the pull to give authorities power over the people.
Here we can see how an educated person could not accept people power when it went against her. I suspect she would have been happy if people power supported her.
It happened in Gipf-Oferbrick, a small town of 3,500 people in the Canton of Aargau in North-Central Switzerland.
Nancy Holden is a Dutch-born woman in her 40s. She has lived in Switzerland since age 8. She has Swiss children, and she feels she is Swiss.
She likes Switzerland so much she decided to become a Swiss citizen. “Switzerland is my home” she says.
The common language in the town is Swiss-German and Ms. Holden speaks it fluently.
In 2015 she tried to become a Swiss national.
In Switzerland, the municipality often has the authority to decide if a foreign resident is fit to be a citizen. Besides, the officials or politicians do not decide, the people decide.
The people of Gipf-Ofebrik voted. She lost; the town assembly decided to reject her application.
Why did they do that?
Ms. Holden is an animal rights activist. She had been campaigning against some of the town’s more established traditions. Three of them are: putting bells on cows, piglet racing and church bells ringing at night giving the hour.
Her campaigning annoyed the town’s folk. To them, she did not respect their traditions. She was also very strident. The locals believe cow bells and piglet racing do no harm to the animals. They also like the sound of their church bells.
She was rejected again in 2017.
Some say that allowing the town’s people to decide if someone can become a citizen is not right.
They say things like “it allows for more emotionally charged and more discriminatory decisions”. To me it is like saying: “we do not trust the judgment of the people”, “we do not trust democracy”.
Nobody is more qualified than other neighbours to say if someone is a good neighbour. We all know that if on a street most people say: “the people in house number 27 are a nuisance”. There is no doubt they are nuisance, at least to the majority.
If the people of the town believed she was not fit to become a citizen, in a democracy, they are right. That is what democracy is about, the will of the majority of the people.
As long as they vote freely and are of sound mind, nobody should be able to override their decision, except a bigger majority.
Democracy is majority rule. Democracy is based on the idea that the majority of people are of sound mind. The alternative is rule by absolute kings, political parties, religious authorities, oligarchs, etc. Representative democracy is also rule by the majority, except that in between elections representative democracy only allows people the right to complain.
The lady appealed to the Cantonal authorities. They asked the town to vote again. The second time, even more people voted against her.
Unfortunately, even Switzerland is far from a perfect direct democracy; Ms. Holden took her case again to the authorities of the Canton of Aargau. This time the authorities sided with her and she is a Swiss citizen now.
To me, the position of those who opposed her application is reasonable.
Ms. Holden could have expressed her opinions about cow bells, piglet racing and church bells at the town’s assembly in a manner that did annoy people so much.
She could also have formed a party and persuade the villagers to change their ways.
In representative democracy people can not do much between elections, other than complain or become aggressive “activists” with demonstrations, etc. I do not go for the “activist stuff”; people must have the right to change laws and introduce new laws. Activism is a way of forcing changes without the explicit support of the majority. Such changes should not happen. It is bad for democracy.
It is possible that a community may reject someone’s application for citizenship for what others consider unjust motives.
Let us say they rejected Ms Holden for being a woman, or for being Dutch. If the majority of the citizens of the Canton, or of Switzerland, believe the law is wrong, they can change it by referendum. They could even vote on the decision, to resolve the case and establish the rule.
What we can not have is the “authorities” overrule the will of the people and expect democracy to survive. The people must be the ultimate authority.
This is why in Switzerland, while not perfect direct democracy, the people make the key decisions. The highest courts or the national government do not.
Ms. Holden said she cried when she felt so rejected by her neighbours. Unfortunately, she was unable to understand their emotions.
Was she also unable to understand their emotions after having their decision overruled by the “authorities”?
A democratic resolution might have been if the Cantonal authorities told Ms. Holden:
“You have to work with your neighbours and gain their acceptance”.
Direct democracy is not about the political or judicial authorities letting the people decide, as long as the people decide the “right way”. Direct democracy is about the people deciding because they are the authority.
For or against, your comments are appreciated.
In the next blog more interesting stuff to advance direct democracy.