In Switzerland voters reject nine out of ten national initiatives, but often it happens because governments come up with a compromise that satisfies the majority of voters.
Some people think; why do the Swiss bother collecting the 100 000 signatures required to put the proposal to a vote if they are likely to fail? Perhaps now these people will understand why the Swiss bother.
For example, the Swiss Green Party proposed to shut down any nuclear after 45 years in use. The party collected the required 100 000 signatures to put the initiative to a national vote.
Voters defeated the initiative, but something very important happened; the government had to come up with an alternative. It happened because of the increased awareness of the people on the issue. The initiative by the Green Party made voters very aware of the dangers of nuclear energy.
The government disagreed with the Green Party, but to increase the chances of defeating the initiative it had to propose an alternative, a compromise.
This is what it proposed: Instead of shutting down the nuclear plants after 45 years in operation, they would build no new nuclear plants. It also proposed to shut down existing stations once the Swiss Federal Nuclear Safety Inspectorate considers they are no longer safe.
In this way, the losing initiative also won. The Green party, and all those who voted to support the 45 year limit, did not get their way, but they got that Switzerland will become nuclear free. Not a bad result for them.
The compromise satisfied people concerned that going non-nuclear too fast would make electricity more expensive for private citizens and for business.
Many people also feared that switching too fast to renewable sources of electricity would hurt Switzerland’s competitive position in the World. They thought this would threaten the standard of living of citizens, threaten jobs and prosperity.
Because initiatives cause changes, even if they lose the vote, the Swiss people do not lose enthusiasm for initiatives.
Without the mechanism of the initiative to challenge current laws on nuclear plants, it is unlikely the Swiss government would have proposed as a compromise to stop building nuclear plants.
Even if 9 out of 10 initiatives go down at the ballot box, 9 out of 10 Swiss voters also want to keep the right to use initiatives. They want direct democracy. They want it because it is a better tool to influence governments, to change laws and policies, than just relying on elected representatives and parliaments deciding by themselves.
For the Green Party, the referendum on nuclear power boosted its credibility in the eyes of voters in general, not just Green Party voters. This may help the party in the next election. This means small parties play a much bigger role in direct democracy than in representative democracy. This is good for democracy because it helps represent minority voters.
As I wrote before, one of the attractive aspects of direct democracy is that promotes governance in tune with the people. No longer the elected representatives, business, unions or other lobbies will decide, instead the people will.
Direct democracy forces governments, and also opposition parties, at all levels to seek popular support at any time between elections. This helps erase the feeling so many citizens have, of not feeling represented.
Launching an initiative and collecting 100 000 signatures also forces governments and lobbies to listen to the people. No longer deals out of the public eye will the norm.
You and your fellow citizens must have the right to tell your governments at the national, regional or local level: “Wait a minute, this issue is important to us, you can’t just go and decide without us, we are the ones who have to vote and decide”. There is no reason why you should not have that right.
The truth is that political decisions are too important to leave to the politicians alone.
Let us move!