The Economist Intelligence Unit of the British magazine, The Economist, every year prepares The Democracy Index. The index ranks countries by the following factors;
Electoral Process and Pluralism
Functioning of Government
The top 10 countries, starting by the most democratic, are:
- New Zealand
However, the Index is wrong; there is no doubt that Switzerland should be number one. The reason is obvious; no country comes close to Swiss democratic practices.
By all, or the clear majority, of the factors the Economist considers, Switzerland comes out on top.
The Swiss people have, by far, more say in how the country is run than the people of any of the other nine countries.
But let us first look at definitions of democracy. The exercise in itself is interesting;
Merriam Webster: “Government by the people”. I like this one.
Oxford Dictionary: “A system of government based on the belief of equality between people, in which power is either held by elected representatives or directly by the people themselves”.
A democracy in which the people exercise power directly is very different from a democracy in which the elected representatives hold practically all the power, even if in both the people believe in equality.
Wikipedia: “A form of government in which the people have the authority to choose their governing legislation”.
I do not know what to make of this one. I am not saying it is bad, it just seems a bit narrow; the people should have the power to decide, beyond legislation.
Dictionary.com: “Government by the people; a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system”.
This has a weak point; a democracy in which the people exercise their power directly is very different from one in which the elected representatives have the power of decision.
Larousse (France): “A political system, a form of government in which sovereignty emanates from the people”.
This is too vague; “emanates” can mean anything.
I like Merriam Webster’s because it is to the point; “government by the people”.
Given the diversity of definitions, it is no wonder the Index “wanders”.
I also like Abraham Lincoln’s; “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. The Swiss come closest to this one because the Swiss people have the most power to make it so.
Actually, you only need “government by the people”, as Webster says.
No matter how you look at it; nobody can represent the people better than the people themselves.
In representative democracy the people have, sometimes, the power to decide on issues. This is the case in binding referendums. Unfortunately, in the nine representative democracies of the list, referendums are few and most are non-binding. When this happens, most referendums are little more than elaborate and costly surveys.
In a direct democracy, the people decide all key issues and their decisions prevail over the decisions of government and parliament, pretty cool.
The other nine democracies in the list have some referendums, but only when the elected representatives so decide and most are non-binding.
Not only that, the elected representatives decide on the date in which the referendum will be held.
When the elected representatives, government or parliament, decide what and when something goes to a referendum, they also have in mind their political interests and the interests of lobbies, not necessarily the interests of the people. This is not “government of the people, for the people, by the people”, it is something else.
If, on top of that, the elected representatives also have the power to decide on the wording of the referendum, this further dilutes he power of the people.
But all representative democracies, including the “top nine” in the Economist’s Index, go even beyond that in reducing the power of the people. This is so because the elected representatives pass all laws and regulations, and the people can not do much about that democratically, by means of votes.
They can demonstrate, write letters, articles and books showing their disagreement, but all that is evidence of the lack of democratic power, ballot box power, by the people.
If the people have power they are able to stop the elected representatives from raising taxes, spend public money in any way they see fit, sign treaties without the approval of the people, etc. Not only that, it is be the people who decide on taxes and the rest.
Demonstrations, etc., are an indication that democracy is not as developed as it can be. Freedom to protest is not democracy, it is freedom to protest. Democracy is when the people do not have to protest, because they have the power to directly control what government does. The Swiss people have that power, the people of the other nine democracies do not.
Here is a very short guide of what the other countries, ahead of Switzerland in the list, do in terms of people power, beyond the power to elect representatives;
Norway: The constitution does not even mention referendums! Politicians decide when the people will vote in a referendum. The result is non-binding. They have had six referendums. Not impressive. No way Norway is number one.
Sweden: It is similar to Norway. They have had six referendums since they have democracy.
New Zealand: Citizens can propose a non-binding referendum; not much “meat” here either. They have had ten referendums.
Finland: The people can propose a referendum, but the politicians can ignore the petition. They had two referendums.
Ireland: The politicians decide if there is to be a referendum. 38 constitutional referendums called by the politicians. No other referendum.
Denmark: It is also up to the politicians. They have had sixteen referendums.
Canada: It is up to the politicians. Three referendums.
Switzerland: Binding referendums are called by the law or by the people; 600 binding referendums, yes 600. The government can not call referendums in Switzerland. This reduces the power of government even more in relation to the power of ordinary citizens.
Swiss voters regularly decide on laws proposed by parliament; the law does not pass if the voters reject it. Even if both houses of parliament, and the government, unanimously propose the law, the people can reject it.
In Switzerland, voters must also approve international treaties and, like in many countries, also decide on changes to the constitution.
Ordinary Swiss citizens can call for a national vote, legally binding, on almost any issue. In none of the other nine countries can ordinary citizens do that.
There is even more; in Switzerland there is no Supreme Court or Constitutional Court to decide on interpretation of the constitution. This is so because the people are the interpreters.
The Swiss hold more than one half of the word’s referendums at the national level, probably even many more at the state (province) and municipal levels.
That is impressive for a country of 8.5 million people in a World of billions of people.
The facts speak; Switzerland is clearly the most democratic country in the World.
It is incomprehensible that the Economist does not rank Switzerland as the number one democracy.