Direct democracy and capital punishment

This is how humanity’s only direct democracy dealt with the issue of capital punishment.

Switzerland has direct democracy since 1848. They abolished capital punishment in 1938.

The last execution of a woman, Genevieve Guenat took place in the little Swiss-French town of Delemont, near Berne, on September 7, 1874. The last man executed was Niklaus Emmenegger, in Lucerne, on July 6, 1867.

It is interesting that women could be executed but could not vote, in Switzerland and in representative democracies too. In non-democracies, where women and men can not vote, or where voting is a sham, both men and women can be executed.

It is also interesting how so many countries consider people are not intelligent and responsible enough to vote but they are responsible enough to be executed, and not just for killing another person, sometimes, just having sex with a man or woman who is not your husband or wife can get you killed, it is absurd.

But those are other issues. Let us go back to the death penalty and direct democracy.

In the early 1900s Swiss politicians reached the conclusion the death penalty was not the rational thing to do. On December 21,  1937, the Federal Assembly of Switzerland, which includes both houses of parliament, passed a law to abolish capital punishment.

But when Parliament “passes a law” in Switzerland, it is not like in representative democracies, in Switzerland’s direct democracy, the people make the final decision, not the elected representatives.

On July 3, 1939, the Swiss people in a national referendum approved the law. 54% of those who voted said “yes”. The proposed law became the law of the land. 57% of eligible voters took part. If the majority had said “no”, capital punishment would still be the law of the land.

No civilians were executed in Switzerland since 1939, even during the WW II period.

In April 1999, in another referendum, the Swiss people approved a new constitution which included banning capital punishment for the military too.

If the people had voted “no”, parliament could have drafted another law that could be supported by the majority of citizens. Ordinary Swiss citizens could also have developed a proposal; if they collected 100 000 signatures in 18 months or less, their proposal would be put to a national referendum.

As a reference, it is interesting to note how direct democracy in Switzerland, far from being the “tyranny of the majority” or “mob rule” as some say, was ahead of so many representative democracies in the abolition of capital punishment.

Switzerland:  Abolished it in 1938 for civilians, in1999 for the military too.

Canada abolished capital punishment in 1976 for civilians, in 1998 for the military.

Austria: 1968

Belgium: 1996

Denmark: 1978

France: 1981

Germany: 1949

Greece: 2001

Ireland: 1990

Italy: 1994

Netherlands: 1982

Norway: 1979

Poland: 1998

Portugal: 1976

Spain: 1978 for civilians and in 1995 for the military.

United Kingdom: 1998

The Vatican: 2001! I was shocked, but perhaps I should not have been.

Now, the big question is; why the people in representative democracies did not have a say on the ending of capital punishment? Why couldn’t the people of all those other countries have the right to put capital punishment to a national referendum, or even to a provincial or state referendum?

How many lives would have been saved in the UK, in France, in Canada, in the US, and other countries if the people had the power to put capital punishment to a national vote?

I  believe capital punishment is justified, and the moral thing to do in some cases, but if the people decide by referendum to abolish it, it is much harder to argue against its abolition when the majority of my fellow citizens vote to abolish it than if the politicians decide to do so.

It makes no sense a system where society has to wait until politicians form a state of opinion among themselves to abolish capital punishment, or any other law, or make any new law, or even change the constitution, yet the whole country who elects and pays the politicians has no way of doing that.

It is time for direct democracy in all stable representative democracies. In democracies that are not stable, corrupt, etc., or in countries that are not even representative democracies, they will probably have to wait, unless a revolution overthrows the current tyrants.


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