Tomorrow, November 29th, 2020, the Swiss people make two important decisions.

In the first one, they will decide if Swiss companies must comply with Swiss and international law on human rights, corruption, and the environment.

You probably know that Switzerland, despite its relatively small size; only 8.5 million people, is the home of some huge multinationals; Nestlé (food and consumer goods), Novartis (pharmaceuticals), UBS (banking), Zurich insurance, Roche (pharmaceuticals), Glencore (mining), Credit Suisse (banking), Swiss Re (insurance), ACE-CHUBB (insurance), are among the better known, but there are many other Swiss companies active all over the World

This means the Swiss people are not just voting on moral issues of this nature because they do not really affect them economically; the results of the referendum can have a large economic impact in their own country too.

In representative democracies, voters can watch the verbal “fireworks” in the media about these issues, they can also demonstrate and scream, but they can decide nothing. They can’t because the constitutions of their countries, or the facts on the ground, give the elected representatives, not the people, the power to decide issues; the people can only elect politicians.

In the US, Canada, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, France, in the UK, etc., the people can vote, but they can not decide issues; the Swiss can.

The second decision the Swiss will make is if the financing of war material manufacturers should be banned.

Just like with the multinationals I mentioned above, Switzerland is also home to some world-size weapons manufacturers.

The voters will decide if the Swiss National Bank, the pension funds and foundations will be banned from holding shares of, or lending money to, weapons manufacturers.

Voters will also decide if the Swiss government will have to take the initiative to ban investing in large defence companies by all large international banks and international insurance companies, from any country.

I do not enter the discussion of the pros and cons of these issues.  My interest is direct democracy; “let my people decide”.

It is also important to know that in Switzerland, when an issue goes to a referendum, the government presents to the voters an alternative option; the government hopes its proposal will be more attractive to most voters.

This means that, even if the proponents of the “people’s” proposal lose the referendum, they don’t lose “everything” because the government proposal will become the law, if it wins the referendum. Normally, the government proposal leaves out the more controversial aspects of the “people’s” proposal. This often makes it more acceptable to some voters.

Each referendum is also preceded by ample debate. Besides, all potential voters receive information packages with the position of the government, the position of the referendum committee and the positions of the political parties. In this way voters interested in the issues can make a reasonably informed decision. This also helps losers accept defeat because they “lost” in a fair way.

This process helps avoid a “hard defeat” to the proponents of the referendum. As they say in Switzerland; “this is the country of happy losers”. This is so because “the losers” win something, even if what they proposed is rejected; it is a pretty good formula to help prevent bitterness and polarisation, don’t you think?

It also helps avoid bitterness that nothing stops the losers from bringing about another referendum later on; they can change the proposal, or perhaps the voters have changed their minds; imagine, for example, a scandal where a Swiss corporation is involved in major violations of human rights laws, it could swiftly change the mood of the public.

Nobody knows what can happen in tomorrow’s vote; the latest polls show the number of supporters of both “people’s” initiatives is dropping, even if it still is over or near 50%. We also know polls have a shaky reputation; Winston Churchill said: “There are lies, big lies, and statistics”; polling is a branch of statistics…

How come a common-sense idea, like direct democracy, is taking so long to catch on, even in mature representative democracies? Perhaps the explanation lies in the anonymous English saying: “common sense is so scarce that often it is mistaken for genius”.

I hope the news of tomorrow’s referendum will prompt people our countries to ask each other: “why can’t we decide things like that here?”

Check the news tomorrow to see what the people in Switzerland decided.

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