Direct democrats: “We pay, we decide”

We, the people, pay the taxes, we pay the salaries of the politicians; it makes sense we the people should be the final decision makers, not the politicians.

That makes Switzerland very different from representative democracies; in Switzerland, “we the people, decide issues”.

In representative democracies, the people elect the politicians, but the politicians make all the decisions.

The people in a direct democracy elect the politicians, but they also have the final say in all important executive and legislative decisions, they propose laws and changes to the constitution AND approve them, not the politicians.

Today I will look at how the Swiss change their constitution.

When the elected politicians in Switzerland agree on a change to the Constitution, even if both chambers of parliament agree, they can not make the change; they must propose the change to the people.

The people decide if they agree with the proposal by voting in a national referendum, if the result of the referendum is a “yes”, then the constitution is changed.

If the people reject what the politicians propose, the politicians can go back to the draw board, or they can forget the changes.

But there is another very interesting twist in Switzerland; the people can also propose changes to the constitution without the agreement or consent of the politicians.

To do that, any citizen, group of citizens, political party (no matter how small), environmental group, religious groups, etc., all they have to do is collect 100 000 signatures, approximately 1% of the population of Switzerland, in 18 months or less.

Once they do that, their proposal goes to a national referendum, just like when the politicians propose the change. The difference in Switzerland is that the politicians propose and do not decide, but the people propose and decide.

It is also very important to know that in Switzerland’s direct democracy, the Swiss Supreme Court can not overturn the decisions of the people.

In representative democracies, the Supreme Court, sometimes called Constitutional Court; can overturn the decisions of parliaments. They do not overturn the decisions by the people because the people can not make decisions; in representative democracies there is nothing to overturn.

One of the healthiest effects of the system of direct democracy is that politicians know they can only propose changes that are in tune with most of the voters. To increase the chances that the people will approve what the politicians propose, the major parties in parliament, who represent 70-80% of the voters, work cooperatively to draft the changes; no heavy handed adversarial politics in the Swiss parliament. This also helps prevent polarization of the country around the major parties, unlike what happens elsewhere.

Remember also that minority political parties, or parties with no representation in parliament, and others, can also propose changes to the constitution if they collect the 100 000 signatures. This makes that the Swiss direct democracy system a great equalizer of political power; a group of citizens, a small party, etc., have the same opportunity the Swiss parliament has to have their proposal to change the constitution become reality.

This is why when I see The Economist’s Democracy Index ranking several representative democracies as more democratic than Switzerland’s direct democracy, I laugh. I also feel sad for what I used to believe was a serious publication.  To see the index: democracy-index-2020

The magazine places Norway as the most democratic country in the World. Unfortunately, in Norway, (in other ways a great country) the politicians alone can change the constitution; they do not need the approval of the people, they do not even have to consult the people and, if they do, they can ignore the wishes of the people; some democracy! Democracy means government by the people.

Never mind the Economist and Norway; if you pay, you should decide. Electing the politicians is no longer enough. Democracy does not mean rule by the elected politicians, it means the people rule.

Representative democracy is an oxymoron, really; if the people are represented and the representatives decide, then the people do not decide, that is not rule by the people, it is not democracy, it is something that resembles democracy, it is better than totalitarian or authoritarian regimes, much better, but it is not democracy.

If you want democracy in your country, you will have to do more than blame the politicians or complain, you will have to spread the word about direct democracy until the people demand it, and do not give up until they get it.

Direct democracy did not land in Switzerland from Heaven…, they had to demand it, insistently.

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