Today, another example of how Swiss direct democracy works and how, in my opinion, hopefully in yours too, it is superior to representative democracy and it is logical evolution for democracy.
The post does not address non-democratic systems because they are an affront to human dignity; they are the worst possible systems and should not exist. Unfortunately, too many societies seem still unable, for now, to have democracy, even representative democracy. It would great, but a miracle, if a country governed by communists, fascists or religious totalitarians, were able to pole vault into direct democracy.
So, let us go to Switzerland’s direct democracy.
On Nov. 28, 2021, many popular referendums took place in Switzerland; some at the national level, some at the cantonal level (a Swiss canton is roughly comparable to a US State, a German state, a Canadian Province or a Spanish Autonomous Region, but generally much smaller and, surprisingly, with significantly more autonomy). It seems the Swiss really practise diversity in this regard to accommodate geographic, cultural and linguistic differences. Todo that they organise themselves in 26 cantons, for total population of 8.5 milliom.
Today I will refer to one of the votes that took place, specifically, one vote in the Canton of Zurich. The most populated canton with 1.5 million inhabitants.
In Zurich, you need to collect six thousand signatures of eligible voters to call a referendum. In other cantons the numbers are different to accommodate differences in population, but in percentage terms, they are roughly similar, but each canton sets its own referendum rules.
Anyone can collect the signatures to call a referendum on any issue that falls within the responsibilities of the Canton of Zurich. The residents of the municipalities of the canton can also call referendums, from the largest, the city of Zurich, to the smallest of a few dozen people, all practise direct democracy; the people decide issues, such a building a municipal pool, a library, etc. The number of signatures is proportionally smaller to reflect the population of the municipality.
If for a population of 1.5 million, such as the canton of Zurich we need 6000 signatures, 0,4% of the population, representing approximately 0.5% of eligible voters.
If we assume, roughly similar ratios, a city in the Canton of Zurich of, for example, 20 000 people, will require approximately 500 signatures to launch a referendum. In a small municipality, only a few sirgatures are required.
With each Swiss voter practising direct democracy, which voters are decisive in the running of the country (The Swiss Federation), each canton and each municipality, you can imagine that Swiss voters really feel they control what happens at all government levels.
Compare these figures with California, where the signatures of between 5 and 8% of the numbers of voters who participated in the previous election, are required. These figures are considerably higher than Zurich’s, although not as high as those numbers would seem to make them, because voter turnout is lower than the number of eligible voters.
This is a separate issue, but in Switzerland they do not have laws to control financing of referendum campaigns. In spite of that, they do not have the phenomenon we see in California’s referendum campaigns, general state campaigns and, above all, US Congressional or Presidential campaigns, where big money from various sources distorts democracy in a serious way.
Swiss voters, Zurich and municipality voters too, know they pay the taxes required to implement the local, cantonal and national decisions they make with their votes, in the US, most taxes are paid to the federal government. This means California voters do not feel as responsible as Zurich voters, because they aren’t, for the effects of their decisions in their pocket as much as the Swiss are. In Switzerland, most taxes are paid at the local and canton level, not the federal level.
Fossil fuels to be phased out in the Canton of Zurich,
6000 thousand signatures in Zurich, is all that was required to launch the referendum to decide the future of fossil fuels for heating systems.
63% of voters turned out supporting the measure to replace fossil fuels in heating systems with other energies. Notice that the politicians in Zurich could not have done that on their own without the approval of the people. Swiss voters, not just in Zurich, have the power to stop the politicians and to push the politicians on specific issues, even national issues, like defense, international treaties, etc.
Swiss cantons are responsible for universal health, education, most taxes, etc. This means the Swiss control their governments at all levels. It seems Swiss voters have decided: “we pay, we have the final say on any issue, not the elected politicians, we, the people decide to phase out fossil fuels, not the elected representatives”.
The Zurich house owner’s association campaigned against the law, so did the conservative party. Most Swiss do not own or live in houses, that can explain the results of the vote. But the vote was, unquestionably, a democratic vote. Much more democratic than in a representative democracy where powerful lobbies would have pressured the politicians not to listen, or to push for the switch because heat pump manufacturers, distributores and installers benefit. The pressure coming from the “donations” those groups make to the political campaigns of politicians and parties.
But issues of general interest should not be in the hands of specific groups when they pressure politians for reasons who do not consider the general interest.
But it is not a “dictatorship of the majority” vote; government will provide financial assistance to those who own houses. It has doubled the support already in place to encourage switching. Those who voted for the measure know the money to help house owners will come from their taxes too.
In a representative democracy, where politicins have much more power, the politicians can not resist also “buying” votes with measures geared to “improve the environmen” (and also get voters to support them at the next election, but not because the measures are good for the environment but because voters get “gifts” with their own money but with no say in the decision.
For example, right now in Canada, the federal government gives up to 5000 Canadian dollars to house owners who install heat pumps. The cost of such installation amounts to about 12 000 to 15 000 dollars. It is a substantial investment that many people can not afford, Precisely the people who most need to reduce their heating bills. They will continue to use oil gas and wood; I suppose wood burning was not an issue in the Zurich referendum because fireplaces are not allowed for heating.
With this decision, the people of the canton of Zurich will reduce CO2 emissions 40%.
Swiss direct democracy forces voters to focus on the real issue; reduce CO2 emissions, to vote responsibly and to own the consequences of their decisions, they can not blame the politicians. Voters make such decisions after informed debate.
In Canada, none of the parties directly involved in the decision have CO2 emisions as the central concern; most house owners do not think of CO2 when they know of the program, they think things like: “If we install heat pumps in the house we will reduce our heating bill by so much and the government will give use 5000 dollars”. Perhaps they will also think: “the house will be easier to sell”. Others may pass because they do not have the money or they say: “it is not worth it, in a few years we will probably move, we will never get our money back”. In short, the program has a lot of political marketing in it; very different from what happened in Zurich.
Politicians think: “Incentives to improve energy efficiency sound good, if people get money for heat pumps they will like it. We hope they remember at election time”. If not many people install heat pumps, and the effect no CO2 emissions is negligible,and people have no idea of how important will be the benefits, nor where the reduction will happen, but who can deny it is “an initiative to help Canadians and the environment”. In the end it does not matter much in how many tons of CO2 emissions will be reduced.
As for the heat pump manufacturers, distributors and installers, no need to say that their major concern is to sell and install heat pumps, it is their business!
In other cantons, such as Bern, with one million inhabitants, voters rejected a similar referendum earlier; this another of the beauties of direct democracy, Swiss style; it accommodates differences among cantons and municipalities.
Direct democracy also forces voters to grow up. In representative democracies voters elect politicians who decide for them. The system frees voters of responsibility and, in a way, reduces them to children whose vote is bought with nice promises and gifts. Voters in representative democracies never feel directly responsible for anything; it is always “the politicians!”.
It is time to grow up, to give politicians the role of doing what the people want, not to “lead” the people. The people know how to lead themselves very well once the have to decide issues and are responsible for the consequences. Swiss voters have been demonstrating for more than 150 years.
In representative democracy, the problem is not the politicians or the parties or the voters, although most voters like to think so, the problem is the system of representative democracy. It is the system, that makes voters not responsible, and politicians irresponsible, because the system forces them to have winning elections as the main goal, not the good of the community or the country. The system of representative democracy forces politicians to consider every issue with short term electoral concerns in mind. On the other hand, direct democracy forces voters to think long terms; voters are not runnig for reelection, they think of the environment on its merits, of the future of their children and the country.
It is not that politicians are bad, selfish, greedy or stupid, politicians are ordinary people but the system forces them to behave badly very often.
So, study the Swiss system and bring direct democracy to your country at to all levels of government.