The People Have Spoken – The Effects of Direct Democracy in Switzerland

On the 7th of March 2021, a controversial referendum was held in Switzerland. The outcome was that Swiss citizens voted for a ban of full facial coverings in public, passing by 51.2% to 48.8%. This measure was popularised by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) who campaigned with slogans such as “Stop Extremism.” Even though the proposal in its written form does not mention Islam specifically and also includes any kind of face coverings worn at demonstrations or riots; it has been widely referred to as the “burqa ban” by the media.  This article will shine light on possible discriminatory effects of direct democratic decisions, as it is not the first time the country’s Muslim minority has been targeted by a proposal of this kind. 

The situation can be compared to another referendum held in 2009 about a national ban on the construction of minarets, which was approved by the Swiss people with a 57.5% majority on voting day. Both the referendums were developed and organized by the same political group, the “Egerkinger Committee”, an association founded in the village of Egerkingen in 2006 to prevent Islamisation and the formation of a Muslim parallel society in Switzerland. 

Supporting campaign for the national ban on the construction of minarets in Switzerland, held in 2009. The poster shows minarets on a Swiss flag, pictured in a way reminiscent of missiles.
(Photo: Ancho., Flickr)

The resulting decisions placed the Swiss government into the uncomfortable position of having to stand up for and justify an, in their eyes, unfavorable outcome towards the international community and especially towards Islam-dominated countries. And, as it was argued by Islamic groups in Switzerland, it is a vote against the Muslim community in the country itself, executed by the non-Muslim majority.The question can be asked, if it is wise to let public citizes decide on such key matters of civil society.  

The Political System in Switzerland

The “Bundeshaus”, the Swiss parliament building in Berne (Photo: Floofy, Flickr)

The philosophy of direct democracy is to give the people an opportunity to channel their ideas in their most pure, unaltered form.  The system consists of direct participation of citizens in the political process, without an institutional middle man, thus aiming for political equality. In other words, everybody should have a say. Switzerland is a widely known prime example of this form of democracy. On average, a Swiss voter – a Swiss citizen who is 18 years or older – is called to the ballot box four times a year to decide on approximately fifteen national and several more regional proposals.

Besides voting, Swiss citizens have the opportunity to express their demands with the help of other instruments such as initiatives and referendums. In order to make amendments or propose additions to the constitution on a specific issue, one needs to collect 100,000 signatures within eighteen months. Initiatives are often launched by political parties and not by individuals and are sometimes said to be a marketing tool for them in order to define their political agenda. 

If the people want any bill that happens to be approved by parliament put to a nationwide vote, they must collect 50,000 signatures for a national referendum within 100 days of publication of the new legislation. The same possibilities apply to the different regions – Cantons of Switzerland – with different numbers depending on the respective population. For example, a referendum in the Canton of Berne is successful and can be voted on if 15,000 persons sign a proposal within 6 months. 

Can the People be Wrong?

Contra and pro poster for the 1:12 referendum, a submission about equal distribution of salaries (Photo: Pakeha, Wikimedia Commons)

In recent years, the number of proposals and initiatives have notably increased. Nowadays, the collection of signatures is easier due to digitalization, and the population is constantly growing. 100,000 signatures represent about 2% of the electorate, whereas in 1891 when the right to participate through these instruments was first introduced, it was 8%. More initiatives equates to more diverse topics to decide on, and the question is if the people who decide know enough on all these matters to come to reasonable verdicts.   

The clear outcome of the ban on the construction of minarets in 2009 is an example of how the conservative Swiss People’s Party (SVP) managed to sway the people to vote for their cause, despite the overwhelming opinions of the opponents. Pre-referendum polls had implied a comfortable majority against the proposal, and in the end, everybody was struck by surprise with the reversal of this prediction in the result. Many people had not even thought about minarets before the issue appeared in the referendum. It was the idea and initiative of a relatively small group of people, namely the Egerkinger Committee, which led to a decision over the rights of the whole Muslim community in Switzerland. What eventually led to success was a strong mobilization, mainly by the SVP, in favor of the campaign, as the supporters managed to fuel unease and fear about the rise of political Islam in Switzerland.    

Having the results from 2009 in mind, the recent face covering campaign was more balanced between the pro and contra sides. However, the fact remains that the voters in Switzerland, through the instrument of direct democracy, eventually decided on a matter that concerned only a few. About 30 women in Switzerland wear the niqab, and only a handful of women who wear a burqa can be counted. The supporters repeatedly managed to convince the majority of the voters about their cause with the same arguments, referring to these few women who cover their faces as a symbol for this extreme, political Islam.   

In the history of the Swiss Federation since 1891, only 23 out of 221 initiatives coming from the people were accepted in votes. These numbers show that the voters usually follow the suggestions and opinions of the elected members of the parliament and not the recommendations of a few trying to change the constitution. Yet, exceptions such as the face coverings and the minaret ban exist. Many of the referendums that passed the verdict of the people are dealing with controversial topics such as migration and religion, where Swiss values and traditions are seen as endangered. Chances are high that these campaigns are accompanied by one-sided propaganda, stressing the need to protect Switzerland from outside influences, which eventually decides on the success or failure of referendums. 

It becomes clear that the key for these controversial topics to pass in a referendum is systematic mobilisation of the public, which the initiators of the referendums about minarets and face coverings successfully executed. In a direct democracy such as Switzerland, increased availability of information and education to the general public can help to prevent propaganda and populism. It can give the voters a broader picture on the matters they decide on, and raise awareness on sensitive topics such as possible discrimination of minorities. Moreover, the government and parliament have to take the people and their opinions seriously and need to try and counteract misinformation and populism if they want the outcomes they wish for. After all it is the people as the sovereign who has the final say.  

Mirjam Zehnder

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