Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Emulating Swiss Democracy

Written by johnleemk on 6:39:06 am May 5, 2007.
Categories: ,

Switzerland is one of the world's oldest democracies and federations. Although commonly known for its staunch neutrality — to the point where it has even refused to join international organisations such as the European Union or United Nations for fear of jeopardising this neutral status — what I find truly remarkable about the Swiss state is its unique style of governance.

For one, it is very federal in nature — some might say too federalist (and not without good reason). Significant power is devolved to the individual states (cantons) — it has been said that in World War II, the Swiss would never have surrendered to the Nazis because the Siwss President himself did not have the power to surrender!

Even more remarkable than this federalism, though, is the Swiss style of direct democracy. The Swiss probably have the most elections in the world, not only because of their federalism — where every tier of government is elected — but also because of their referenda.

Much legislation must be submitted to the Swiss people through a referenda before it can become law. This especially includes constitutional amendments, ensuring that they reflect the will of the people.

It is also possible for citizens to participate in the legislative process themselves by launching an initiative — proposing a law, and once securing enough shows of support through a petition, then submitting it to the rest of the people through a referendum, without needing to put the law through the legislature.

The Swiss also place a lot of trust in the maturity and honesty of their citizens. All men are conscripted into the armed forces, and must attend frequent refresher courses.

What is truly remarkable, though, is that after their first round of training, these soldiers return home with guns. In the event of a national emergency, they are to head to a designated area and prepare for action.

In idealistic debates about the nature of democracy, especially direct democracy, reference is often made to the democracy of Athens. But it seems to me that a more appropriate example would be the democracy of Switzerland.

As many wags have pointed out, in Athens only non-enslaved men had suffrage, and Athenian democracy was more like mob rule. Debates about the practicality of direct democracy are also hampered by the fact that if the only example of practiced direct democracy was from a few thousand years ago, direct democracy can hardly be said to be practical.

But Switzerland — Switzerland is a perfect example of direct democracy in our modern world that has lasted for centuries. The Swiss were even an inspiration to some of the founding fathers of the United States, which sometimes sees itself as a beacon for democracy.

Of course, not all parts of the Swiss democracy can be adopted by every country. Some of these things are peculiar to Switzerland, while others strike me as actually a bit undemocratic.

For example, to succeed a referendum must not only secure a majority of the popular vote nationwide, but a majority of the popular vote in at least half of the states. This seems more like a confederacy, where individual states can defy the will of the nation, but I am sure others would beg to differ on this.

In any case, the Swiss and their unique mode of governance is something advocates of democracy everywhere should be looking into. The way they have implemented and developed democratic systems of government, which ensure every voice is heard and everyone can participate in how he or she is governed, without submitting to a tyranny of the majority, is something to be emulated.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.

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