Benjamin Barber’s most striking political analysis was written with several references to the Swiss political system which he qualifies as a “strong democracy

However, the recent votation regarding the presence of Minarets in the Swiss landscape and quiet cities certainly poses some questions as to the value of direct democracy. A recent research by Swiss academics reveals that in fact direct democracy favours the average, somehow popular, prejudiced and uneducated lower middle class. It doesn’t reveal this in such terms, this is fully my own interpretation…but here’s my notes on the paper published in Horizons, the Swiss Journal of the Swiss Research Fund,

La démocratie Directe a peu d’influence sur le degré de protection des minorités.

Pour les Suissesses et les Suisses, le fait que de nombreuses décisions politiques soient prises directement par le peuple coule de source. La population ne fait pas qu’élire ses représentants au Parlement, elle est également appelée à se prononcer sur divers projets ainsi que sur des initiatives et des référendums. Les avantages de cette démocratie directe sont souvent portés au nues. Sous un angle scientifique, il n’est toutefois pas évident que cette dernière soit vraiment meilleure et plus équitable qu’une démocratie indirecte dans laquelle le peuple délègue la marche des affaires au Parlement. Certains chercheurs estiment que les minorités pâtissent de la démocratie directe car la majorité prend toujours des décisions qui lui sont favorable lors des votations. D’autres jugent en revanche que les minorités peuvent mieux défendre leurs intérêts dans une démocratie directe. Des chercherus dirigés par Simon Hug du Département de science politique de l’Université de Genève ont étudié la question en se penchant sur les divers droits des minorités dans 52 Etats dont 22 connaissent une certaine forme de démocratie directe et 30 une démocratie indirecte.

(…)Les scientifiques (…) partaient en effet de l’idée qu’une législation restrictive ou libérale dans un pays dépendait bien plus des positions de sa population que de son système politique.

L’évaluation des données l’a confirmé. Elle a aussi montré que la démocratie directe avait une autre influence. Les chercheurs ont en effet constaté que les lois dans les Etats à démoratie directe sont plus proche de l’opinion moyenne de la population. (…)

Lorsque, sur une question, le peuple est plus favorable à une minorité que le Parlement, cela conduit à une loi plutôt plus libérale que dans une démocratie indirecte. A l’inverse, une position plus restrictive de la population amène le parlement à être moins ouvert aux minorités. Pour Simon Hug, il s’agit sans doute d’une influence indirecte: gouvernement et Parlement, en prenant les devants avec docilité tiennent davantage compte de la volonté des électeurs afin d’éviter le risque de référendum. Il exclut en revanche une influence directe du peuple. Dans les domaines étudiés, peu de lois ont en effet vu le jour par consultation populaire.
(La Suisse) ne se différencie (…) pas des Etats sans démocratie directe. Certains protègent moins les minorités, mais d’autres tout autant.

Koechlin, S. (2009). “L’épée de Damoclès du référendum.” Horizons, Le Magazine suisse de la recherche scientifique(86): 24.

Let me know if you need a translation. You’ll find the german version in changing the final f into a d in the webaddress.

I haven’t read the Diplo’s paper about the Minarets issue but you might want to do so…here’s the reference:

5 thoughts on “Is Switzerland such a “Strong Democracy”?

  1. Good comment Daphne. The irony of democracies has always been that it implicitly protects the rights of mintorities. Surely there should be in that sort of political climate some set of standards, or bill of rights which referendums must first be checked against?


  2. Thanks for the link to this article and your thoughts on it. I liked your post title and point questioning whether the strength of a particular type of governance really lied in its actual procedures, rather than in how these procedures are used.

    The article you linked reports on a comparative analysis of how various democracies handle minority rights, with particular reference to direct democratic governance on the one hand and representative democratic governance on the other. That’s fine. But I’m not sure I understood the author’s discussion of democracy in the light of these results. There are quite a few different views on what democracy has been, is and should be, but democracy is generally credited as a governing system which promotes the interests of the greatest number of people rather than that of a minority. I’m not saying I believe this is always the case in practice, but basically the majority rule tends to be a key characteristic. For this reason, evaluating democracy based on minority rights would seem more complex to me than this article suggested (not that this isn’t an interesting avenue, I really think it is, but it’s a whole other topic and one that goes well beyond the question of minority rights).

    I feel it might be more constructive to tackle the debate by looking at the very terms of the referendum question (the focus on only one religion was interesting in and of itself), or investigating the various ways (often discursive and more generally symbolic) that a so-called majority rule can be used as a façade by politicians or interest groups in both direct and representative democracies. The questions of who introduces a referendum and why are just as important as how it is phrased. Timing is also crucial and can greatly affect the results (imagine a poll on death penalty right after the case of a serial child abuser appeared in the media…)

    In the end, the problem is not so much in the type of democratic governance, or in the type of procedure – a referendum can be a very good tool, but it’s how it’s done that matters.

    At least, this referendum is stimulating interesting discussions …


    1. Thank you Sarah for your excellent comments. I guess we’ll have to wait for the publication of the forthcoming full paper (Policy Consequences of Direct Legislation Theory, Empirical Models and Evidence Quality and Quantity (2010 à paraître)) for accurate answers to your valuable questions. In the meantime, I admit that my initial concern was more geared towards Barber’s strong democracy analysis and the potential contradiction brought here by the Swiss researchers. The whole issue of democracy certainly lies on the value of majority rule however, protecting minorities is, I believe, the sign of healthy democracies. How these minorities are protected is a fully different issue. Should they be treated on the group or community value (I’m strongly opposed to this), or should they be protected on an individual basis, i.e. a member of a minority group can enjoy the same rights and benefits as any other member of the society in question. Geneviève Koubi, whose blog and numerous publications you will find on this blog, wrote some fascinating contributions to this notion of the right to difference and indifference. I invite you to read her analysis of the headscarf issue . By indifference, she means, as per the letter of the French Constitution, that all individuals can enjoy the same rights in regards of the law, but that the law is blind to differences. The advent of multiculturalism has implied a biased notion of minority rights and on this Kymlicka is certainly the greatest author. However, can we treat “New Founding Societies” as Louis Hartz defined them in the 1950s and “old European nations” the same way? Does the end of colonization, the increase of immigration rates and the acceptance of refugees of all walks of life, from human rights to climate change refugee, imply that we should reconsider our stand on minority issues? What remains is that these rights do not depend on the political system of democracy, direct or indirect, but on the level of commitment of people, with some help of education, to mutual respect of diverse values.


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