Those opposed politically to the further development of Switzerland’s direct democracy are all too happy to refer to the ‘sovereign’. Recently, for example, Aargau’s cantonal parliament rejected foreigners’ right to vote in municipal elections on the grounds that ‘Switzerland belonged exclusively to the Swiss.’ So, quarter of the population continues to be denied political representation at municipal level, even though Switzerland’s volunteer ‘militia’ system urgently needs new recruits.
Whenever efforts are made to digitize popular participation in elections and votes, politicians in Bern worry about data security – even though almost all residents have cell phones and handle banking transactions digitally. During the lockdown, the government even chose to postpone a federal referendum instead of advancing e-voting.
Separately, to justify breaking off talks on a framework deal with the European Union, the Swiss government, and even a columnist from the left leaning Tamedia media group, cited protecting direct democracy. The agreement would have had no chance in a referendum anyway, they argued. So, in the land of direct democracy, a parliamentary decision with an optional referendum allowing Swiss voters to make their voices heard in the most important European policy issue for decades, was ruled out by speculation about the supposed will of the people. This is governmental paternalism!
Clinging to the status quo is not productive in either European policy or shaping people’s rights: constant further development is part of the nature of our democracy, even if such reform is often protracted. The introduction of women’s rights suffrage took several attempts over decades before being finally approved in 1971. Another six years passed before the signature quorum required for popular referendums was adjusted due to the doubling of the voting body.
Anyone surprised by the authorities’ resistance to e-voting should be reminded of the introduction of postal voting. In the 1930s, the federal parliament did not even consider the issue. Today, it is estimated that more than 90 percent of voters cast their ballots by mail. In the first trial of e-voting, half the eligible voters took advantage of the digital voting channel. Representatives of the German-speaking Switzerland frustrated with the right of foreigners to vote at municipal level should consider French-speaking regions, where the principle of “no taxation without representation” has been commonplace for a long time.
The sovereign is not only more pragmatic, but generally also more open to new developments – including in European affairs. The electorate has repeatedly shown itself to be pragmatic and aware that Switzerland’s close involvement in the EU single market is associated with numerous individual and economic advantages. Neither Swiss democracy nor European policy needs a freeze on the status quo, but rather a revitalizing cure.