It’s midnight. You’re driving down the highway and stop to refuel for a snack at a roadside petrol station. Scouring the isles, you soon realise there’s an odd discrepancy about what’s on offer. A bag of crisps? Pre-cooked sausages? Ready-made pizza? Sure. But you can pretty much forget about anything chilled, fresh or frozen.
Last week, the above scenario became a hot voting topic in my country with one of the dozen annual “referendums” voting in favour (66 per cent, in case you were wondering) of allowing all-night shopping in "some" petrol stations. Switzerland’s direct democracy dates back to the Middle Ages, when village open-air conventions called Landsgemeinde were used to decide community policy. It’s a system built from the bottom up, where any law can be disputed in a national referendum as long as 50,000 signatures can be gathered over a period of 100 days, or where new legislation can be advanced with 100,000 signatories over 18 months. In most democracies, citizens vote for representatives who then take political decisions on their behalf. Not in Switzerland. And that is why we were swept up in a debate last week over whether you’re allowed to buy sausages or eggs at a petrol station in the middle of the night.
Civil groups and church associations were up in arms, bemoaning the “slippery slope” to 24-hour workdays and saying that human life should not be about getting anything, anywhere at any time. Although this may all seem quite comical, on that same day the Swiss also went to the polls to vote for another more ominous motion. On Sunday 22 September, the Italian canton of Ticino voted in favour of a ban on burkas worn in public places. Although the move still has to pass through federal parliament and even if approved might take years to establish, the vote illustrates the dangerous side of one vote for all: that a direct democracy doesn’t always uphold democratic principles.
There’s a sense of a growing unease within Switzerland towards a rising influx of foreigners. In 2009, 58 per cent of voters supported banning the construction of minarets; one year later, a controversial deportation law against “criminal” foreigners was also accepted by the majority. Citizens aren’t always the best judges when it comes to determining what lies in their best interests – after all, we can be misinformed, self-centred, emotional, biased. Next year, we might even need to vote on which fighter plane to choose. That’s going to be interesting.
But direct democracy is also one of the threads that holds our scattered country together. This month we voted overwhelmingly in favour of maintaining army conscription, an essential part of Swiss identity that brings together social groups, religions and nationalities. It encourages citizens to educate themselves; it gives young people an incentive to engage in a political process. A Swiss person votes, on average, four times per year. By being given the power to make decisions – not just on who runs the country but also on real, concrete proposals – the Swiss learn by doing.
Sure, direct democracy can be cumbersome. Laws for building new roads or changing healthcare systems can take years to implement; time and financial resources are spent on trivial proposals and prejudiced emotions given a legitimate voice. And one also mustn’t forget that Switzerland is a very unique case in which direct democracy can function relatively smoothly. Imagine India’s 1.2 billion people raising their hands in Landsgemeinde tradition, or two thirds of the French and Spanish voting against an extra week of annual paid holiday. It would never happen.
Alexa Firmenich is a Monocle 24 researcher.