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“Money Plays a Growing Role in Swiss Democracy”

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“Money Plays a Growing Role in Swiss Democracy”


In a conversational democracy like the Swiss one citizens’ association must work very hard to have the opportunity to make voices heard. A new challenge is the lack of public-financed participatory infrastructure, says Katharina Prelicz-Huber in an interview with Cora Pfafferott.

What’s typical of Swiss civil society?

There is a civic association for almost everything in Switzerland. Or, one can say that there is an association for every issue in the country. You just need two people to officially set up an association. Hence, the many different interests of Swiss society are reflected in the heterogeneity of Swiss non-profit organisations.

Are these many associations politically effective?

In Switzerland’s political system of power sharing, you always need the majority of support. To gain these majorities, small civic associations need to work very hard. Hence, to be politically effective, an association should form alliances. Or, it should build a platform that unites those organisations that share the same interests. Alternatively, a small non-profit organisation could cooperate with political parties or trade unions that are already powerful.

Switzerland has a long tradition of modern direct democracy. The citizens’ initiative is a tool to participate in law-making. Are there any other, new instruments Swiss people can use to influence politics?

Yes, there are different forms of citizens’ dialogue in practice like round tables or “future workshops”. These formats make it possible to steer new ideas into the political system. They are especially effective at the municipal level. You know, Switzerland has a strong system of federalism: Municipalities and cantons have their own constitutions, budgets as well as their own tax systems. Hence, a municipality has a lot of power in designing its infrastructure. When citizens’ interests are included in big projects right from the start, it is very likely that these projects find the majority of citizens’ support at the ballot box.

You mentioned the word infrastructure. What kind of broader support would you like to see realised for Switzerland’s system of direct democracy?

Swiss direct democracy needs a fully-fledged public service. It is banal, but for direct democracy to work, there must be rooms where people can meet. And these rooms must not be expensive. Also, as direct democracy demands people take decisions, citizens must be well-educated, hence direct democracy requires a good educational system. Moreover, civil servants in the parliament must know how the system works.  Additionally, for people to gather and to discuss politics, there must be the freedom of speech and assembly. Direct democracy is only possible with citizens’ rights actually existing in practice.  

How big is the gap between these norms and reality?

During the past 100 years, Switzerland succeeded in building a high level of public service. Yet more and more throughout the past 20 years, this high level has been threatened due to cost-cutting measures. For example, citizens’ initiatives cannot rent rooms anymore at reduced costs. Publicly sponsored papers and electronic media are cut back. Now, money definitely plays a role in Swiss direct democracy. Yet not everybody has the same access to funding and the media. So now, there is a very strong imbalance. Switzerland’s system of direct democracy needs more public support. Unfortunately, those are being reduced instead of increased.

Cora Pfafferott spoke to Katharina Prelicz-Huber  at the “Reclaim Democracy” conference in Basel on February 4, where she held a workshop on how to make effective use of direct democracy in Switzerland. Precliz-Huber is president of the Trade Union for Public Service Workers and Professor for social work at the Zurich University for Applied Science. This interview was produced in cooperation with, media partner of Democracy International, where this piece was also published.

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