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'We vote on everything': Direct democracy in Switzerland

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Election workers prepared the cast ballots for county in the Swiss capital of Bern on March 3, 2024. Photo: CNA
Photo: CNA
Stefanie Bosshard, managing director of the Swiss Democracy Foundation. Photo: CNA
Election workers bring the ballot boxes to the Bern mayor's office for counting on March 3, 2024. Photo: CNA

A Referendum Act was first introduced to Taiwan in 2003, but it was not until it was revised in 2018 to lower the thresholds needed to bring an initiative to a vote that Taiwanese citizens were more often called upon to vote.

From 2018 to 2022, eligible voters in Taiwan voted on a total of 15 initiatives (including one on a constitutional amendment proposal in 2022), compared to just six within the previous 15 years.

Some 9,000 kilometers away, Switzerland, which is known worldwide for its use of direct democracy, has held more than 670 national-level referendum votes since the establishment of the nation's constitution in 1848.

The Swiss cast ballots three to four times a year to decide on a variety of issues, ranging from the purchase of American fighter jets at the national level or the renovation of a city's swimming pool at the municipal level.

In the latest round of national referendums held March 3, the Swiss overwhelmingly voted in favor of an additional month's pension per year but rejected raising the retirement age from 65 to 66 by 2033.

"We vote on everything," Bern Mayor Alec von Graffenried told CNA in a recent interview, noting that direct democracy "plays a tremendously important role" in shaping Switzerland's political landscape.

In addition to national referendums, citizens of Bern also voted on one cantonal and four municipal matters on March 3, including proposals to renovate a swimming pool and an ice rink, and on improving accessibility on public transport.

"We have to bring almost everything to a referendum," von Graffenried added, pointing to a city law that mandates a popular vote on every new proposal estimated to cost over 7 million Swiss francs (US$7.8 million).

When a government comes up with a new project or a bill, it always has to bear in mind that in the end, citizens may vote against it, he said, adding that every proposal hence "has to be very conformed to the final will of the people."

"It takes a very long time" to reach a consensus on an issue in Switzerland and "everybody is frustrated," von Graffenried said.

"But once we have a consensus and once we have a result, the results are better founded [and] are more legitimate, and everybody sticks to it," he went on. "This is the positive side of this very long procedure."

Stefanie Bosshard, managing director of the Swiss Democracy Foundation based in Bern, the Swiss capital, shared similar views, saying in Switzerland "we have a culture of dialogue" and "a tradition of a political consensus."

"Switzerland is very proud about its democracy," she said. "We are one of the oldest democracies, probably the oldest direct democracy," and the country provides an environment "where the citizens are feeling connected to the political process."

Such a practice, however, can occasionally hinder society's progress.

It was not until 1971 that the Swiss approved an amendment to the constitution on women's suffrage, making it one of the last democratic countries in the world to grant women voting rights on a national level.

While the Swiss are frequently called on to vote, there is not a problem with voter fatigue, Bosshard said, noting that people go to the polls when they "feel touched by the topic."

The average voter turnout for referendums in Switzerland is approximately 45 percent, which is roughly the same as the turnout for their parliamentary elections held every four years.

In Taiwan, by contrast, four referendum questions in December 2021 drew a roughly 41 percent turnout, well below the roughly 65-70 percent turnout for regular elections.

"Overall, we have good participation," von Graffenried said, arguing that while Germany and other democratic countries may have higher voter turnouts than Switzerland, they do not hold popular votes four times a year.

According to the Bern mayor, the more controversial an issue, the higher the voter turnout, and the March 3 referendum on the extra pension month, which sparked heated debate, was an example.

The Swiss government had urged the public to vote "no," citing an additional cost of approximately 4.1 billion Swiss francs per year.

However, the trade unions, which came up with the proposal, argued the additional payment would provide "better living in retirement" amid the rising cost of living in Switzerland.

While the Swiss take pride in their participatory democracy, there have been calls for reforms to make the system more inclusive, particularly in light of the growing number of foreign nationals living and working in Switzerland.

Voting rights for foreigners without Swiss passports have been implemented in limited cantons and municipalities, and currently, only Swiss nationals aged 18 and above are permitted to participate in national-level votes and elections.

"People should be allowed to have a say where they live, work, pay taxes and contribute to society," political scientist Eva Gschwind told CNA.

That is not the case in Taiwan, where foreign nationals, even permanent residents, have no voting rights.

Gschwind said granting voting rights to foreign residents without Swiss citizenship should be considered "a basic democratic principle."

Gschwind -- who also serves as public relations officer for the legislature of Basel City, a canton with a growing foreign population because it borders France and Germany -- has advocated granting foreign nationals the right to vote at the cantonal and municipal level under certain conditions.

Those conditions may include requiring foreigners to live in a canton or municipality for a certain period of time or obtain a permanent residence permit in Switzerland, according to Gschwind.

"I believe that those who are not allowed to have a say and do not feel they belong tend to turn away from politics and society," she said.

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