Switzerland has often been thought of as a paragon of modern democracy, a position it has proudly held for a number of decades. The 2018 Freedom House report seems to agree as well, scoring the Swiss Confederation at an exceptionally hearty 96/100, with only political rights (39/40) and civil liberties (57/60) tarnishing its near perfect score. Through the country’s famously decentralized federal power and its dependence on direct policy mechanisms have placed it near the apex of democratic pedestal, Switzerland has observed a stark negative correlation between voter turnout and the frequency at which citizens are required to vote in referendums. And while this so called “voter fatigue” has many officials on alert, pressure from an emerging far right movement on polarizing issues such as the country’s placement in the EU and its stance on immigration have made this issue all the more pressing, with some fearing it is interfering with the country’s ability to maintain a robust participatory democracy.
Power to the people.
A brief lesson in Swiss history will quickly uncover that this mindset has dominated Swiss politics since the inception of its constitution in 1848, as the Swiss have long sought to consolidate political power in the hands of its citizens. While this idea may seem strange to many of us in the United States, the majority of the political power is centered around the 26 Cantons as opposed to the more traditional system of concentrated power in the federal government. A Canton-centric political field has voters at the polls more worried about laws and regulations in their own region, as opposed to a more country-centric viewpoint. All the while, this system allows for each Canton to pass laws and regulations that best fit the needs and wants of its population. (World Economic Forum)
Another hallmark of Swiss politics is its dedication to direct democracy. All citizens over the age of 18 can challenge a previously passed law, propose an amendment to the constitution, and even present referendums for vote…provided they obtain the required signatures of course. This individual power is the envy of any who feel powerless to stop the Government, and yet, it stands at the core of the voter issue the Swiss face today.
According to the 2017 Economist Democracy, report Switzerland dropped down to ninth place out of 167 countries surveyed, citing low voter turnout as the primary contributor. Between 1995 and 2005, Swiss citizens faced 31 individual votes and 103 ballot questions (International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance) covering topics from healthcare to public transportation. With such a sheer number of votes each year, both national and cantonal, it seems like many Swiss voters would rather stay in bed than head to the polls for what seems like just another meaningless referendum. On average, approximately 4/10 eligible voters take part in all available voting sessions, with overall participation barely scraping past 50%. (World Economic Forum) This seems to be at odds with the intended purpose of direct democracy, which of course is to allow everyone a fair say. And yet voters are becoming too overwhelmed, too absorbed, and some might say… too disinterested.
One popular theory as to why this is happening suggests that negative campaigning or “going dirty” may lead to lower individual ballot turnout. In a 2013 study conducted by the University of Geneva, strong evidence was uncovered supporting that campaigns that attack the status quo have lowered voter turnout, while inversely, campaigns that provide a more positive spin have the opposite effect. Positive campaigns were shown to elicit reactions of hope, pride, enthusiasm, and satisfaction while negative campaigns often lead to fear, hate, anxiety, bitterness and concern. It is hypothesized that this correlation between political campaign attitudes and turnout can be boiled down to simple human psychology, I.E humans tend to place themselves in positions that increase overall happiness and tend to vote when their political ideology is spun in a positive light.
According to Andre Blais, a professor of political science at the University of Montreal, Switzerland’s so called “magic-formula” of party stability may also provide an explanation on low voter turnout. According to Blais, because the Swiss Government has historically been characterized by peace and cooperation between its four major parties (Swiss People’s Party, Christian Democrats, Free Democratic Party, and the Social Democrats) Swiss citizens are less inclined to vote due to a shared emotion of helplessness to ever change the status quo. According to political scientist Werner Seitz, “Elections in Switzerland don’t have the importance they have in other parliamentary democracies where elections can lead to a new government.” (“Silent Majority Always Wins Swiss Ballots”) A stagnant system, though stable, can also greatly reduce turnout.
This pervasive issue has become even more pressing with the unfortunate prevalence of right-wing extremism that seems to be affecting much of Europe at the moment. Switzerland’s SVP (Schweizerische Volkspartei or Swiss People’s Party) has been an outspoken propagator of ethnic intolerance since the late 1990’s. Christoph Blocher, the party’s former Vice President, has been adamant in spreading anti-immigration and anti-EU sentiments as the country has seen an increase in refugees from the Kosovo War to the more recent Middle Eastern conflicts. Blocher and the SVP saw that their rhetoric was able to draw voters to the polls, and with little to no turnout from the more moderate crowd, they saw rampant success. Banning the construction of new minarets on Mosques in a 2009 referendum, halting Switzerland’s acceptance into the EU, limiting immigration from EU countries in 2014, and partial success in banning Islamic head veils are just a few of the most drastic examples of their power.
Those who control the polls, control the policy.
Participation is a vital prerequisite to democratic success. However, Switzerland shows us an interesting example of how a direct and proximate link between voter and policy may not be enough to get people to vote, even when doing so could contribute to democratic backsliding. Democracy isn’t docile, and we must be keen to remember that power can easily slip into the wrong hands if we lay passively on the sidelines.
Mombelli, Armando and Geiser, Urs. “Silent Majority Always Wins Swiss Ballots.” SWI Swiss Info Channel. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/silent- majority-always-wins-swiss-ballots/7746
The Economist Intelligence Unit. “Political Stability.” Switzerland. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. http://country.eiu.com/article.aspx?articleid=1746503758&Country=Switzerland&topic= Politics&subtopic=Forecast&subsubtopic=International+relations&oid=1706503754&fli d=1706503754
Freedom House. “Switzerland Profile.” Freedom in the World 2017. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/switzerland
Blais, André. “Why is Turnout So Low in Switzerland? Comparing the Attitudes of Swiss and German Citizens Towards Electoral Democracy.” 2014. Swiss Political Science Review Vol. 20, Issue 4, 520–528.
Dermont, Clau. “Taking Turns at the Ballot Box: Selective Participation as a New Perspective on Low Turnout.” Swiss Political Science Review 22, no. 2 (June 2016): 213–31. doi:10.1111/spsr.12194.
Goldberg, Andreas C., Simon Lanz, and Pascal Sciarini. “Mobilizing Different Types of Voters: The Influence of Campaign Intensity on Turnout in Direct Democratic Votes.” Electoral Studies 57 (February 1, 2019): 196–222. doi:10.1016/j.electstud.2018.11.008.\
NAI, ALESSANDRO. “What Really Matters Is Which Camp Goes Dirty: Differential Effects of Negative Campaigning on Turnout during Swiss Federal Ballots.” European Journal of Political Research 52, no. 1 (January 2013): 44–70. doi:10.1111/j.1475-6765.2012.02060.x.