ZURICH (Reuters) - The furor over Swiss votes curbing the rights of Muslims and foreigners should not put off governments testing the usefulness of referendums which can strengthen social cohesion and consensus, proponents say.
Switzerland caught the world’s attention again on Sunday when it voted for the automatic expulsion of foreigners who have committed crimes, sparking violent protests a year after a referendum banned the building of new minarets.
Both initiatives, driven by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), could fall foul of European anti-discrimination law, prompting criticism that populist campaigns are hijacking referendums and threatening the country’s reputation.
They also coincide with efforts by the European Union to introduce citizens’ initiatives next year amid widespread public anxiety over immigration.
“We must protect direct democracy from the tyranny of the majority,” said Social Democrat Andreas Gross, who opposed both initiatives and is campaigning to prevent future Swiss votes on plans which could infringe human rights or international law.
But Swiss Foreign Minister Micheline Calmy-Rey said the EU should not be put off by the risks of populist campaigns as direct democracy forced rulers to get closer to the people.
“Everybody plays a role in the state and can’t detach themselves. The state isn’t others. The state is us,” she said in a speech this month in Brussels.
Even the vote to ban new minarets last year, which the Swiss government campaigned against, had value, she said.
“Its acceptance forced Swiss politicians to actively confront the worries and fears of the population.”
A Bern University study into Alexis de Tocqueville’s warning of the “tyranny of the majority” showed that 58 percent of Swiss votes in the last 50 years relevant to minorities were actually in favor of the rights of minorities, like the disabled.
“There is little evidence for a ‘tyranny of the masses’ here, as Switzerland ... is built on the very idea of unity in diversity,” said Bianca Rousselot, a Bern University researcher.
However, the study showed minorities perceived as poorly integrated like Muslims often suffer in referendums, prompting calls for the system to be tweaked to allow initiatives to be vetted so they do not undermine human rights laws.
“Direct democracy generally functions excellently. It’s just that certain subjects are emotionalized and don’t work so well because the debate is no longer sensible,” said Daniel Thuerer, Zurich University professor of public law.
“We need to change the procedure so that when a few people sit in a pub and write a proposal, the text can be checked by lawyers to make sure it is compatible with the rule of law.”
Switzerland has the world’s longest tradition of direct democracy, introduced in 1848 under the constitution that established the modern Swiss state in an attempt to unite a country divided by language and religion after a civil war.
A Swiss citizen can vote on dozens of local or state issues each year and in up to four national referendums. Since 1848, the country has held 553 national votes, with 275 approved.
More than half of those have been held in the last 30 years, mirroring a global trend for more popular votes, with recent examples including Turkey’s referendum on a new constitution and Sudan’s planned plebiscite on its division into two states.
“Subjects of a problematic nature, that are extremist or racist, get bigger headlines than everyday issues. Many of the votes in Switzerland never make the headlines,” said Bruno Kaufmann, president of the Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe which campaigns for more direct democracy.
Research even suggests that Swiss direct democracy promotes leaner government, lower tax evasion, stronger economic growth and higher subjective wellbeing.
Thuerer of Zurich University contrasted public acceptance of a big construction project around the city’s railway station after a long discussion process with violent German protests against a plan to redevelop Stuttgart’s train station.
“Swiss integration is bottom up. It holds Switzerland together. If signatures are collected for an EU initiative in France, Austria and Slovenia it would also be a consolidating element from the grass roots,” he said.
Despite the recent votes, the Swiss system generally deters radical proposals and support the status-quo. Votes tend to back legislation already passed by parliament, while only about 10 percent of popular initiatives are approved.
“The Swiss initiative tool takes years to bring a vote, so is not by nature populist,” Kaufmann said.
In that respect, Kaufmann said the Swiss system compared favorably to the initiative process in California, which supporters of direct democracy say is bringing the system into disrepute as it is often hijacked by wealthy special interests.
“If you have too little time, it is an instrument for those who are already powerful and who own media access,” he said.