Published on 31 May 2012 Updated on 06 December 2023
Switzerland being a direct-democratic country, the people may elect to abrogate any law. At the Federal level 50’000 signatures are enough to trigger such a vote. Other numbers apply to the cantonal and local level. Exceptions and quirks abound – as in all living systems. Constitutional initiatives or amendments, and some international treaties, always require approval by both a majority (at the federal level it is the people and the cantons).
About three weeks before each of the four election Sundays the ballots arrive at home together with a small booklet, in which the object of the vote is presented, and the main arguments – both for and against – are presented. This booklet is the joint work of proponents and opponents. The opposing texts highlight disagreement, but are not disagreeable and set the tone for the ensuing public debate. The Swiss people vote on matters federal (grey ballot), cantonal (green ballot), and local (yellow ballot).
The system works because most laws are non-controversial – and escape referendum. At each election we vote on 4-5 issues, including constitutional matters.
The legislative work of Parliament is geared to consensus-building, and partisanship tends to be eschewed, for any significant “loser” in the process may appeal to the people. Under a direct-democratic system Parliament’s main role is to achieve a balance of interests that finds silent or explicit consensus among voters. Such laws tend to be incremental and discourage partisan positions.
I’d like to highlight two collateral implications of this system.
The first is that all laws are kept simple. They are written so that each voter can read them, and reach an informed decision on it. If a law is amended, the text is immediately consolidated – no chain of referrals to earlier texts.
The second is unity of subject matter. Each bill or amendment thereto is voted upon separately. Package deals or “omnibus bills” are forbidden. It is not possible to slip extraneous amendments into a law, and have this change piggy-back on the main issue.
One may or may not like the direct-democratic system. One may or may not consider it feasible in other – in particular larger – countries. Yet the two aforementioned lessons may be learned for incorporation in other democratic processes. These lessons are procedural, not substantive and apply irrespective of political programs.
An overly complex legislative system is inefficient and often arbitrary. With three times as many laws as any other European country Italy is close to anarchy. Each law spawns regulations and explanations. The thicket becomes impenetrable, and litigation a way of life. The simplicity of laws, and their ongoing and prompt consolidation should be enshrined in any Constitution.
Democracies are easily torn apart by partisanship and special interests. The process of political accommodation needs to remain transparent, overt and deliberate. Reconciliation of opposites – not capitulation – is the main object of the Parliamentary deliberative process. Accommodation obtained by covertly dispensing favors to this or that interest against favorable vote – in essence acquiescing to partisan blackmail – by slipping in extraneous matters not only guts existing legislation, but encourages partisanship, rather than subject it to deliberation with a view to the common weal. When it is procedurally easy to yield, we’ll always take the road of least resistance, and partisanship will be emboldened. It might be useful to have a constitutional barrier to this underhanded procedure.
KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid! May not seem like much of strategic political advice – and certainly far less than eutopia – but it may make a difference to the sustainability of a political system.
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