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Is IT transforming democracy?

Published on 04 March 2016
Updated on 03 July 2024

Random legislative amendment generator

A two-column headline in an Italian newspaper has reminded me this morning of the hidden transformative powers of IT for our political process.

A far-right politician has created a ‘random legislative amendment generator’, enabling him and his colleagues to table numerous identical amendments. Parliamentary rules require each amendment to be considered individually and sequentially. As a result, the committee runs out of time while voting on these duplicate amendments, effectively creating a modern, electronic form of filibustering.

Once this tactic became public, a young IT expert at CERN developed a counter-strategy. Using cladistics theory and software, he created a programme that detects and reduces the number of duplicate amendments.

The battle over parliamentary procedures has begun: should IT screening for duplicate amendments and other filibustering tactics be allowed? Until new procedural rules are established, we can expect a battle of IT ingenuity. Programmes and counter-programmes will escalate. Only party offices with access to such IT tools will be able to use them, leading to a partisan advantage. Meanwhile, individual MPs with genuine amendments will struggle to have their voices heard.

Will IT-generated popular initiatives destroy the Swiss direct-democratic system?

Extending democracy beyond the Greek city walls demanded a transformation from direct to representative democracy (see De la Liberté des Anciens comparée à celle des Modernes by Benjamin Constant). It entailed the ‘principal-agent’ problem. The Swiss tinkered with the system until they found a solution: discretionary direct democracy (it fitted both their mentality and their context).

  • Parliament holds legislative initiative and enactment powers, subject to discretionary verification and validation by a simple majority of the population through a referendum (within 6 months of promulgation, 50,000 voters could demand a popular vote on the piece of legislation). Mindful of the need to secure such a majority in a referendum, parliament mostly toed the line of creating laws that could command a majority.
  • The constitutional revision or amendment (Art. 192-195 BV), as proposed by parliament, requires a double majority of both the people and the cantons (for example, women’s suffrage was approved in this way in 1971).
  • The constitutional initiative allowed the people to propose amendments to the constitution, thus bypassing stalling tactics in parliament and forcing a vote on a popular measure (100,000 signatures were needed). The conditions are set out in Art. 139 of the constitution.

For 100 hundred years, the system worked. Though elected along party lines, MPs were forced to exercise what Aristotle called sophrosyne (Greek: σωφροσύνη) – which is ‘practical reason’. They had to find solutions that yielded a majority in the country.

Born in 1891, the right of constitutional initiative yielded, at first, a strange but seldom successful crop of the scurrile and fundamental.1 It flourished with the advent of the internet, which facilitated both spreading the proposal and gathering signatures.2 After 1990, voters approved 13 of the 22 successful amendments. Nowadays, the Swiss vote on several such initiatives each year.3

The inflation of constitutional initiatives has shaken the country badly. These proposals are often grounded in the preventive philosophy of the ‘precautionary principle’, which demands action when faced with a poorly understood risk. Fear and emotionalism prevail – fanned by IT.

Changing the constitution should not be the first reaction to a perceived threat but the last, and the result of a long deliberative process that will command vast loyalty because it is broadly legitimised. As it is, it is close to the tyranny of an emotional majority.

The inner structure of the constitution is upset. We can see it best when we examine the constitutional role of international law (Part II – III of the Constitution). Approved by both parliament and the people, international treaties reflect the country’s long-term commitment to stability and predictability. As it is at the moment, momentary popular whim may override or at least threaten long-term contractual commitments.4 Switzerland, a small country that depends for its existence on international law, has become a less reliable partner.

So far, the federal government and the parliament have failed to subject the initiatives to proper scrutiny as foreseen in Art. 139 of the constitution. The latter demands a proper differentiation between a ‘basic recommendation’ and a ‘well-formulated proposal’. Most initiatives warrant classification as straw polls, rather than constitutional injunctions (an example is the amendment prohibiting further construction of minarets, approved in 2009).

The last vote has shown a rallying of a wide spectrum of political forces against the perceived ‘tyranny of emotions’. The system might be resilient after all (unsurprisingly, the populist proponents claimed that they succumbed to a ‘revenge of the elite’, backed by about 59% of the voters).

The structural danger of IT

A political system relies on procedures to slow down the political process from sudden action based on an emotional flare-up to a deliberative process. Pacing the decision is essential for achieving a complex judgement.

‘Reacting to what he perceived to be Plato’s belief that virtue consists solely in the knowledge of general principles (‘technical reason’), Aristotle protested that moral (and political) action depends on the exercise of judgement in applying these principles to a particular circumstance’ (Patterns of Moral Complexity by Charles Larmore).

Judgement should, first of all, include both the material and historical context of a choice. But it is essentially more. ‘Judgement is not simply about repeating actions that have proven or have been deemed successful in the past under similar circumstances. Rather, it is one that exploits past experience creatively in responding to the novel features that a particular situation presents.’ In other words, political judgement is a complex process that needs time to mature.

With its infinite possibilities and fulminant speed, IT tends to background the role of time in our mental, social, and political processes. It creates the illusion of instant and perfect knowledge. It caters to the illusion of omnipotence and of time standing still. Life is the creative process of slowing down or even temporarily reversing entropy and the second law of thermodynamics. Life and social life need time to survive and evolve. In my view, the West’s greatest sin is the sin against time (it goes back to Plato, who dreamt of timeless forms). IT hurries us into temptation.


1. The first constitutional amendment ever passed entailed the prohibition of the ritual killing of animals; the interdiction of absinthe and the banning of casinos were among the first five. On the other hand, the proportional vote was introduced by constitutional initiative in 1918, after it had been launched in 1913. At the time, the country faced a revolutionary situation. The amendment, aimed at broader power-sharing, led in 1919 to a massive redistribution of seats in Parliament and helped defuse the revolts.

2. At the end of 2015, 438 constitutional initiatives had been started. 313 had gathered the necessary signatures. 200 came to a vote, and 22 were approved. Among the ‘scurrile’ amendments were the ‘prohibition of ritual slaughter of animals’ (1st), and the prohibition of absinthe and casinos.

3. On 27 February 2016, voters turned down constitutional amendments aiming at: (a) automatic deportation of repeat foreign criminals, even for minor crimes; (b) no speculation on food; (c) discrimination in taxes for married couples (who pay more in certain circumstances) compared to other cohabiting couples, but it would also have added the definition of marriage as ‘the union of a man and a woman’.

4. On 9 February 2014, a fluke majority of 50.3% approved an initiative against ‘mass immigration’. This provision risks bringing down the whole structure of bilateral agreements between the EU and Switzerland – the mainstay of contractual economic relations.

5. I shall reflect further on this. Suffice it to say that if we accept that a butterfly’s movements may eventuate a hurricane, we would not know how to hurry the process along. A further analogy comes from biology, where such creative adaptation is found in ‘niche construction’ (see Niche Construction: The Neglected Process in Evolution (MPB-37)).

The post was first published on DeepDip.

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