Summer session of the Swiss Federal Parliament

Voluntary right to vote or duty to vote? How do we win active citizens?

by Dr iur Marianne Wüthrich

In order to motivate Swiss eligible voters to participate in federal elections and voting, National Councillor Lorenz Hess (BDP Berne), called by a parliamentary initiative for an addition of Article 136 of the Federal Constitution with the following wording:
“Participation in the federal votes and elections is mandatory until an age of 65. Anyone who fails to fulfil his duty without an excuse has to pay a fine. The amount of the fine is determined by the cantons, which also benefit from the money paid.” (Parliamentary initiative Hess Lorenz 15.498. To revive direct democracy. To introduce a duty to vote)
The National Councillor Lorenz Hess was thus guided by the model of the Canton Schaffhausen: “Introducing this system as used in the Canton Schaffhausen on the federal level, we could very probably exceed the current rough 45 per cent polling – the figure might not be exact – to about 65 per cent as in Schaffhausen.” (15.498 parliamentary Initiative Hess Lorenz. Debate in the National Council of 6.6.2017)
In fact, the polling in the canton of Schaffhausen is far beyond that of the other cantons in every federal voting. Whereas in the past voting was mandatory in several cantons, the canton of Schaff­hausen is now the only one who applies a legally stipulated obligation to vote.

The duty to vote in the canton of Schaffhausen was intended as such by the sovereign

Article 9 Electoral law:
Participation in the federal, cantonal and municipal voting and elections as well as at the assemblies of the municipality is obligatory until an age of 65. Anyone who fails to discharge this duty without excuse has to pay a fine of 6 Swiss Francs*. (*Since 2015, before 3 francs).

There are no strict standards specifying the nature of the excuse (no later than the third day after the ballot, stating the reasons but there is no verification done; Article 10 of the Electoral law).
However, it is not necessarily possible to infer, as national Councillor Hess is doing, from the better discipline of Schaffhausens’ voters that unwilling voters can be brought to more polling by means of a fine: “But one could very probably state, as valid in other areas of life too: What costs nothing is worth nothing.” (Lorenz Hess, debate in the National Council of 6.6.2017)
Because it is probably for many citizen in Schaffhausen not only the obligation to give an excuse or the six francs, why they regularly go to the urn or vote in letter. Rather, the fulfilment of civic voting has become a matter of course, and indeed a tradition which the overwhelming majority of citizens is behind. Mandatory voting has already been in force since 1892 and has survived several attempts to abolish it, for example in 1982 a people’s initiative “to rescind the mandatory voting” with 18,849 votes against and 10,758 votes in favour.
So, one can certainly not speak of a “compulsion to vote” here. In direct democracy, the citizens anyway decide how they want to shape their political rights and obligations. The obligation to vote is a rule issued by the Schaffhausen sovereign with the purpose of reminding himself that the far-reaching political rights of the Swiss people are not only an entitlement but also an obligation.

Freedom of the citizen’s remains the supreme guiding principle for the National Council

Although the Schaffhausen regulation is honoured in the National Council, the parliamentary initiative of Lorenz Hess has only little support. The National Council Political Institutions Committee (PIC-N) recognises that the obligation to participate in referendums in the canton of Schaffhausen may have proved effective. At the federal level, however, it wants to renounce this instrument and rejects the parliamentary initiative of National councillor Lorenz Hess (BDP, BE) with 22 to 2 votes.” (Press release of 18.11.2016). On 6 June 2017, the National Council rejected the introduction of a mandatory federal voting, with a massive majority of 166 “no” against 13 “yes”, with 10 abstentions. For the vast majority of council members, the freedom of the citizen precedes all other considerations: “Participation in referendums is not a duty, but a right. It is up to the parties and other political organisations to motivate citizens to exercise this right. “ (press release of the PIC-N 18.11.2016)
It is to add: the claim that the majority of Swiss wouldn’t vote has proved wrong. In fact, over three-quarters of the voters participate in elections and voting.
National councillor Peter Keller (SVP Nidwalden) points out in the debate on the 6.6.2017 that the Swiss polling is in fact far higher than assumed. A study by the political scientist Adrian Vatter shows “… that not always the same 40 per cent are going to vote and that not always the same 60 per cent do not vote, but that people selectively make use of their voting rights, depending on the voting issue, and that above all, more than three-quarters of the Swiss population are voting.” (15.498 parliamentary Initiative Hess Lorenz. Debate in the National Council of 6.6.2017)
By the way, much more citizens would participate in voting, if the referendums were actually implemented by the governments and parliaments 1:1, as it was obviously done in times before the globalization fever and before the EU mania of pressure groups in politics and administration.

How become young people active citizens?

Nevertheless, we must ask ourselves why, in the best of all democracy models, a greater number of citizens, especially many young adults, have little interest in the political affairs of the Confederation, the canton and the municipality, and therefore do not or rarely participate in voting. As stated above, the abstinence from voting can’t be got at by a “duty to vote”. The only possible means is to motivate the citizens by other citizens, acting for example in the political parties, as the PIC-N writes.
It is to be added: in the first place it is the civic education and upbringing of youth in the family, at school, in the associations of the youth. This is about guiding the young generations and being a model for them, so that they naturally grow into the community and become active citizens. It is a great pleasure for parents to take their children to the voting venue or to talk about a voting template at the family table. Or at the celebration of the age of majority, where the 18 year old aspiring voters are specifically invited to their first community assembly and introduced into the process.
But also teachers are in duty. In my more than thirty years as a vocational school teacher, I have seen the interest in politics of countless students growing when I have acquired with them the basics of civic education. When we studied and discussed the voting information in the class, and the young people lost their feeling of “I am not getting it”, then many have participated in the next vote. Especially among the naturalized foreigners there were some who particularly appreciated direct democracy because they could compare to their country of origin. At the end of the apprenticeship, a Kosovan student confided to me: “The most important thing I have learned from you is civic education. When I go back to Kosovo, I take this and report to my relatives and colleagues.” Hearing this as a teacher, one will get twice as keen to bring the Swiss model closer to the youth and to awaken or support their pleasure to involve.     •

“Switzerland lives from trust in the responsible citizen. He has the final say. That means: We need to discuss the problems and create majorities in public debates – including international agreements. There’s no way around it. No court, no expert committee, no official decree can take this task. If we are no longer capable of this, Switzerland will cease to exist, this unique model of a citizen democracy. By name, it may still exist, but in fact it does not.“ (Former ambassador Paul Widmer. “Wird die Schweiz eine gelenkte Demokratie?“ (Does Switzerland become a controlled democracy?)

NZZ am Sonntag from 30 April 2017)

(Translation Current Concerns)

Swisscoy mission in Kosovo will be extended until 2020 despite weighty objections

mw. On 8 June 2017, the National Council as second Council decided the extension of the Swiss army’s participation in the NATO mission KFOR in Kosovo by the end of 2020 (with 100 to 76 votes, 1 abstention). In Current Concerns No 13 of 6 June 2017 there was a statement that Switzerland should withdraw the Swisscoy as soon as possible especially for neutrality legal reasons (˝Swisscoy – unlimited Swiss army deployment under NATO command in Kosovo? It’s time for an orderly retreat”).
Although an ending military involvement in Kosovo has been requested by 2020 at the latest from two different political points of view, the majority of the Council didn’t want to commit themselves to this proposal. Since the Council of States had already acceded on 13 March 2017 to the extension to three years (also with an open end) the Swisscoy will remain provisionally in Kosovo. In three years, the Parliament will probably vote on a further extension. We will continue to pursue this issue.

Excerpts from two opinions (16.079 Swiss participation in KFOR. Extension of the Swisscoy mission. Debate in the National Assembly on 8 June 17)

Raymond Clottu (SVP Neuchâtel): “The Federal Council wants to extend once again the military commitment in Kosovo whose benefit is more than doubtful, that serves no clear purpose and also questions the validity of our neutrality. Even worse is that it refuses to determine a definitive end date, even after these four years.
It is now 18 years since the Swisscoy has been acting in the service of NATO, soon more than twenty years if the new extension would be adopted. If the presence of the Swiss army would have helped to stabilize this small State, then this mission should have been stopped for a long time.
Also, the real benefits of this NATO mission should have been questioned already. By the way NATO will reduce very soon its stock which had been initially 50,000 troops, to 2,600 men. [...]
For the SVP parliamentary group, it is excluded to approve another extension without Switzerland according to the request of the minority II deciding the final withdrawal of its soldiers no later than 2020.” [Translation Current Concerns]
Balthasar Glättli (GP Zurich, Speaker of minority I): “You know it, we Greens have always basically opposed against foreign missions of the Swiss Army. In consequence, we have always rejected the KFOR mission and the participation of Switzerland with Swisscoy troops. […]
From the point of view of Switzerland there’s actually also a contradiction of International Law, and that is now not my idea, but Daniel Vischer already in 2003 reminded here at this point the Council to keep in mind. He said: Okay, we in Switzerland, we recognise the State of Kosovo. But what are the conditions for the recognition of a State? There are at least three. It takes the State people, the State territory and State power, so the possibility of appropriate institutions to exercise the State authority, the monopoly of the State in the framework of a constitutional basis. When you recognise that it is contrary to say that now we need a foreign mission which produces exactly this State power. […]
We need to change sides to what can be our very own task as a neutral country and must it be from our point of view. We have a special relationship with Kosovo. Our task is civilian peace promotion, use of these funds for the support of democratic and legal institutions and also for the support of economic development. […]”

National Council sinks leniency programme

mw. How reported in Current Concerns the parliamentarian submitting the motion (Council of states member Claude Janiak), similar to the USA or Italy wanted to introduce the possibility of a reduction of sentence or exemption from punishment in advance by the prosecuting authorities for members of criminal gangs. “Leniency à la USA or just punishment according to Swiss law?” (cf. from Current Concerns No 12 from 30 May 2017) The Council of States had accepted the motion with 23 to 11 votes and 4 abstentions on 14 December 2016. The Committee of Legal affairs of the National Council moved for passing of the motion (15 to 8 votes). The minority of the commission, however, held like the author of Current Concerns the opinion: reduction of sentence in the individual cases after weighing all facts and circumstances – yes. Negotiation of reduction of sentence or at least exemption of punishment with members of criminal gangs even during the investigation with mandatory consequences for the judging court – no!
Even Federal Councillor Simonetta Sommaruga reminded the National Councillors who had to vote on the motion on 31 May of the juridical and ethical dubiousness of such a regulation: “Let’s assume you support the motion of your committee of Legal affairs and let’s assume, a person, member of a terrorist organisation says he wants to prevent other attacks and would be ready to shop his former colleagues – why must this person have a formal guarantee already before the sentence that he will go unpunished or with a reduction of sentence? I think it makes sense that this person can tax that he is likely to get a reduction of sentence if he contributes to prevent further terrorist acts. But I think if he can ransom himself this is problematic for the sense of justice». (16.3735. Motion Janiak Claude. Introduction of a Leniency. Debate in the National Council 31 May 2017).

National Councillors decide independent of three-line whip

And actually the critical votes succeeded in moving the National Council to defeat the motion Janiak, and in fact distinct with 108 no to 72 yes. With no-votes from nearly all parliamentary groups. So for example 15 National Councillors of the Christian Democratic Party (CVP) voted for and 13 against, from the Liberal-Democratic Party (FDP) only 5 for, but 24 against. – Fortunately such a personal independence of many parliamentarians from three-line whip occurs from time to time in Swiss parliament (and in cantons and communities). Because a motion (that is a mandate to the Federal Council to lay a draft bill before the parliament) has to be passed by both chambers, the motion Janiak is grace to the no-vote of the National Council no longer an issue.