To whom is direct democracy in the way?

Avenir Suisse’s recipe for its long-term abolition

by Dr iur. Marianne Wüthrich

“Have you ever collected signatures for an initiative or a referendum? […] Getting the signature is one thing, however, at least as important is the lasting effect of the short or longer exchange.”

 

The Swiss model with its pillars of direct democracy, federalism, neutrality and independence is a successful model – as everyone knows. Nevertheless, this model is not cast in stone: it thrives on the joint involvement of citizens, on their active exercise of political rights, on their participation in the many small and large tasks of militia work. An indispensable foundation of the whole is the education of young people to becoming citizens. This includes, on the one hand, instruction in political science and Swiss history. Just as important is the development of the mind and the inner attitude: experiencing the discussions at the family table before a vote, the joy of the children when they are allowed to put their parents’ ballot papers into the ballot box, the active participation in the youth fire brigade or in the traffic cadets.
In the last two or three decades, however, the Swiss model has been challenged from different quarters and for various motives. In order to be able to arm ourselves against these – usually not openly declared – attempts, it is necessary to recognise horse and rider. Who can be interested in bringing Switzerland and its people down to a lower mainstream level in terms of constitutional law, economics and society and in integrating them more closely internationally? First, there is the Brussels headquarters and its bodies, which have no interest in a direct democratic role model. They would also like to ease their precarious financial situation with Swiss funds (which will also be not much use if the system is no good).
However, we need to focus much more on the domestic circles that are targeting the foundations of Switzerland. These protagonists will be scrutinised in Current Concerns. One of these is the think tank Avenir Suisse, founded in 2000 by 14 multinational big corporations, headquartered in Switzerland, whose scope has since expanded. Avenir Suisse “is developing ideas for Switzerland’s future”, that are intended “to prepare the ground for future reforms in politics and society”.1 One of the ground breaking ideas is that of “Digital Direct Democracy”, published in July 2019 with the misleading subtitle “Strengthening Swiss People’s Rights”.2

Digitisation of direct democracy does not work

The concept is quite simple: direct democracy is to be transferred completely to virtual space in the longer term – an unparalleled absurdity! In fact, this would mean the definite end of direct participation of citizens in the community. Because this is indispensably tied to personal relationships and the formation of opinion in the interaction with fellow human beings.
With “E-Collecting”, collecting signatures for popular initiatives and referendums would be “dematerialised”. “E-voting” – which has already been critically examined several times in Current Concerns – is initially to introduced as a third option, in addition to voting by ballot box and letter. However, Avenir Suisse also wants to shift the opinion-forming process more into virtual space, under the name “e-discussion”.
The authors’ “arguments” should no longer detain us because they want to lead the reader onto a side track. For the overwhelming majority in our country, direct democracy is not negotiable, and we firmly reject the fact that we adhered to “glorified democratic customs” and thus refused to embrace technological change. Anyone who claims that it is a matter of “improving the quality of democracy” and “adapting it to the needs of future generations”3 either has no idea of the matter or is lying.

Discussions of citizen with citizen versus e-collecting

Have you ever collected signatures for an initiative or a referendum? What a constructive experience it is to come into a personal exchange of ideas with fellow citizens, one can currently experience with the initiative for an “e-voting moratorium” (postponement of the introduction of e-voting by five years, subsequent verification of security).4 Getting the signature is one thing, however, at least as important is the lasting effect of the short or longer exchange. Most of those addressed did not even know that the initiative had been launched because the mainstream media hardly reported on it. Here the collectors can offer supplementary information, in discussion and with additional material handed out. When asked “Do you know anyone else who might want to sign?”, some take one or two signature sheets with them, helping to make the initiative better known and at the same time deepening their own involvement with the topic.
Now, what does Avenir Suisse offer us with e-collecting? “The chances of successful collection campaigns would be increased due to simpler mobilisation and media-break-free statements of support (without changing the medium from computer to paper) via the internet.5 “Media-break-free statements of support” – what nonsense! What a misjudgement of human nature: we gladly change the medium every now and then from the ubiquitous internet to paper and to human encounters.
Finally, Avenir Suisse is demanding – there we have it! – a “reform of the initiative and referendum conditions”. Because e-collecting were cheaper for the initiators and signatures are supposedly collected more quickly, the required number of signatures must be increased. To top it all: “Experience with e-collecting should be regularly evaluated. If the digital channel proves to be clearly advantageous, then parallel structures have to be removed. […]”6 All clear? By “parallel structures” is meant collecting signatures on paper, which, sooner or later, would no longer be necessary. Trickier is the question to what extent e-collecting should prove to be “clearly advantageous”: Because, without personal discussion, it would be easier to manipulate opinions in the direction desired by certain “elites”? This important question for the continued existence of direct democratic Switzerland brings us to the second area Avenir Suisse would like to push: the “e-discussion”.

Facebook and Google “simplifying the exchange of opinions”?

The opinion-forming process in Switzerland (fortunately) does not only take place via so-called “social media”, on this point Avenir Suisse can be agreed on. However, it is risky to claim that it is difficult to manipulate mobile phone users to change their minds. The statement that the influence of untruths disseminated by the media has “so far not been sufficiently clarified [however]” is quite puzzling.7 Common sense, in any case, comes to a different conclusion. Let us recall, for example, the manipulative headlines about the self-determination initiative that were trickled into one’s brain every day, hourly, minute-by-minute from the screens on the platforms or while googling as an “advertising free gift”: “No to the abolition of human rights” or something similar. Furthermore, the fact that one can also address young people via Facebook is an argument unsuitable for democracy.
In order to get into an in-depth and factual discussion with young people about political issues and enabling them to form their own opinion, it takes more than a few headlines, which can have a particularly manipulative effect on less informed young people. So, some of my vocational school students asked me from time to time: “Are you for or against the voting template XY?” When I asked back what he had heard or read about it, it often turned out that he had heard nothing about it apart from seeing a headline. When we read and discussed the contents and the pro- and contra-arguments in class, a basis for personal opinion formation was developed, and the students who were already 18 years or older in their second or third year of apprenticeship, went home contentedly, some remarking: “Actually I did not mean to go voting, but now, I know what I want to vote”. By the way, most of my foreign students were entitled to vote because they had been naturalised during their vocational training or earlier with their families.

E-Voting: Direct democracy is no computer game

Current Concerns has repeatedly informed about the pitfalls of e-voting and its inadequacy for democracy.4 Instead of facing up to the serious criticism of IT experts in the initiative committee for an e-voting moratorium, Avenir Suisse authors just ignore this and aim at transferring electronic voting as quickly as possible to “normal operation” (i. e. without a prior approval procedure).8 And this, despite all the mishaps to date and contrary to the grave objections raised by a number of parties and cantons in the consultation process of the Federal Chancellery in spring 2019.
The last section already pointed out the conditions to be set for our young people to enable them to guarantee the preservation and further development of Swiss democracy. If Avenir Suisse alleges that without the possibility of voting electronically, we would have to reckon with a decline in the voting participation of the “Generation Z” in the future9, we hold against this: Anyone, who confuses a referendum with a computer game, will not contribute anything to the continued existence of the Swiss model. We, as adults, have an obligation to provide the children and young people entrusted to us with the basics and the necessary skills.

Conclusion

Let us come back to the initial question of this text: To whom is direct democracy in the way? If one considers the concept of the Avenir Suisse authors in context, it seems reasonable to conclude that the underlying goal is quite different from a concern for the continued existence of the broad popular rights of Swiss citizens. The authors even explicitly tell us where the apple should roll to: “One day, e-voting has the potential to become the only voting channel because of lifestyle habits, but also for efficiency considerations”.10 So, away with the ballot boxes, away from talking to fellow citizens when collecting signatures, away from the indispensable opinion-forming process through a factual discussion of contents – and towards covering our thinking with a layer of concrete by means of manipulative headlines, towards clicking the yes or no button without understanding what it is all about. If everything were to take place only in virtual space, if all boundaries were to be blurred and all people isolated in front of their computers – the Curriculum 21 School is part of this strategy – it would be only a small step, before Switzerland would find itself in the world of the EU, where everything is in alignment, and in NATO, that is provoking wars. This is the grim vision – we citizens have it in our hands to take counter-measures. We must take counter-measures, and in Switzerland we also have the instruments to do it: Let us exercise our popular rights prudently and with a view to the whole, the common good. Let us not be bothered by the sound of shawms or drumbeats. Let us keep our feet on the ground and live in interaction with the many constructive fellow human beings in our country and with the other people in this world.    •

1    Avenir Suisse, Concept (www.avenir-suisse.ch/ueber-uns/)
2    Ammann, Matthias; Schnell, Fabian. Digitale Direkte Demokratie. (Digitised Direct Democracy) © July 2019 Avenir Suisse, Zurich (quote: Avenir Suisse)
3    Avenir Suisse, p. 7
4    see “Direct democracy is no computer game”, in: Current Concerns from 2 April 2019; “Federal Council postpones legal regulation of e-voting as a regular voting channel. There is still time to rethink in Berne” in: Current Concerns from 25 July 2019
5    Avenir Suisse, p. 8
6    Avenir Suisse, p. 8
7    Avenir Suisse, p. 9
8    Avenir Suisse, p. 12
9    Avenir Suisse, pp. 10 According to Wikipedia, Generation Z mainly ascribes to the age groups 1997 to 2012
10    Avenir Suisse, p. 11

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