Protecting democracy – but how?

by Christian Fischer, Cologne

Since the summer, Germany has been the site of strange political demonstrations. The reason is the protests against the pandemic protection measures. Recently, another demonstration took place in Leipzig in massive disregard of protective measures, which was rightly disbanded. For many organisers and participants, however, the abstract reference to civil liberties is only a pretext for a fundamental critical attitude towards our real existing democracy. Is demonstrative disregard for state-imposed health protection measures supposed to be democratic action?

Corona dictatorship?

There are various ideological tendencies among the demonstrators, from radical left-wing critics of the “deep state” to “lateral thinkers” up to the imperial Hohenzollern flag bearers. Between them, there are also many who reject state measures simply out of incomprehension and comfort. Many talk about a dictatorship to which our democracy has been transformed or which it has always been. To this end, they list democratically illegitimate lobby groups from the World Economic Forum over private foundations (Bill Gates) up to countless other circles and NGOs, and denounce their plans for global exploitation, control systems and accompanying propaganda.
  There is no doubt that such plans exist and are already being implemented outside or even through democratic bodies. It is true that powerful business and political circles assert their interests away of democratic legitimacy. To do so, they also abuse the pandemic protection measures1 – as by the way any other opportunity that may arise. But vice versa, it is also an abuse of the pandemic if it is used as proof of a dictatorship. For it is indeed a pandemic. The leaders of the demonstrations and the operators of the various platforms deny, in the interest of their argumentation, that in many places in the world there are massively more deaths, dangerous courses of the disease not yet understood and transmission routes only partially understood.
  Is it good that people are fighting for fundamental rights – but at the expense of health protection? Is that not a fundamental right? If the face mask must be used as evidence of a political muzzle, the same logic would have to be applied as evidence of a dictatorship to the shackling of the free citizen by the seat belt in the car. Or a thousand other examples of state-ordered “deprivations of liberty”. (Whereas the seat belt protects only one person, but the mouth and nose protector protects many!) Corona protection measures are no reason to use the constitutional right of resistance. Rather, the spokesmen of this movement have a problem with state “paternalism” completely independent of this. They have chosen this inappropriate example to bring their long-held opinion about our alleged sham democracy to the streets and various internet platforms.

What is the danger?

The protective measures are not an entry into dictatorship. They are protective measures. It is a pity that people think they have to attack the constitutional state for this reason for there are enough veritable reasons to denounce anti-democratic machinations.2 Those who want to delegitimise the “patronising” constitutional state do not breast in this way the actual, but obviously unrecognized attack on the constitutional state, but they just fall for it: After all, the real attack through economic and political globalisation consists above all in dissolving the national legal systems. Real resistance would be to protect them.
  National democracies or their officials have become for a long time already the executive organs of democratically illegitimate lobby groups. Privatisation of state functions, dissolution of national sovereignties, non-recognition of democratically legitimised legal systems, establishment of supranational decision-making bodies without the separation of public powers – these are the attacks that would be worth fighting against – in the name of our national sovereignty, including our democratic institutions.
  Whoever declares our democracy a dictatorship, as many demonstrators and spiritually related platforms do, not only reveals a lack of historical education, but obviously does not consider our democratic institutions worthy of protection. Here a disastrous convergence between “neoliberal“ and “neolibertarian” rejection of the democratic nation-state becomes apparent. The powerful and their critics dance to the same tune: Away with this nation state! Thus one plays into the hands of those who, from a more powerful vantage point, are engaged in the same business: the privatisation of public order, that is, the introduction of arbitrariness.
  Is it too much to ask to distinguish an abuse of democratic institutions from the institutions themselves? Part of this comfortable attitude is that positive alternatives are hardly visible among the demonstrators and associated platforms. Therefore, a look at the neighboring country Switzerland might help.

View into the neighbouring country

Swiss democracy is often cited as a better model, sometimes even by the anti-Corona dictatorship demonstrators. But have they also understood that this is not only about the right to direct votes, for which there must be universally valid rules, but about a complex political system, created and lived over many centuries and changed again and again? A closer look is provided by Werner Wüthrich’s extremely knowledgeable and very readable account in his book “Wirtschaft und direkte Demokratie in der Schweiz” (see "The Swiss democratic example – a review").
  The main message that Swiss democracy sends us is cooperation instead of struggle and efforts towards democratic accountability. Cooperation – this does not mean subjugation and renunciation, as one could read it with German glasses, but rather consideration of what one wants to achieve concretely in certain areas and convincing one’s fellow citizens in order to create generally valid legal conditions for this. This message is highly topical especially in these days.
  The second Swiss message is called decentralisation instead of centralism; the upper levels live from the lower ones, not vice versa. But the lower levels are not simply informal expressions of opinion with the here and hubristic call “We are the people”, but rather the use of the democratic rights gained to date. And their further development.
  Swiss democracy is not a “model” that can be imported by decision. German history has taken a different course and created different conditions. Therefore, in the following, some suggestions are made as to what tasks we Germans could put on our agenda in the light of the Swiss experience in order to make our legal system more democratic. This has already been presented in somewhat more detail in this newspaper.3 These suggestions may also send a signal to the fundamental critics, who make neither the mental nor the practical effort to further develop our democracy inherited from our ancestors.

Democratic proposals for Germany

Since democracy works from below, it starts with the community. In contrast to Switzerland, municipal autonomy is only poorly developed in Germany. Our municipalities only have some of their own revenues, mainly trade and property tax and fees for services. They are strongly reliant on the state and federal levels for their finances. A good 80 % of administrative work at local level is the performance of state and federal tasks (social and youth welfare, housing benefit, immission control, etc.); financial allocations from above, which do not necessarily cover costs. The task would therefore be:

  • Municipalities must become more capable of acting independently of the higher levels of government. It is at the municipal level that the democratic consciousness of citizens – including that of the younger generation – is created (or not created). Many civic initiatives could also work more effectively with greater municipal autonomy.
      The next level is federalism. Germany is a federally structured federal state, whose Länder are separate states with their own constitutions and three powers. This is enshrined in the constitution and is a good thing. Nevertheless, federalism is unfortunately increasingly underestimated by the sovereign. Many citizens see it only as a distant decision-making body and another place for party bickering. This perception reflects the fact that the federal states do not legislate as comprehensively and sovereignly as would be possible under the Basic Law.
  • The Länder must exercise their constitutional legislative competence much more confidently and comprehensively. And they could do so if the officials wanted to.
      The idea of federalism is also weak because there is no citizen-oriented representation of the Länder at federal level for joint federal and Länder legislation, as is the case in the USA or Switzerland. Our federal state chamber, the Federal Council, is an assembly of state governments, an undemocratic relic from the 1st and 2nd German Empires.4
  • Why is there not an independent body of country representatives directly elected, as in the US Senate or the Swiss Council of States? This could also promote federal awareness and objectively appropriate autonomy.
      At federal level, the German Bundestag has already substantially surrendered its legislative sovereignty to the EU Commission three decades ago through the revision of Article 23 of the Basic Law.5 This process, which many citizens did not notice or understand, is unforgivable and reversible according to democratic criteria. This is possible.
  • International cooperation can be very comprehensive and appropriate without having to surrender sovereignty to Brussels. Switzerland proves this every day.
    Finally, let us remember the right to vote promised in the Basic Law but not realised at federal level. It must finally be implemented by federal law. Nevertheless, it should not be forgotten that there are voting rights at the Länder and municipal level, which are also used – in different ways depending on the Länder. However, there is a substantial need for reform here, which applies to all levels, including a future federal level:
  • Quorums for the admission of a vote must be reasonably low; they may be waived altogether for the conduct of an admitted vote.
  • The subjects which may be put to the vote must, unlike at present, include everything on which MPs at each level may vote, for example budgetary issues, economic policy, tax collection and tax spending, etc.

This essential element of direct democracy is in Germany not even in its infancy. It must first be gradually born, no, be generated in thought: because there is a lack of awareness that the sovereign citizenship is competent not only to elect one person or one party, but also to say in all factual issues which concern the community, if they are formulated in a comprehensible manner. Swiss history shows that economic success is due especially to direct democratic financial competence, too. In Germany not even such a commendable direct democratic initiative such as “Mehr Demokratie e. V.” (More democracy) formulates the centrally important demand for direct financial sovereignty. And “The Greens” are just about to withdraw the call for voting at the federal level from their programme.6
  Such a more direct democracy of course includes a good and broad school education for all, including history and civics – whereby another task is addressed, which our “representatives” in the last decades often have “reformed” in the wrong direction. In the case of direct democratic voice this probably would not have happened.

Think straight ahead

The aim is to develop a political culture, where citizens cooperate with each other to develop their community in the for the common good, to give themselves therefore institutional rules, to observe and update them and use them in practice.  By the way, even politicians would be more cooperative having the people in their sight more directly by referendums and initiatives as a corrective to their decisions. This too is one of the positive Swiss messages. We do not have to start from scratch in Germany. We have a wide range of expandable democratic structures; that is what we must work on and work in instead of being blind to history and lazy in thought and thrust them aside as a dictatorship. If the aim is a better democracy, then the next step on the way to it is formulating realistic and up-to-date proposals, for example for more social justice, for better peacekeeping, for more democratic institutions, but certainly not: against health protection measures.
  Yes, there are powerful lobby groups standing in the way or lurking sideways in the bushes, and yes, many things in Germany will probably have to be developed through extra-parliamentary channels first. But it is precisely here that steadfast persuasion of our fellow citizens to accept concrete proposals, which we must first work out and think through ourselves, is the means of choice. Democracy is nice, but it is a lot of work, especially not just the abstract claiming of fundamental rights, as if they had been abolished.
  The preoccupation with Swiss history, to which Werner Wüthrich’s book invites us in an excellent way, can be very helpful in providing concrete suggestions for further democratisation. •

1 (Lucky chance-virus-corona-upturnplan)
2 For example: Rügemer, Werner. Die Kapitalisten des 21.Jahrhunderts, Köln 2018 (The capitalists of the 21st century, Cologne 2018), or: or: Ploppa, Hermann. Die Macher hinter den Kulissen (The makers behind the scenes), Frankfurt 2015
3 Fischer, Christian. “Direktere Demokratie in Deutschland“ (More direct democracy in Germany) in: Current Concerns 2019 (No. 8, 12, 14, 20) und 2020 (No. 2, 3)
4 Rudzio, Wolfgang. Das politische System der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (The Political System of the Federal Republic of Germany), Wiesbaden 2019, p. 256f.
5 For example: or: Loewe, Jens. Europa ist ein Friedensprojekt – und die Erde ist eine Scheibe (Europe is a peace project – and the earth is a disc), Schramm’s blog of 19 May 2019 or: Hofbauer, Hannes. Europa – ein Nachruf (Europe – an obituary), pp. 93-187, Wien 2020

The Swiss democratic example – a review

cf. Swiss democracy is often regarded as ideal, but almost as often only partially perceived and understood. Werner Wüthrich’s book “Wirtschaft und direkte Demokratie in der Schweiz” (Economy and direct democracy in Switzerland) is a great contribution to a better understanding. It is presented here from the perspective of a German reader.

The book comprises 29 chapters in eleven thematic areas, which can also be read seperately. The best overview is of course provided by reading the entire book. The subsections refer to different historical sections since the founding of the state in 1848, but also to topics of different content such as economic theory, financial policy, agriculture and others. Not everything can be adequately appreciated in a review.
  The founding of the federal state took place under the intellectual influences of the Enlightenment and the French Revolution. From this, for example, individual liberty rights were taken over. (The old Confederates’ concept of freedom was different. It referred to independence from foreign powers).
  From the American Constitution, Switzerland adopted above all the bicameral system (National Council and Council of States). The actual basis of the federal state, however, was its own history, which since the Federal Charter of 1291 had been built on freedom and independence from foreign feudal lords, combined with the duty to provide assistance and the living direct democracy, especially in the rural municipality cantons. Direct models for the Federal Constitution of 1848 were a whole range of cantonal constitutions of the regenerating cantons in the 1830s, in which direct democracy was already established. The sovereign cantons, which merged to form the federal state, retained a strong position. As a result, after the founding of the state, competition between decentralised aspirations for sovereignty and centralising intentions became politically effective, as it had been before. The former were often based on the rural population and shaped the instruments of direct democracy (referendum, popular initiative) first in some cantons, while the latter were stronger in the cities and relied more on what we now call representative democracy. This “conflict of aims” is still alive today in various forms.
  An interesting example is the portrait of Alfred Escher, a formative politician and business leader in the middle of the 19th century. The Zurich businessman was a member of the Cantonal Council for 36 years, a member of the National Council for 34 years, a member of the government for seven years. He founded a railway company, a bank (now Credit Suisse), a university (now ETH) and much more. He was a supporter of the representative democracy and an opponent of the emerging democracy movement for more direct popular participation. However, this prevailed in the form of a very progressive constitution for Zurich in 1869 – without therefore wanting to abandon Escher’s entrepreneurial initiatives. Both sides “complemented each other in political interplay and prepared the ground for the development of modern Switzerland” (page 61).
  Another example is the functioning of democracy in the 1930s and 1940s, when Switzerland was surrounded by aggressive European dictatorships. The First World War had taught people painfully how important self-sufficiency in vital products was in a country that was poor in raw materials and already heavily export-oriented. On the basis of this experience, referendums were held to decide how the state should support the country’s own agriculture. This helped the country to become self-sufficient, while Nazi dictatorship and fascism prevailed all around.
  From 1939, the parliament transferred to the executive power the authority to guide the country through the difficult times with emergency decrees. The sovereign, the people, had partly agreed to this because they understood that rapid action was needed. After the war, however, there were voices, for example from Zaccaria Giacometti, the outstanding professor of constitutional law at the University of Zurich, who were critical of the continuation of the emergency regime and insisted on the sovereign’s sovereignty. These voices were important to ensure that after the war, the executive power did not claim the increase in power it had created as a permanent state of affairs for civilian times. The sovereignty of the people did not only exist on paper, it was repeatedly exercised by vigilant citizens. This did not happen through revolutionary struggle, but by appealing to and exercising the rights guaranteed by law, which were thereby repeatedly adapted to the times.
  A separate part is addressed to agriculture, in which it is shown how regulations were created over decades in the last third of the 20th century that enable a balance between the protection of farms and food security as well as nature and animal protection. To this end, there were numerous popular initiatives from various interest groups, which had to be coordinated by the Federal Council and the parliament. Some initiatives were withdrawn when parliamentary bills took up the concern and meaningfully included other matters.
  Particularly interesting for German and probably all other readers as well is the fact that the Swiss attach great importance to a pronounced federalism. This is only understandable because sovereignty here actually operates decentralised. Municipalities and cantons not only have much greater financial autonomy than in other countries (until the First World War the Federal Government was financed exclusively from customs revenue and is still heavily dependent on the lower levels today), but the sovereign itself, the citizenry, has financial sovereignty at the federal, cantonal and municipal level. Citizens decide directly on the collection and use of taxes by vote. Therefore, they are prepared to pay higher taxes temporarily, if they know that these taxes will be used for the intended purpose and will not trickle away in dubious channels.
  This also explains voting results, which surprises the foreigner. In 1973, for example, the sovereign rejected an initiative to introduce a uniform federal tax on income and assets and capital gains – instead of the previous different cantonal taxes. The nationwide tax fairness desired was clearly not as highly valued by the citizens as the financial sovereignty of the cantons. Decentralisation, i.e. citizen-orientated decisional power, was more important to the citizens than equality of tax rates.
  The systematic presentation of the voting systems that exist at the various levels is not the subject of the book. However, in connection with the various key subjects, you can experience how it works and how complex and historically well practised it is. Optional referenda to bring parliamentary decisions to the people, initiatives by citizens’ groups or political parties to introduce their own bills, mandatory referenda when amendments to the Federal Constitution are pending; and in between, always negotiations in parliament when various initiatives originating from the people, a party or the cantons have to be coordinated and agreed with other issues.
  It is not concealed that quite a few politicians have been striving for many years to bring Switzerland closer to the EU, if not into it. In 1992, there was a referendum on accession to the European Economic Area (EEA) with a clearly negative result, although the major parties, the Federal Council and Parliament had supported an accession. The proportion of votes was indeed close. But most cantons voted against. Since that time, the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has become the strongest party, among other things, because it is clearly against an EU accession. Swiss industry is strongly export- and internationally oriented, but Switzerland cultivates its economic relations with other countries not by a sovereignty tax but through bilateral agreements. Thanks to the direct democratic system, a small-scale economy and an effective brake on debt initiated by the people, Switzerland is one of the most economically successful countries with a high quality of life for its citizens. If it were integrated into the EU, it would largely lose its political system of popular sovereignty within the framework of its own parliamentary, executive and judicial separation of powers. Switzerland’s internationally important role as a neutral and peace-mediating country would also get lost.
  These are a few brief remarks on this very worth reading book.  •

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