Communal mergers and direct democracy

by Dr. phil. René Roca, Research Institute Direct Democracy (www.fidd.ch)

Every year, the Department of Economic Affairs and Home Affairs of the Canton of Aargau organises a communal conference. The communal councillors of the 210 communes in Canton Aargau are invited to attend. After an introductory presentation, an exciting panel discussion is held at each event, at which experts speak on a particular topic. Afterwards, the members of the authorities present take advantage of the opportunity for discussion. The event concludes with an aperitif, during which informal discussions continue.
  This year everything was different because of the pandemic. Despite the difficult circumstances, the cantonal administration in Aarau carried out the event professionally via live stream. This year’s communal conference was dedicated to the topic “Opportunities and risks of communal mergers”. All presentations and the subsequent discussion of the panel can be viewed on the website of the Canton of Aargau (www.ag.ch; Aargauer Gemeindetagung 2020).
  Although the following text refers to the canton of Aargau, the scientific evidence and further explanations can also be applied to other Swiss cantons.

Introduction

I have been a non-party communal councillor in the Swiss commune Oberrohrdorf-Staretschwil for almost fifteen years now and have been deputy mayor for five years. I started my political career involuntarily when, shortly after a change of residence, I attended an information event in my new communeon the subject of a possible merger with the commune Niederrohrdorf. I quickly came into contact with other critical citizens of the community and we founded the association “Pro Oberrohrdorf-Staretschwil”. We had good arguments that our commune should remain independent. In the end, we successfully opposed an expensive study that would have examined the potential effects of a merger with the neighbouring commune. We were successful at the communal assembly and at the ballot box. For the subsequent election to the communal council, I was nominated by the association and was elected. The two communities are still developing splendidly today.
  Later, I continued to be involved in the merger issue, as a communal councillor on the committee “For communal autonomy and a solidary Aargau” against the “Communal Reform Aargau” (GerAG), which would have included the possibility of forced mergers. We were also able to win these votes clearly. Nevertheless, the canton has made new advances, and unfortunately it continues to support communal mergers with advice and a lot of money, even though scientific evidence shows that such mergers do not work.

Communal mergers – scientific findings

In justifying communal mergers, the following points are usually listed: more efficient structures, professionalisation of services and cost savings. Consequently, it is primarily administrative and financial considerations that should encourage two or more communes to opt for a common future. However, hardly anyone has yet considered the political-democratic and human-community implications. Wrongly so, because they do play a role, even if they are repeatedly denigrated as “soft factors” in merger discussions. But let us first turn to the scientific evidence.

The financial argument disproved

In theory as well as in practice, communal mergers are often motivated by savings effects. For example, it is expected that various effects will lead to greater synergies, which would reduce costs. Studies of the efficiency effects of communal mergers have so far been limited to case studies of individual mergers of communes and surveys of communal representatives. Professor Christoph A. Schaltegger of the University of Lucerne conducted a broad-based research project to examine 142 communal mergers in ten cantons between 2001 and 2014. Schaltegger explains the results of his study as follows: “The analysis shows that no systematic savings effects are discernible across all the communal mergers considered. Consequently, cost savings cannot automatically be assumed to result from mergers of communes”. In the area of administrative tasks, a small savings effect was discernible, but no systematic savings effects were evident in the area of total expenditure. Schaltegger continues: “It can therefore be assumed that the savings in the area of administration will again be offset by increases in expenditure in other budget items.” No systematic differences between merged and non-merged communes could be found in the indicators “population development” and/or “property prices” either. The result is therefore absolutely sobering, a “zero result”, as Schaltegger notes. The assertion that a merger of communes generates savings must now be called a “merger myth”. As a prominent example, the media attested the Glarnerland (Eastern Switzerland) a “merger hangover” during the merger process, because instead of savings, red figures had appeared.

Fusion shock for local democracy

Communal mergers also have a particularly serious impact on democracy. According to a study by the Centre for Democracy (Zentrum für Demokratie, ZDA), mergers trigger a real “shock” for local democracy. The study shows that this is measurably reflected in lower voter turnout. This means that people are less interested in politics and disengage from militia-based social structures. Such aspects have so far been clearly neglected in communal mergers.
  The shock, according to the ZDA study, is stronger for small communes that join larger ones. Local political networks are functioning in the communes. These would be broken up by a merger. The first consequence, as already mentioned, would be lower voter turnout in local elections and voting. The second consequence is that representatives of local movements or non-party members have less chance of being elected and will leave the political scene. The consequences of a merger on local democracy should be made clear to local citizens and they should be aware of what is at stake.

Not everything can be measured –
the importance of the “soft factors”

We are falling more and more under the delusion that we want to measure everything. Although, as has been shown, there are now empirical studies on communal mergers that clearly show the negative effects of such mergers, there are other factors that are not easily measurable. People basically want to participate in their communes. This is very well illustrated by our “militia” political system. A merger undermines this desire to actively contribute to the common good. The best energies and resources of a civic community are lost. But these human resources will be needed in the future to answer and meet the difficult challenges that lie ahead. The corona crisis is a particularly clear example of this. The future can only be mastered with people who voluntarily offer their thoughts and help to shape it.

Theses

  1. As a conclusion to his study, Schaltegger concludes: “If on average no effect is achieved in all mergers, the communal merger cannot in principle serve as a recipe for cost savings or quality improvements”. The fact that certain political circles cling to the “merger circus” against their better judgment can only be described as ideological. These circles are more interested in power and centralism than in flourishing communes.
  2. The research results show that pragmatic cooperation and problem-oriented collaboration among communes can open up important synergy potentials even without mergers.
  3. The canton of Aargau should stop actively supporting communal mergers without scientific evidence by providing expensive advice and financial contributions. A recent example: I find it an advantage that the canton of Aargau does not have a large city. It is the small structures that give people a sense of home and identity, especially today, because the motto “Small is beautiful” still applies. What are the aims of a “model city of Baden” or the “greater Aarau area”? In any case, the canton of Aargau, the responsible communal authorities and the planners only promote the further democratic dismantling of the cooperative communal system, the cornerstone of direct-democratic Switzerland, with such nonsensical projects.
  4. Communal mergers are not the “ideal way” to meet the challenges of the future. On the contrary, the “militia” political system and communal autonomy must be strengthened so that the quality of democracy improves again and people continue to participate in public life in a way that is oriented towards the common good. •

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