Vote to Self-determination initiative: Quo vadis, direct democracy?

mw. The Self-determination initiative (SBI) was rejected on 25 November 2018 with 66.3 per cent of the votes. Now the Voto-Studie1 (vote survey) on citizens’ voting behaviour comes to results that give us a lot to think about.
For example, 43 per cent of the over 1,500 voters surveyed stated that “they found it rather difficult to understand what the bill was about” (Voto-Studie p. 4) – an alarmingly high proportion in the country of direct democracy. But no wonder – as the “information” provided by politicians, the media and representatives of large corporations was often confusing or even runs counter to facts! Accordingly, one-third of the naysayers cited “Switzerland’s credibility as an international negotiating partner” as their main motive, which was in reality not compromised at all by the initiative. 16 per cent voted “against Switzerland sealing itself off”, which was also not the issue. And, as a result of thousands of repetitions, the title “Anti-Human Rights Initiative” remained stuck in many people’s minds ...
In the report of the newspaper “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” on the Voto-Studie, it was apparently now suddenly possible to state briefly, objectively and comprehensibly what the initiative was about: “At its core, the Self-determination initiative wanted the Federal Constitution to be established as the supreme source of law and to take precedence over international law – with the exception of mandatory international law. International law contradicting the Federal Constitution was to be renegotiated and, if necessary, terminated.”2 Why not explain it like this before the vote? In that case the readers would have had no problem understanding the concern of the initiative. The proponents, at any rate, had apparently understood it, because they voted largely in favour “because one wanted to remain sovereign or self-determined” (Voto-Studie p. 25).

Free formation of opinion instead of small-scale thinking

Another – extremely alarming – finding of the study is the increasing sharpness towards people and groups with different political views: “The decisive factor for the decision taken was primarily the political attitudes, first and foremost party identification: […] There was hardly anyone in the left-wing camp who might have agreed to the request (6 or 7 % agreement). But even in the political centre and, moreover, to the moderate right, the SVP (Swiss People’s Party) initiative could not achieve a majority. Only on the far right was it able to achieve a majority, albeit a clear one (74%). Generally speaking, ideological or party-political affiliation dominated the decision so strongly, that other characteristics were only of minor importance.” (p. 23; emphasis mw)
This kind of small-scale thinking may be common in some representative democracies, but it is alarming in direct democracy. An objective discussion of the most diverse opinions is an indispensable prerequisite for the formation of democratic opinion. In Switzerland, honest and open exchange of opinions at the regulars’ table or at an open forum for discussion has always been the rule. Of course, we have also seen some instances of political trench warfare in the past, but in principle the way in which fellow citizens deal with each other in their joint responsibility for the commune is quite different from that prevailing in the authoritarian state. The fact that our political culture has suffered such damage as expressed in the Voto-Studie – above all in connection with the overriding question of how closely Switzerland should link itself to the EU and other supranational constructs – is an alarm signal. We citizens, but also the media, are called upon not to continue pouring oil on the fire, but to do our utmost to help cultivate and strengthen our community-related political culture.    •

1    Voto-Studie zur eidgenössischen Volksabstimmung vom 25. November 2018, finanziert von der Schweizerischen Bundeskanzlei. (Study on the federal referendum of 25 November 2018, financed by the Swiss Federal Chancellery.) Authors: Thomas Milic, Alessandro Feller and Daniel Kübler, Centre for Democracy Studies Aarau (ZDA), and Anke Tresch, Laurent Bernhard, Laura Scaperrotta and Lukas Lauener, FORS, the social science research centre in Lausanne.
2    “Zu schwere Kost für das Stimmvolk” (“Too heavy food for the electorate“). “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” from 11 January 2019