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<nettime> The crisis of democracy and referenda
Felix Stalder on Fri, 13 Jan 2006 11:13:53 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> The crisis of democracy and referenda


> On 11/01/06, Prem Chandavarkar <prem {AT} cnt-semac.com> wrote:
> > A referendum helps to resolve impasses reached when you have polarised
> > opinions on critical single cause issues.  It cannot be a substitute for
> > the day to day negotiations of representative politics.
>
> True.  On the other hand, elected representatives may well be less
> likely to pass unpopular laws, and more likely to take the views of
> the majority into account when carrying on those day-to-day
> negotiations, if they know that citizens can easily arrange a
> referendum on any issue in order to reverse their decisions.  The
> existence of an easy referendum mechanism, even if it is rarely used,
> may thus make politicians more sensitive to public opinion.

In Switzerland, the place that has the most extensive experience with
referenda, this is exactly what happens. Politically speaking, the most
important thing about a referendum is not calling one, but to be able to
credibly claim that one can does so. This buys you the ticket to the
negotiation table.

Before any law passes, there are extensive rounds of negotiations (called
"Vernehmlassung" in Swiss-German), where all the groups that can call a
referendum are asked to provide feedback to the proposed law, making sure
that all the powerful groups in the country agree on a law, or can at least
live with it. Nobody wants to work for years on a law, and then have it
subjected to to vagueries of a public vote (which is always unpredictable,
since one never knows about the context in which the vote is actually held).
In practice, this slows down everything, and give a lot of influence to
unelected presentative of powerful groups, why may, depending on the issue,
include unions and environmental groups.

As an effect, the power of elected politicians is serverely curtailed, after
all, the representative aspects are only one part of this particular Swiss
brand of democracy.

Because the mechanisms of Swiss democracy are rather different from others,
the crisis that it faces is also very different. Yes, of course, there's also
a lot of lobbying, but given the curtailed power of politicians, buying them
off only gets you so far. The actual crisis is two fold: first, given the
need to consult and include ever diverging interest, the system slows down to
a crawl, as, in the end, it's always safer to do nothing than to risk losing
face in a refendum. Second, more and more stuff gets decided on an
international basis, with the national parliaments only responsible for
converting international treaties (or EU directives) into national law. Yet,
the fiction that direct democracy is the ultimate source of power, needs to
be maintained, as it's so crucial to Swiss identity. So how do you square
this? By inventing a construction called "autonomer Nachvollzug" which can be
translated as "autonomous conformation". If that sounds like a paradox, it
is. The key idea is that Switzerland is autonomous to conform to
international agreements. In fact, of course, it is not, but given its deep
interlikages with the EU and other countries, it simply has to take over what
is decided there.


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