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Swiss Democracy by Kenrick Jones
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Swiss Democracy

by Kenrick Jones

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Kenrick Jones is a British academic active in local politics who has written a very interesting book comparing Swiss and British democracy.

He sees many positive aspects to the Swiss system linked to local democracy. Like he says, “Can one doubt that much of the peace and orderliness which is evident in Swiss society stems from the knowledge that the people do enjoy a large say in the running of their country.”

His comparison of Swiss local politics and British local politics is quite detailed with regards to power, procedures and revenues but it is also bolstered by interviews with key figures. For example in the Canton of Geneva he talks to Monsieur Kyburz, Lord Mayor of the 46 Communes of Geneva and Mayor of the Commune of Carouge, who states that the driving force behind all Swiss democracy is the principle of subsidiarity i.e. devolving power down to the smallest viable unit that can support it. “So in Geneva,” said the Lord Mayor, “each Commune has as much power as it can usefully exploit.”. He also notes that participatory democracy can be frustrating and costly but that citizen involvement makes it more than worthwhile.

A key point that Jones emphasizes throughout the text is local taxation. Switzerland is very unusual in that the major responsibilities that are taken on locally (at the Cantonal level) such as health, police, law and education are also funded locally. For example in year 2002 Geneva collected locally 84% of the money it needed through an income tax, capital tax and rates. This is a mayor contrast to Britain where health, law and education policy are decided (and funded) at the national level with local authorities receiving rate support grants in return for implementing central directives.

The next question is, “If Swiss Cantons and Communes have so much power how do they handle it?”

Jones shows that the answer is really split into two.

On the one hand, there is a major effort to get interested community participation (as a long term Swiss resident said, “Swiss people vote for issues, British for parties”), with the system naturally leading to Proportional Representation at all levels up to the 200 member Swiss National Council.

On the other hand, there is the critical importance of the Popular Initiative and consequent Commission of Inquiry. Popular Initiatives can be launched by anyone who can collect a certain percentages of signatures and they are followed by a lengthy and rigorous Commission of Inquiry that airs the issue and questions all parties prior to a referendum vote. These do work at all levels. For example in 1992 the Federal government approved legislation enabling the state to apply for membership of the European Union. This was challenged and defeated with over 1.5 million yes/no votes on a 78.8% national turnout.
The system covers any issue. In a 2005 referendum same sex couples were granted the same legal rights as heterosexuals but were not allowed to adopt children. In 1994 a successful Popular Initiative led to the banning of heavy lorries passing through alpine villages en route to Italy (vote 51.9% for, 48.1% against).

The author asks the question about the exportability of the Swiss democratic system. It certainly results from the peculiar circumstances of Switzerland. The Federation grew out of the 1291 alliance of Unterwalden, Uri and Schwyz, gradually expanding to cover people of different languages (German, French, Italian and Romansch), different religions (49% Catholic, 47% Protestant) all with very strong local ties, sometimes even to a particular alpine valley.

He concludes that happy historical accident of Swiss democracy is a viable and superior system and suggests that it can be used to counteract the problems of disconnected centralized “establishment” politics such as can be found in countries like the UK.

Highly recommended. ( )
  Miro | Mar 13, 2016 |
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