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The 7 Swiss Democracy Tools

The Current State of “Democracy”

Power of the people, right? Yes. Democracy, from the Greek words “demos” meaning people, and “kratos” meaning power.

But what does democracy look like in practice? This is a question many people around the world have asked. This section of the guide will attempt to explain the most common and current model of democracy worldwide. While each system is unique, there are some fundamental principles that are consistent across democratic systems. Here, we will outline the most essential principles of the current model of “democracy”.

Let’s begin with the separation of powers.

Separation of Powers

Executive, Legislative, and Judicial Powers

Most Western countries have a system of separation of powers, a crucial political innovation. This system was designed to create checks and balances, ensuring that no single branch holds absolute power. What are the different parts of this system?

The legislative branch, typically consisting of parliaments and assemblies, is responsible for creating laws. These laws are usually proposed, debated, and written by elected legislators, including representatives from various parties, deputies, and independents.

The executive branch, also known as the government executive, includes institutions such as departments and ministries that implement the laws created by the legislative branch. This branch varies significantly across different systems. For example, in presidential systems like those in the US and France, the president also has the authority to create laws.

The judicial branch is responsible for interpreting and applying the law, ensuring it is upheld by everyone, including the legislative and executive branches.

How can changes be made within this three-part system? The simple answer is by changing the laws. In theory, changing the law is the way to modify any aspect of this system because everyone is bound by the law. Therefore, it is usually the legislative or executive branch, the ones responsible for generating new laws, that initiate changes in the system.

How do these changes typically occur? Through elections.

The Elections

Imagine we, the people, want to change a law in this current model of “democracy”. The premise of this model (and we’re going to be elaborating on this) is that directly giving power to the people is not feasible due to our large numbers and the complexity of lawmaking. Therefore, we elect representatives to create and modify laws on our behalf. And thus, various types of elections exist to cater to different parliamentary systems.

This is how the role of the politician is born. Politicians are meant to represent us because “it is impractical for everyone to have a direct voice”.

Therefore, all democracies around the world are representative democracies. People do not decide laws directly; instead, we choose representatives (politicians) to make decisions for us.

But how do we choose politicians?

This is where parties and ideologies come into play. Suppose we want to change something in our system, country, region, or city. How do we do this in the current model of democracy? We look for politicians who share our desired changes. Politicians usually organize themselves into parties around a political ideology, set of promises, or common themes.

To summarize, we (the people) want to change a law. In the current system, we do this by electing politicians based on their ideologies and proposals. We choose the proposal list closest to the changes we want and vote for those politicians. This is how it works in most of the world.

Let’s delve deeper into these ideas, proposals, or, more colloquially, the politicians’ promises.

The Politician Promises

This is where problems begin to surface. We choose politicians based on their proposals, but in practice, they often fail to fulfill all their promises and sometimes do the complete opposite. This is a common issue worldwide. Politicians often promise more than they can deliver. However, this may not be entirely their fault. For instance, changing economic conditions might prevent politicians from fulfilling their promises.

The crucial question is…

If politicians do not fulfill their promises (or pursue different policies than those they were elected to represent), what can be done?

In reality, not much. Practically speaking, people resort to protests to express their dissatisfaction.

Protests have little legal and often minimal political impact. Public opinion is what truly matters. Politicians can act as they wish, facing no consequences other than becoming unpopular. Keep this in mind; we will revisit it.

How do people really decide who to vote for in this current model of democracy?

Knowing that politicians may not fulfill their promises, how do people decide who to vote for? This is where the process becomes more complex and chaotic. Politicians must remain popular, even if they cannot fulfill all their promises.

Public Opinion (Media) is the King in This System

In the current democratic model, elections are heavily influenced by public opinion. Public opinion is the general sentiment of the people regarding a specific topic or person. But how is this sentiment defined or measured? Through the media. Media, derived from the word “medium,” encompasses all forms of communication, including TV, social media, newspapers, and word of mouth.

This reliance on media is problematic. In this system, the president and/or party that gets elected is the one perceived as most capable of addressing the issues of the time and garnering the most votes. It’s all about perception, making our current democratic models seem irrational.

To get elected, politicians often:

  1. Create an urgent problem to solve.
  2. Position themselves as the only person capable of solving that problem.

This approach is inherently flawed because it leads to short-term thinking and oversimplification. Real problems are complex and require extensive debate. Consequently, we are stuck in a cycle of superficial solutions.

While this system functions, it does so inefficiently. The current model of democracy operates by brute force, akin to a young child learning by repeatedly making mistakes.

This Model of “Democracy” is Old

The modern model of representative democracy, where we elect leaders every four years at federal, state, or local levels, has been around for over 200 years in some cases.

Top-down vs Bottom-up

In this system, the people have very little say in enacting change. The primary method for expressing discontent is through street protests. Is this really the best we can do in an age where technology allows for instant global communication? Shouldn’t there be more effective ways to convey disagreement with local, regional, or national leaders?

Are all democracies like this?
Do all countries follow this same “democratic” model? Not quite. There is one notable exception.

Switzerland and the 7 Democratic Tools

Here are the fundamental characteristics of the Swiss political system, also known as Swiss Democracy. Many people consider Switzerland the only true democracy in the world.

After reading this, you’ll understand the immense differences between Switzerland and other countries and why Swiss democracy is seen as a solution to many global problems.

Most of the world has similar political systems with elections every four years. Switzerland, however, is unique due to a combination of these seven characteristics and many others.

Switzerland is a country in the middle of Europe with a fascinating history that explains its current political system. In this post, we’ll focus on the seven tools that make Swiss democracy stand out from the rest of the world.

1. People’s Veto Power

The Swiss people have the ability to reject any law passed by their government at the federal, cantonal, or local level. This is known as the People’s Veto Power (also known as the Optional Referendum).

The People’s Veto Power allows citizens to reject any law or measure through a referendum. This includes budgets.

How the People’s Veto Power (Optional Referendum) Works in Switzerland on a Federal Level

Here’s how it works on the federal level: if the federal government passes a controversial law, any individual citizen or group (such as associations or parties) can gather 50,000 signatures within 100 days to trigger a referendum that can veto the law. With a population of 8 million, gathering 50,000 signatures is relatively straightforward. Since the inception of the Optional Referendum in the 1850s, there have been hundreds of referendums.

Can the Swiss Reject Any Law Passed by Their Government?

Yes, any law.

How Does This Look in Practice? What Is the Political Life of a Swiss Citizen Like?

The Swiss vote four times a year, every three months, in a series of referendums that combine the Optional Referendums and the People’s Initiatives (discussed below). They often reject laws passed by the government. In fact, the Swiss frequently say no to their government. Since 1874, the Swiss have rejected 86 laws on a federal level. This figure only accounts for federal laws; the People’s Veto is also used at cantonal and communal levels, meaning the Swiss might have rejected their governments’ laws hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

Examples of Referendums Created by the People’s Veto Power on the Federal Level

The Fighter Jet Purchase Referendum of 2020

One example of the many Optional Referendums on the federal level is the Fighter Jet Purchase Referendum. In 2020, the Swiss federal government decided to modernize their air force by purchasing new fighter aircraft.

A group called Group for Switzerland Without an Army, with the support of the Social Democratic Party, gathered the required 50,000 signatures to call a referendum on this law. On the day of the vote, there were two choices: accept the law (and proceed with the purchase) or reject the law (and save money). The law was accepted. This illustrates how an Optional Referendum works: if you vote to accept, you agree to keep the law; if you vote to reject, you dismiss the law.

There were other Optional Referendums in 2020 as well.

The Optional Referendum was implemented on a federal level in Switzerland in 1874.

The Citizen Initiative was the first democratic tool introduced in 1865, followed by the mandatory Constitutional Referendums in 1869.

The greatest benefit and consequence of Optional Referendums is that they force consensus among everyone, reducing partisan politics and ensuring laws are agreeable to legislators, the opposition, and the people. Legislators, aware that their laws can be rejected, strive to make balanced laws. They often conduct surveys before finalizing laws to avoid triggering referendums.

As a result, in Switzerland, socialists can achieve public healthcare, public schools, and other services, while taxes and debt are kept low to satisfy liberals (the FDP). Switzerland ranks as one of the freest countries in the world by the Heritage Foundation and simultaneously boasts one of the best public healthcare and school systems globally, thanks to its democratic system.

There’s No Democracy Without the People’s Veto Power

Optional Referendums are crucial. The lack of consensus is the greatest problem in democracies worldwide. Most so-called democracies are actually four-year dictatorships. This is why elections are so critical in many Western countries—they carry too much at stake because politicians and legislators aren’t forced to achieve consensus among everyone, including the opposition and the people.

So This Gives Full Power to the Swiss People to Reject Any Law? But Aren’t the People Dumb? Don’t They Make Stupid Decisions?

There are no universally stupid decisions; what seems foolish to one person might not be to another. Democracy is valuable because it reflects the will of the people. The concern about people making “stupid” decisions overlooks the fundamental purpose of democracy: to represent the collective will.

Why Is the People’s Veto Power a Game-Changing Tool and Why Should It Be Implemented in Every Country?

Simply put, it forces the government to do things that people actually need, as the people have the power to reject laws. The mere existence of this tool compels politicians to seek consensus. In Switzerland, politicians often survey stakeholders—farmers, entrepreneurs, doctors, workers, teachers—depending on the law, to ensure broad support.

Switzerland Didn’t Always Have the Veto Power. It Was Created by the Radical-Liberal Party in 1874. Before This, the Swiss Only Had the People Initiative.

This demonstrates that the Swiss people’s success with these tools can be replicated worldwide. There is nothing inherently unique about the Swiss that makes these democratic tools exclusive to them.

2. Federalism

Federalism, a cornerstone of Swiss governance, entails the coexistence of multiple tiers of government: the federal, cantonal, and municipal levels. This decentralized structure ensures that governance is tailored to the needs of diverse communities, adhering to the principle of subsidiarity.

Switzerland’s political landscape comprises the federal government, 27 cantons (such as Zurich, Basel, Geneva, and Vaud), and 2,212 municipalities (including cities like Lausanne and Zurich). Each level of government has distinct elections and legislative and executive bodies.

The federal government focuses on matters of national importance, such as defense, monetary policy, and nuclear energy, affecting the entire country.

Cantons handle regional affairs like universities, hospitals, schools, and police services—issues best addressed at a local level.

The key principle of Swiss federalism is subsidiarity, emphasizing that decisions should be made at the lowest level of government feasible. For instance, matters like university policies are determined at the cantonal level, ensuring governance remains close to the people.

Federalization, a critical concept for democracy, involves decentralizing power where appropriate and centralizing it when necessary. While countries like France and the UK are highly centralized, Switzerland and the US exemplify federalized systems. At the heart of federalization lies the principle of subsidiarity.

True federalization necessitates at least three independent levels of government: national, regional, and local.

3. Open Lists (a.k.a. Panachage)

Open Lists, also known as Panachage, allow voters to select candidates from any party during elections every four years. This electoral method incentivizes elected officials to prioritize constituents’ needs over party interests, as they are directly elected by the people rather than by the party. It encourages individualized thinking among politicians rather than collective allegiance.

Switzerland conducts elections for federal, cantonal, and municipal governments, often utilizing the Open List Panachage variation. This approach enables voters to choose candidates from any party.

In federal elections in Switzerland, there are two parliamentary chambers: the lower and upper chambers. The lower chamber features candidates from all cantons, ranked by population, while the upper chamber includes two candidates per canton to ensure equitable representation.

During elections for the lower chamber, 200 candidates compete nationwide, with each canton allocated a proportionate number based on population size. For example, Zurich might have 37 candidates, while Geneva has 20 and Bern has 15.

In the Open List system, voters in Zurich, for instance, can choose from among 37 candidates, regardless of party affiliation. This empowers voters to select candidates who best represent their interests, whether based on age, professional background, or other factors.

Open Lists foster diversity and reduce party loyalty, as candidates serve the electorate directly rather than being beholden to party leaders. This decentralized approach shifts power away from parties, mitigating the risk of centralized party control and the enactment of detrimental laws. In contrast, closed list systems, where parties dictate candidate selection, tend to concentrate power around party leaders, often resulting in poor legislative outcomes.

4. People’s Initiatives (a.k.a. Popular Initiatives)

People’s Initiatives empower Swiss citizens to propose new laws, even amendments to the federal constitution, with just 100,000 signatures. These initiatives can be raised at the federal, cantonal, or communal levels. Upon gathering the requisite signatures, the proposed law undergoes a referendum, allowing all citizens to vote on its adoption.

While People’s Initiatives are common, they are often rejected. Out of 223 popular initiative referendums, only 25 have been accepted.

5. Constitutional Referendums (a.k.a. Mandatory Referendums)

In Switzerland, any proposed change to the constitution must undergo a mandatory referendum. This ensures that the constitution aligns with the will of the people. Unlike in many other countries, where constitutional amendments may bypass direct popular consent, Swiss constitutional changes require a referendum.

Moreover, raising certain taxes, including VAT, necessitates a constitutional amendment. This unique aspect of the Swiss system ensures that any tax increases receive direct approval from the people through the constitutional amendment process.

6. Public Recalls

Public recalls enable the removal of elected officials through recall elections, although this process is rarely utilized in Switzerland, as it is in the United States. While possible in some Swiss cantons, the recall of officials, including judges, remains infrequent.

7. Mixed Executive Government (the Magic Formula)

Switzerland’s executive body, known as the Federal Council, serves as both the head of state and government. Unlike in many countries with a prime minister or president, Switzerland’s executive leadership comprises seven federal ministers, each representing a different party.

This unique setup, known as the Magic Formula, ensures political balance within the Federal Council. As of 2019, the distribution among parties was as follows:

  • 2 members from the SVP party
  • 2 members from the Social Democrats
  • 2 members from the FDP Liberals party
  • 1 member from the Centre party

This collaborative approach to executive governance fosters political stability and representation across diverse interests.

How can we implement this in the world? What strategies can be used to implement this?

The Democratic Village. A bottom-up strategy using Bitcoin, Web3 mechanisms (smart contracts, Bitcoin colaterals), Nostr and all the best technology. Please read this for more information.

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