The Current “Democracy”
Power of the people, right? Yes. Demokratia, demos people, kratus power.
But how does democracy looks like in practice? This is a question many people have asked around the world. This part of the guide will try to explain what roughly is the most common and current model of democracy around the world. Every system is different but there are some common principles in the systems that can be called democratic. In this part we will try to describe what are the most fundamental principles of the current model of democracy.
Let’s start with the separation of powers.
Separation of Powers.
Executive, legislative and judicial powers
Almost all countries in the West have a system of separation of powers. This is valuable and an important political innovation. The goal of this innovation was to create a system of checks and balances where power checks itself, meaning, power is not given absolutely to any given part. What are the different parts of this system?
The legislative part, usually in the form of parliaments and assemblies, is responsible for creating the laws. Usually these laws are decided, created or written by the legislators (or politicians) elected to do it, usually in the form of a combination of parties, deputies and/or independents.
The executive part is also known as the government executive, this includes all the institutions (departments, ministries) that implement the laws decided on the legislative part. In this part we will find some important variations. For example, the presidential (US, France) or constitutional monarchy systems. In the presidential system the president also has the power to decide or create laws.
The judicial part is the part that confirms and/or applies the law if and when it’s being broken by anyone. By anyone, including the legislative and executive parts.
How can anything be changed inside or with this three-part system? This is already a tricky question. But the simple answer is by changing the laws. Changing the law is, in theory, the way to change any piece in this system (and country) because everything and everyone has to obey the law. So usually it’s the legislative part (or the executive) of the system (the part that generates new laws) that changes things in the current system.
How does that change usually goes about? With elections.
Let’s imagine we, the people, want to change a law in the current model of democracy. Since we can’t give power directly to the people because it’s not feasible*, perhaps we are too many or don’t know the specifics of the laws to be able to write them, we elect people to represent us and write laws for us. There are many kinds of elections, varying with the many different kinds of parliaments.
This in essence how the role of the politician is born. Politicians are supposed to represent us because it is unfeasible for everyone to have a voice.
This means that, currently, in all democracies around the world, democracies are known as representative democracies because people don’t decide their laws directly, we choose someone (politicians) to decide for us.
But how or why do we choose politicians?
This is where parties and ideologies enter. Let’s go back to the previous question. Imagine we want to change anything in our system, country, region or city. How do we do it in pratice in the current model of democracy? Why find the politicians that also want to make the change we want to make in the system. Politicians usually organize themselves in a group, the party, usually around a political ideology, political promises or a common theme.
So let’s recapitulate again. We (the people) wanted to change the law. The way to do that in this current system is by electing politicians based on their ideology and/or proposals list. We try to find the proposal list that is the closest to the laws we want to change and vote for these politicians. This is how it currently works in most of the world.
Let’s talk a little bit more about these ideas, proposals, list of measures, or more colloquially, the politician promises.
The Politician Promises
This is where the problems really start showing through the cracks. We choose our politicians because of their proposals but, in practice, they never do everything that they’ve proposed and sometimes they do the complete opposite. This is simply the reality and it’s the same around the world. Everybody knows about the politicians promises. Politicians usually promise a lot of things that they can’t achieve. But this might not be an issue per se. Think about it, what if the current economic scenario changes and politicians can no longer fulfil their promises because of that?
The important question to ask is…
If politicians do not fulfil their promises (or conduct different policies then the ones they were chosen to represent) what can be done?
In reality, nothing. In practice, it’s the protests. The protests are the tool used by the people to complain when they’re not happy.
In reality, protests have zero legal and usually very little political consequences. The public opinion of the masses is what truly matters. Politicians in practice can do everything they want and have no consequences except becoming unpopular to the masses. Just keep this in mind, we’re gonna go back to it.
How do people really decide who to vote for in this current model of democracy?
In practice, knowing that politicians can not fulfill their promises, how do people really decided who to vote for? This is where the whole process becomes more fuzzy and chaotic. Politicians can’t do everything they want. They always have to remain popular.
Public opinion (media) is the King In This System
In this current democratic model elections boil down to the public opinion of the masses. Public opinion can be defined as the general sentiment of the people regarding a specific topic or person. And how is this general sentiment of the people defined or measured, in practical terms? Using media. Media comes from medium, it’s communication. Big media, TV’s, social media, newspapers, and people.
This is obviously not good. In this system, the president and/or party that is elected is the one that people perceive that will lead the people through the problems of the time AND the one that can potentially get the most votes. It’s all about perception. There’s nothing reasonable about our current democracy models.
In practice, to get elected you have to:
- Create a problem that is urgent to solve
- Position yourself as the only person that can solve that problem
This is inherently bad. Why? Because it leads to short-term decisions and oversimplification. Real problems are much more specific and require much more debate. And thus we’re stuck in this game.
This system works but it works by brute force. The current system of democracy is as dumb as it could be. It’s like a young kid bashing his head at every single opportunity in order to understand what should be done and what shouldn’t be done.
This Model of “Democracy” is Old
This modern model of representative democracy where we elect our leaders every 4 years either for the federal, state or the local levels has 200 years in some cases.
Top-down vs Bottom-up
The people have very little to say about change in this current system. The only process that they have to show their discontentment is by protesting in the street. Really? We have technology that allow for instant conversations with people on the other side of the globe and the only way to show a local, regional or national leader that the people don’t agree with a specific measure is to hit the streets?
Are all the democracies like this?
Okay so it seems that all countries have the same “democratic” model? Well not quite. There is one exception. Literally one exception.
Switzerland and the 7 Democratic Tools
Here are the fundamental characteristics of the Swiss political system a.k.a the Swiss Democracy. A lot of people consider Switzerland the only democracy in the world.
After reading this text you’ll understand the immense magnitude of difference that exists between Switzerland and the rest of the world. You’ll understand why the Swiss democracy is the real solution to most of the problems in the world.
Most of the world has a pretty similar political system. Elections every 4 years.
Switzerland is absolutely unique in the world because of the combination of these 6 characteristics and many others.
Switzerland is a country in the middle of Europe. Switzerland history is very interesting and explains how it got where it is today but in this post we’re not going to explore its history. We’re going to focus on the 7 tools that the Swiss democracy has in place today that make it completely different from the rest of the world.
1. People’s Veto Power
The Swiss people have the ability to reject any law by their governments on any level, federal, cantonal or local.
This is called the People’s Veto Power (a.k.a the Optional Referendums)
The People’s Veto Power also known as the Optional Referendum is the possibility of the people to reject any law or measure through a referendum. In Switzerland the people can reject any law, on a federal, cantonal and local level. This includes the budgets.
How the People’s Veto Power (Optional Referendum) works in Switzerland on a federal level
The way it works on the federal level is as follows. Imagine the federal government passes a law that is controversial. Then an individual citizen or a group of citizens (associations, parties, etc) can gather 50k signatures in 100 days from the passing of that law to create the referendum that can veto (reject) that law. It’s that simple. 50k in a country of 8 million means it’s very easy to say no to the government. There have been hundreds of referendums since the inception of the Optional Referendum in 1850’s.
Can the Swiss can reject any law by their government?
Yes. Any law.
How does it look like in pratice? What’s the political life of a Swiss person?
The Swiss vote 4 times a year, every 3 months, (as seen for example in the referendums of 2020) in a set of referendums that combine the Optional Referendums and the People’s Initiatives (seen below) and they often reject laws passed by the government. In fact, the Swiss people often say no their government. Since 1874 the Swiss they have rejected 86 laws on a federal level. And this is on a federal level only. The People’s Veto is also implemented on a cantonal and communal level, so the Swiss might have said no to their governments hundreds if not thousands of times.
Examples of referendums created by the People’s Veto Power on the federal level
The Figher jet purchase referendum of 2020
One example of the many Optional Referendums on the federal level is the Fighter jet purchase referendum. In 2020 is the Swiss federal government decided to modernize their airforce and buy new fighter aircrafts.
A group called Group for Switzerland Without an Army with the help Social Democratic Party gathered the 50k signatures and decided to call a referendum on that law (the purchase, remember everything the government does has to be written in laws). In the day of the voting there were two choices, accept the law (and buy the aircrafts) or reject the law (and save money). The law was accepted and this is how an Optional Referendum works, if you vote accept, you accept to keep the law, if you vote reject, you reject the law.
There were other Optional Referendums in 2020 to see as an example.
The Optional Referendum was deployed on a federal level in Switzerland in 1874.
The Citizen Initiative was the first democratic tool introduced in 1865.
The mandatory Constitutional Referendums were the second tools, introduced in 1869.
The greatest benefit and consequence of the Optional Referendums is that Optional Referendums force consensus among everyone, reducing partisan politics and making sure laws fit everyone, the legislators (politicians), the opposition and the people. This happens because the legislators that write the laws, knowing beforehand that their laws can be reject by their opposition, will make sure that the laws are not too extreme. So they will look for consensus. In Switzerland the legislators even make surveys before finalizing the law to make sure that everyone is okay with the law, to avoid referendums.
So this means that the Socialists get public healthcare, public schools and other public services but taxes and debt are kept low to not annoy the liberals (the FDP). In reality Switzerland is one of the freest countries in the world in the Heritage foundation, yet it has one of the best public healthcare and public schools systems in the world. And the reason is it’s democratic system.
There’s no democracy without the People’s Veto Power
This Optional Referendums are absolute key. The lack of consensus is the greatest problem of democracies around the world. They’re not really democracies but 4 year dictatorships. This is also why the elections are so important in most of the west, when they really shouldn’t be. The elections are important because there’s too much at stake. And there’s too much at stake because politicians and legislators are not forced to have consensus among everyone, the opposition and the people.
So this gives full power for the Swiss people to reject any law? But aren’t the people dumb? Don’t they make stupid decisions?
There are no stupid decisions. What is stupid for one person might not be stupid for another. That’s why democracy is so useful because it actually reflects the wants of the people. But then you might ask again, aren’t the people stupid? Can’t they raise
Why is the People’s Veto Power a game changing tool and why it should be implemented in every single country in the world?
Simply put because it forces the government to do things that people actually need, otherwise the people will reject the laws. Just the fact that the tool exists is enough for governments to operate differently in Switzerland because the politicians, knowing that their laws can be vetoed, already try to find consensus when writing the law. Politicians in Switzerland even make a survey on all interested parts just to make sure if they agree with them. Yes, they go around asking farmers, entrepreneurs, doctors, workers, teachers, depending on the law.
Switzerland didn’t always had the Veto Power. It was created by the Radical-Liberal party in 1874. Before this, the Swiss only had the People Initiative.
This comes to show that there’s nothing special about the Swiss people and that this can be replicated all over the world.
Federalism is a mixed or compound mode of government that combines a general government (the central or “federal” government) with regional governments (provincial, state, cantonal, territorial, or other sub-unit governments) in a single political system, dividing the powers between the two. Federalism in the modern era was first adopted in the unions of states during the Old Swiss Confederacy.Wikipedia
In Switzerland federalism basically means 3 governments. The federal government, the cantonal government and the municipal government. These governments have different elections and legislative and executive bodies. Switzerland makes sure the government is decentralized where needed and that competencies are bottom-first, obeying the subsidiarity principle.
Switzerland is made of the federal government, 27 cantons, like for example the cantons of Zurich, Basel, Geneva, Vaud, and the municipalities, which are 2,212, cities like Lausanne, Zurich, etc…
The federal government is responsible for deciding on national-affecting topics like defense, monetary policy, nuclear energy policy, and other competencies that affect everybody as a whole.
The cantons are responsible for universities, hospitals, schools, police. Stuff that can be decided on a regional level.
The most important aspect of the Swiss federation is the principle of subsidiarity, meaning, whatever can be decided on a local government is decided by a local government. This makes sure the government is always close to the people. For example, universities are decided on a cantonal level.
Federalization is a key concept for democracy. What is federalization? Federalization is in essence decentralizing the power that should be decentralised and centralizing the power that should be centralized. France and the UK are very centralized countries, Switzerland and the US are examples of federalized countries. The most important concept of federalization is the principle of subsidiarity.
There should be at least 3 independent governments in a country, the national, the regional and the local.
3. Open Lists (a.k.a Panachage).
This means people can pick any candidate from any party on the elections every 4 years. This method of elections creates a direct incentive for the elected official to serve the needs of the people that elected them instead of their party because it is the people that directly elects them and not the party. It forces politicians to think individually and not as a collective.
In Switzerland there are elections for the federal, cantonal and communal governments. Most of these elections are made with the Open List Panachage variation. This method allows people to choose any candidate from any party. So imagine there is a federal election, when you look at the ballot you’ll find all the parties and all their candidates for your given canton (in Zurich its 30 candidates for example). You can choose any candidate from any party.
How the Open Lists works on the federal election in Switzerland
There are two parliaments in the federal government of Switzerland. The lower chamber and the upper chamber. The lower chamber gets all candidates from all cantons ranked by population. The upper chamber gets 2 candidates per canton. The upper chamber was created to make sure that one or two cantons don’t dominate the rest of the cantons. Laws won’t pass if they’re not accepted by the upper chamber.
Elections for the lower chamber (one of the two federal parliaments)
There are 200 candidates (legislators a.k.a politicians) for all of Swizerland for the lower chamber. Each canton get a number of candidates depending on the population. The Zurich canton gets 37 candidates, the Genebra canton gets 20, the Bern canton gets 15, the St. Gallen canton gets 2. The higher the population, the higher the candidates.
Click this link to see an example of a voting ballot on federal election day in Zurich. Zurich has 37 candidates.
Imagine you live in Zurich. Then you can vote on 37 candidates. You just have to choose their names on the ballot vote. You can pick a socialist, a conservative, a green, anyone from any party or a pre-defined list. You can choose candidates that you think represent you in any way, shape or form. Maybe they’re younger, or older, maybe they’ve worked in the private sector, maybe they have university degrees, maybe they don’t. You get to choose exactly what mix of characteristics you want to be represented on the federal parliament. It’s up to you.
These kind of Open lists let the people select the traits that they want to see on the parliament. It means that there is much less party fidelity because the candidates directly serve the people that elected them and NOT the party leader. Think about it. That changes everything. In many democracies in the West, the party is the one that chooses candidates, so obedience to the party is paramount to progress in politics. Not in Switzerland. This is a way to decentralize power from parties. Which as we know is the greatest sources of bad laws.
How do parties really work in closed lists? In countries where elections are based on closed lists, party power and therefore political power is very centralized on the party’s leader. Centralization of power always created bad laws.
4. People Initiatives (a.k.a Popular Initiatives)
The Citizen Initiatives allow the Swiss people to suggest a new law on any level, including changing the federal constitution (that’s equivalent to the federal level). With only 100k signatures, the Swiss people can potentially change their constitution.
They can make People Initiatives on the federal, cantonal and commnunal levels. It needs 100k signatures to create a referendum for that suggested law or measure, and then if accepted that law is now choosen by everyone.
Popular Initiatives are usually rejected. There have been 223 popular initiatives referendums, 25 have been accepted.
5. The Constitutional Referendums (a.k.a Mandatory Referedums).
In Switzerland there are mandatory referendums for every change in the constitution. This makes sure the constitution reflects the needs of the people. There are many countries where the constitution does not reflect the will of the people because their constitutions didn’t go through a referendum.
Also, in Switzerland the only way to raise VAT and some other taxes is by changing the constitution. Yes, this is another great aspect of the Swiss system: the only way to raise taxes is by changing the constitution.
6. Public Recalls
Public Recalls is the ability to remove elected officials through a recall election. It’s possible in some cantons of Switzerland although the process is rarely used. In the US this it’s also possible although rarely used. In the US and in some specifics some judges can be recalled.
7. Mixed Executive Government (the Magic Formula)
The executive body (the federal ministers) of the federal government of the Swiss Confederation is called the Federal Council and it serves as the head of state and government. There is no Prime-minister or President of the Republic (head of State) in Switzerland. The Head of State in Switzerland is a different minister every year.
These ministers each belong to a different party. The distribution of these parties is called the Magic Formula and in 2019 it went like this:
2 for the SVP party
2 for the Social Democrats
2 for the FDP Liberals party
1 for the Centre
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