I live in a country which features one of the most direct democracies in the world. I don’t know about you, but for me democracy is important, being it closely related to freedom, and the less it is delegated, the better.
As soon as I moved to Switzerland I was surprised to see long aluminum poles planted on grassy grounds arranged so that their bases formed a rectangle.
“It’s for a new building,” I was told, “to give neighbors time to decide whether they like it to be built there or not.”
That’s right, the poles represented cornerstones and height of a soon-to-be-built building, according to design plan. The neighbors had veto power on it.
However, in Switzerland ordinary people are much more involved in decisions than just vetoing buildings.
Veto on citizenship
Some cantons ask their citizens whether they have a reason to negate Swiss citizenship to foreigners who recently applied for it. One or two times a year booklets containing detailed information about applicants are sent to everybody, or a meeting in the local town hall is called.
Decision on laws
Public referenda are often called on decisions that in other countries would be prerogative of the Congress. Being a highly-federated country, polls can be limited to a municipality, to a single canton or be nationwide.
In the two years I’ve been living here, my Swiss friends could choose—or had a chance to do so—for several different matters.
Some of them:
- Raising minimum paid holidays for company employees from 4 weeks a year to 6. [“NO” won]
- Putting a limit to the bonuses granted to corporate executives and letting stockholders establish such a limit. [“YES” won]
- Changing the law that regulates the right to political asylum.
- Rejecting the planned freeway toll rise.
In many cases, Swiss voters seemed to care of community more than their personal benefit. This was the case of the aforementioned referendum on vacations, or the one in which Zurich residents voted to increase their own parking fees.
However, the story is not necessarily that simple. Not so many people have a car in Zurich, for instance, and those who do often have a private parking or pay for a garage.
Also, political parties, but most of all lobbies, have huge available means to make propaganda through commercials when interested in a particular result.
We’ve seen how big such a power can be in the referendum against bonuses. to executives. Although the majority favored limiting them, more than 30% of those who voted were actually against.
A campaign with the aim of scaring voters was launched in the weeks preceding the poll. According to it, cutting down executive several-million-dollar bonuses would have caused a stampede of Swiss corporation abroad, in search of better compensations for the “poor” executives. A ridiculous motivation, but still somehow able to influence one voter out of three.
But I digress.
The point of this article is showing the wonders of being able to decide for sensitive matters in your own country.
Wouldn’t you like to be directly involved in defining legislation on access to weapons?
Or being able to decide yourself what investment banks could do and what they would not being allowed to do?
One of the drawbacks of being an expat: being so close to good things and not being able to enjoy them
This blog deals with contact with alien cultures, travel, and expat life.
Every expat knows that a new life in another country means facing some good things that were unknown stuff in their native country. But expats also know very well that those novelties are not always for foreigners to enjoy.
This is the case of expats in Switzerland with direct democracy (with the exception of some cantons).
Accepting the fact that we cannot participate to decisions on matters that have a direct impact on our own life can be not easy at all.
As for all problems related to expat life, it’s a matter of realizing whether one can accept the drawbacks associated to their new life or not, and balancing them with the positive aspects.
Did you find any interesting aspect of life in a new country that was precluded to you as a foreigner?
How are you dealing with that?