Illiberal Direct Democracy

Over at the German-speaking version of ScienceBlogs, they’re talking about a referendum (and nobody’s going to sing a song with that as the refrain), or rather a whole package of them. Switzerland famously has a lot of referendums, but this one is interesting because it points up the fundamental tension between democracy and the republic.

So part of Switzerland voted, in a referendum, to deny naturalisation of anyone from a state formerly part of Yugoslavia. Later, the courts struck down the ban on the grounds that this decision breached the constitutional prohibition on arbitrary rule (Willkurverbot, something I can well agree with). Although it was democratic, it was illegitimate. Now, people who are cool with arbitrary rule in so far as it effects teh immigrants are trying to restore the ban by means of a federal referendum.

I’ve never liked direct democracy very much – especially not the version that’s centred on referendums rather than deliberation. And as I happened to be in Switzerland last week, I took the opportunity to confirm my prejudices. The Neue Zurcher Zeitung for this Friday carried an interesting item, which tends to deny the idea that referendums are a means of clearer, more faithful, more independent political representation. Their Parolenspiegel – “slogan mirror” would be an insufficient translation – sets out a table with three columns, one for each referendum, and 12 rows, one for each of 12 political parties. Each cell in the table contains either the word JA or NEIN, depending on that party’s view of that particular proposal. Below this, there is a further table with the same information for 22 different interest groups. Now there’s independent for you.

In footnotes to this, 24 cases are listed where the youth, women’s, or local branches of this or that party has a different position. Clearly, the citizen is offered an unparalleled choice of ways to avoid thinking about their vote, although what happens in the event of conflict is an interesting question – perhaps you put all the data in tables and use the Analytic Hierarchy Process?

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