Switzerland’s Failing Democracy

Last September, the Bundesplatz in Bern, over which sit the Swiss federal executive and legislative bodies, played host to the largest acts of peaceful civil disobedience in the country’s history. Several hundred environmental activists were arrested after calling on the government to take the necessary action for Switzerland to fulfill its pledges in respect to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate.

While Switzerland was the first to submit a pledge in the lead-up to the convention, these initial targets are insufficient for the framework’s aims. Moreover, these first timid steps have still not been passed into law. What happened to Switzerland’s desire to lead the way on climate?

The answer lies in the much-vaunted Swiss system of governance. First, the country’s history of strong federalism insures that power is not concentrated at the national level, but rather shared with the cantons and communes, making it difficult to enact the kind of sweeping measures for which the current situation calls.

Second, the executive branch at each of these levels comprises a council reflecting the party composition of the legislature. In addition, the Swiss model includes a form of direct democracy in which any law passed by the legislature must be ratified in a nationwide referendum if 50,000 citizens sign a petition in opposition to it.

Switzerland also boasts a wealth of political parties – twelve are represented in the federal parliament, and the federal executive council is made up of members of four of the largest. This collegial system means that laws are written on the basis of a consensus from the breadth of the parties’ positions.

As a result, Switzerland’s legislation is always a compromise thrashed out between the left and the right, as opposed to the elective dictatorship that characterizes two-party systems like those of the UK or the US.

On September 27th, for example, the Swiss population voted on the introduction of paid paternity leave, but the pressure of pro-business lobbies within parliament meant that the final bill was cut down to just two weeks. The legislation was passed by a wide margin in the subsequent referendum, but it still leaves Switzerland lagging behind most other rich countries in terms of parental leave.

The Swiss also pride themselves on their lack of a political ruling class. In theory, all legislatures, including at the national level, comprise non-professionals who make a living as farmers, teachers and lawyers.

In practice, the demands on their time mean this is rarely the case for today’s parliamentarians, but it does result in a surreal arrangement in which many of the federal legislature’s bourgeois majority also sit on the boards of everything from banks to insurance companies.

The clear conflicts-of-interest this situation creates are thrown into sharp relief by a popular initiative, due to be voted on by the public in November, “for responsible multinationals”.

The text aims to enshrine in the Swiss constitution the basic principle that corporations headquartered in Switzerland must respect human rights and the environment, but neither chamber of the federal legislature was able to scrape together the votes to support the bill.

That the Swiss government is so beholden to corporate power goes a long way towards explaining why it has so far failed to come to terms with the climate and ecological emergency. At a time when 100 companies are responsible for 71% of emissions, governments must take the measures needed to safeguard their citizens through this century by confronting the entrenched power of fossil capital.

Given that Switzerland’s elected representatives have proven unequal to the task, new forms of democracy are required to avoid environmental breakdown.

One initiative that has been gaining traction in several countries is the idea of a citizens’ assembly. These are groups drawn by sortition – in the same way as a jury – so as to form a random subset reflecting the population they are meant to represent.

Members are brought together to debate an issue with the support of experts, who are present to answer any technical questions. Not only do participants take the proceedings seriously, they tend to reach consensus when other forms of deliberation stall.

Nowhere has this approach been more successful than in Ireland during the referendum on repealing the eighth constitutional amendment outlawing abortion. In 2016, few questions were as divisive in the Catholic-majority republic, yet the televised debates of the country’s citizens’ assembly allowed voters to see their fellow citizens, as opposed to career politicians, discussing many of the concerns they share.

Despite the bitter campaign, the amendment was passed by an overwhelming 67%, reflecting a country united, against all expectations.

In France, the citizens’ convention on climate, convened this spring, put forward 149 proposals. Many, such as the criminalization of ecocide – the deliberate destruction of the environment – are some of the most radical passed by a national government.

Switzerland’s collegial political system, rooted in multi-partisanship and compromise, may explain much of its longstanding stability, but if it hopes to respect its Paris Agreement pledges, it needs to commit to net zero carbon emissions by 2030.

Achieving this aim requires breaking out of the jaded debates currently playing out in the political arena. Transitioning energy and transport sectors away from fossil fuels and implementing sweeping nature conservation programs calls for the creative thinking that concerned citizens, not vested interests, can produce.

To transform society to the degree demanded by the crises at hand, Switzerland must first revitalize its unresponsive democracy. A binding citizens’ assembly on the climate and ecological emergency is an excellent place to start.

Charles Stevenson is an environmental activist with a master’s degree in Biodiversity, Conservation and Environmental Politics from University College London. You can read more of his words on climateoptimism.wordpress.com and Tweet him @disobedientnerd.