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Saturday 22 October 2011

Democracy - Swiss-style

Tomorrow, Sunday 23rd October, Switzerland votes to elect its members of parliament, to the two houses, the National Council (lower house) and the States Council (upper house). In practice, the vast majority of electors will have voted beforehand by use of the postal voting system (the weather is therefore not an excuse for absenteeism). So far, I’m sure that everyone follows this simple example of democracy... and now is where it might tax your intellect a bit more.

Each State has two elected States councillors. Every voter therefore has two votes which may be cast for any of a multitude of candidates. Any candidate receiving over 50% of the votes is elected in the first round. As the requisite vote is over 50% of the vote, it is impossible to elect the requisite two States Councillors in the first round (and frequently no individual receives over 50% of the vote in the first round). There is therefore a second round of voting which takes place subsequently. In this second round the two candidates with the most votes are elected, unless a candidate was elected in the first round, in which case it is the winning candidate from the first round and the winner from the second round.

The number of National Councillors to be elected varies by state, as the number is proportional to the population of the state itself. Taking as an example the state of Vaud, there are 18 National Councillors who will be elected on Sunday. This means that every voter has eighteen votes. The voter uses as many of these votes as he pleases, voting for individual candidates, even with the possibility of voting for any given candidate twice. The method of apportioning votes at the ballot is then made through a proportional voting system. The votes for each candidate are totalled (nothing very special there) and then the votes for each party are aggregated. The number of seats (in this case 18) is then shared proportionally to the party vote. It is only after this that the successful candidates are known. For example, a party obtaining 50% of the vote would receive 9 seats and these would be attributed to the 9 candidates from that party having obtained the highest number of votes.

So this is the democratic system used to elect members of parliament but, the real power in Switzerland remains with the electorate. For Federal (country-wide) matters, obtaining 100,000 signatures will trigger a referendum on the subject. This is a common occurrence, there being one date per quarter attributed to such votes. The dates are fixed for the next twenty years.

These referenda (such a better word than referendums) can be on any subject. Examples of two recent fairly recent ones are increasing VAT and the building of minarets. The former was a vote to increase VAT by over 5% (from 7.6% to 8%) for a fixed period of 7 years (from 1st January 2011 to 31st December, 2017). The proceeds are to be used to provide additional funding for the incapacity benefit fund. The Swiss voted for this proposition, thereby increasing their own taxes. The latter vote was on the forbidding of the building of minarets; the people voted to refuse the building of any new minaret. These decisions are final and binding on parliament. The people have spoken... or at least put a cross in a box, there is no appeal.

This system of representation and decision taking may be thought to be onerous and costly but, it has proven to lead to two ends that seem to elude most countries: stability and consensus.

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