There are a wide variety of democracies in the world. Most people live under a Parliamentary system, a Presidential system, or a combination of both. Many democracies engage in direct democracy, where policy decisions are subject to a popular vote. Nowhere is the practice more prevalent than in Switzerland, where a dozen referendums in a year are not unusual.
The country’s system is unique in allowing such votes to take place. For example, any citizen, including citizens living abroad, may call for a popular vote to amend the constitution if they can gather 100,000 signatures. The initiative then needs a double majority, supported by a majority of the electorate and by a majority of the cantons. Any legislation passed at the Federal level may be subject to voters as well. If one can get 50,000 signatures within three months of law’s passage, the law may be vetoed by Swiss voters.
This means that Swiss citizens head to the polls once about every three months. Switzerland’s small size and population make it easy to hold such frequent votes, and engage the population. Turnout for a referendum on 25 September was 42.6 per cent. This seems low, but the measures up for vote were minor policy changes: amendments to an Act giving the Federal Intelligence Service better means to gather information, increased regulations on resource efficiency, and a 10 per cent increase in old-age pensions. A referendum in February asked voters about tax policy for unmarried couples, speculation on trading food commodities, deportation of foreign criminals, and federal road transit laws. The turnout at the referendum was 63.11 per cent. In contrast, the United States Presidential Election this year had a turnout of 58.1 per cent.
The charge against such referendums is that they’re vulnerable to the tides of populism, but Swiss voters have proven remarkably resilient to populist urges. A June referendum included a proposal to give a basic monthly income to all Swiss citizens, regardless of their employment status. It was soundly rejected by 77 per cent of voters. Amidst the rising anti-immigrant sentiment in Europe, the referendum in February proposed automatically deporting foreign nationals for committing minor crimes. It was rejected by 59 per cent of voters.
Perhaps high engagement and levelheaded thinking on behalf of the Swiss is because voting is such an everyday affair. Voters are not subject to rhetoric that caters to the electorate’s grievances. Moreover, candidates are not on the ballot, but policies are. Individual politicians and parties have less incentive to resort to high-pitched, sensational rhetoric. In democracies around the world, from the US to India, elections are an extravagant, heated, and expensive affair. Referendums that often revolve minor policy changes and can be proposed by anyone are less vulnerable to populist urges.
Switzerland will have its fourth referendum for the year on 27 November. The most significant proposal is a vote on whether to phase out nuclear energy in the coming years. The country has had many referenda on the issue over the years, dating back to 1979 through 2003. Unlike other voting days in 2016, 27 November will have only one proposal on the ballot.
After the Fukushima disaster in 2011, the Swiss Government decided to phase out nuclear power as a source of energy. It was agreed that once the country’s five nuclear reactors reached their maximum operating period, they would be shut down. Plans to build three more nuclear reactors were scrapped. The original government policy never set a date for withdrawing from nuclear energy. The initiative, brought forward by the Green Party, proposes to greatly accelerate the process, closing three of the five reactors in 2017, and the last in 2029.
The Federal Government, comprising the Cabinet and Parliament, is opposed to the measure, arguing that the country is not yet capable to generate the capacity lost from nuclear energy through other renewable sources. They contend that the government will have to import power from abroad, produced from coal and gas-fired stations. Compensating the companies operating the nuclear plants for early closure will be an issue as well. Alpiq, a company that has stakes in two nuclear plants, expects the economic damage of early closure to be around $2.5 billion, which will need to be compensated by the government.
Proponents of the initiative point towards the risks associated with operating nuclear power. A country with the size and population of Switzerland would face catastrophe in the case of a nuclear accident. Indeed, the oldest nuclear power plant in the world is in Switzerland. The high cost of nuclear energy is also not sustainable, which is argued by Alpiq as well. Nils Epprecht, project leader for electricity and nuclear power at the Swiss Energy Foundation believes a nuclear referendum will advance the renewable energy industry in Switzerland.
Polls conducted on the vote have oscillated over the past few weeks. The newspaper 20 Minutes published a poll with 57 per cent of voters leaning ‘Yes’ or ‘probably Yes,’ while 43 per cent leaning ‘No.’ Global Footprint Network Bern Research sees 48 per cent voting Yes, and 46 per cent voting No, with No recording a 10 per cent increase since the end of October. Experts argue the vote will be close.
Regardless of the result, the vote is another testament to the vibrant culture of direct democracy that is unique to Switzerland. In a year marked by divisive elections and shocking outcomes, a vote that is too close to call and is devoid of hyperbolic rhetoric is welcoming. Not much will change if Switzerland rejects the initiative; nuclear energy will still be phased out. And if citizens change their mind in the future, as they have done five times with nuclear energy, they have the right to revisit the matter.