LONDON, Nov. 13 (UPI) -- It is astonishing how little the rest of the world knows about the way Switzerland runs its politics. Even its next-door neighbors in Europe, though vaguely aware that it is a deeply decentralized country, do not really understand the other, more important part of the Swiss system -- the part that could turn out to be a model for everybody's 21st century democracy.
Americans, always a bit vague about distant places, know even less. So it is excellent that it is an American who has written this uncommonly clear and lively account of Swiss politics.
Gregory Fossedal rightly gives a lot of pages to Switzerland's anti-centralism. Even now, though the central government has put on a bit of weight in recent years, it still spends well under half of the taxes paid by the Swiss people; the rest is spent either by the 26 cantons or by the myriad Gemeinden, or communes, the towns and villages which make up the cantons.
The figures reveal a spectacular devolution of power. Those 26 cantons wield almost as much governmental clout as the federal authorities in Bern, where the pay of federal lawmakers is only half of what they get in other European parliaments. And it is the little Gemeinden that decide whether or not you can become a Swiss citizen, that run most of Switzerland's schools, and other such details.
To illustrate this down-at-the-roots democracy, Fossedal takes the reader on a zigzag through Switzerland. He goes to Appenzeller-Innerrhoden, a tiny rural canton in the northeast that is one of the few cantons that still do their law-making in an annual public meeting in the town square; to Bellinzona, in the Italian-speaking south, to watch an informal committee arrange for snow-ploughs to dig out some cash-strapped locals; to Hittnau, near Zurich, for a meeting between town councilors and church councilors about relations between their two institutions; perhaps best of all, to Vevey, in French-speaking western Switzerland, where the local council is deciding, by public vote, whether a Yugoslav, a Romanian and three Italians are to become citizens of Vevey and therefore of Switzerland (they all do).
Fascinating as this is, however, devolution is not what matters most. The real driving-force of Swiss politics is the fact that the voters do not vote only once every few years, to choose their "representatives", but whenever enough of them feel they want to override those representatives. Collect a fairly modest number of signatures, and you can take almost any act of parliament to the whole electorate for its acceptance or rejection. Collect rather more, and you can put your own proposed new law to the whole people, whether parliament likes it or not. This is direct democracy. It operates at every level of government. In the canton of Zurich one solitary signature, if a few members of parliament give it a nod, can put a proposal to the people's vote.
The very idea brings cries of alarm from conservatives who would rather stick to representative democracy, the parliament-based sort most countries use. Fossedal demolishes their objections one by one.
The conservatives say decision-making by the whole people is liable to produce laws based on emotion, ignorance or downright prejudice. Fossedal gives a long list of some of the main measures decided by direct vote in the past century and a half. Back in 1866, when there was much anti-Semitism in Europe, the Swiss offered Jewish immigrants full political and religious rights. In the 1960s and 1970s, despite an early attack of the xenophobia that still troubles most of the rest of Europe, they steadily voted against slashing the number of foreign workers in their country. In the post-Cold War 1990s, they resisted the temptation to cut their taxes by weakening or abolishing their armed forces.
Well, say the skeptics, there is at least one obvious danger: that unskilled ordinary folk, wanting to keep their money in their pockets, will take budget-cutting decisions that deny them things they need, to their subsequent regret. Fossedal recounts a little episode in the town of Stein. A meeting of citizens, pockets buttoned, produced a majority against paying church fees. It then turned out that this meant skimpier funerals and weddings. So they changed their minds. End of story. Ordinary folk can admit their mistakes as quickly as political parties can -- sometimes much more quickly.
At this point the objectors sigh and say, "Well, perhaps the Swiss can manage it, but other people can't." This is nonsense. The Swiss are no better-educated or better-informed than most people in Western Europe and North America. Nor are they a unique little political family. A Swiss-German in Zurich has no more in common with a French-speaking Swiss in Geneva or an Italian-speaking one in Lugano than a New Yorker has with a San Franciscan or a Londoner with a Glaswegian. God did not design Switzerland as a monopoly for direct democracy.
The reality is that, by a mixture of luck, judgment and careful practice, the Swiss have become the advance guard of democracy.
There was a time when representative democracy made sense -- when the gap between a tiny educated upper class and the vast mass of factory workers and peasants suggested giving the latter the right to say every few years broadly which way they wanted to go, and leaving the former to take the actual decisions. Things are no longer like that. In large parts of the world, a huge new middle class is now as well-educated as the people in parliament; it has enough leisure-time to ponder its decisions, and enough money to feel responsible for those decisions; above all, it can reach the needed facts and figures at its computer finger-tips.
The knowledge-revolution has had another effect: it has knocked a hole in people's trust of the old system. These days it is only too easy to realize the power of lobbies, the many ways in which money can influence the decisions of a relative handful of legislators. It is increasingly obvious that the "representative" you elect in fact represents your opinion on some subjects, but not on many others. It gets harder and harder to persuade people that democracy means no more than putting a tick on a ballot paper every four years or so.
The Swiss alternative grows steadily more attractive. Representative democracy is a halfway house on the road to full democracy. Thanks to Fossedal for providing a picture of how we can get closer to real government by the people.
("Direct Democracy in Switzerland," by Gregory A. Fossedal, Transaction Publishers, 324 pages (hard cover) $39.95)
(Brian Beedham is Associate Editor of The Economist)