Swiss system gives voters a real say

I WAS born and raised in SA, but my father is Swiss and I occasionally follow Swiss politics. One aspect of the Swiss political landscape I have always admired, and try to persuade my fellow South Africans to consider, is the idea of direct democracy, as opposed to the indirect (or representative) democratic system we follow here.

Most South Africans are familiar with indirect democracy, where the people vote for representatives who then pass laws and implement policies on their behalf. This system is meant to prevent majority tyranny, because the representatives are supposed to act in everybody’s best interests after they have considered all the facts and objections. However, in reality, politicians tend to act in their own self-interest. History has demonstrated the world over that elected officials invariably pass laws that cater for the needs of favoured special interest groups. We in SA have learned that the only time politicians really pay attention to the masses they supposedly represent is just before elections.

Direct democracy, where people vote on policy initiatives directly, allows for three forms of political action: the referendum, the initiative, and the recall. The referendum prevents legislators from amending the constitution without the permission of the people, and allows the people to reject new laws passed by the legislators — it is, in effect, "the people’s veto".

For example, an optional referendum might require that 10% of the electorate sign a petition to force a direct vote on an issue. In other cases, a referendum might be automatic. If, for example, a proposed law requires a change to the constitution, in a special election, a simple or two-thirds majority is needed to throw out the amendment or law.

The initiative is like a referendum, except that it is used by the people to propose a law or constitutional amendment, or to repeal an old law. Once again, those people who want a law passed or repealed must get sufficient signatures on a petition to have their proposal put to a popular vote. The recall is used to call a special election to remove unpopular officials before their terms expire. For example, if newly elected town councillors start passing disagreeable laws one month into their term, residents do not have to suffer for the remainder of the term. Rather, they can petition for a recall election, throw the offending councillors out, and replace them with new ones. The threat of the recall has a disciplining effect on politicians and prevents them from introducing laws that the majority find objectionable.

Some critics of direct democracy argue that the majority of South Africans are not knowledgeable enough to make the types of decisions required to run a particular area. But this is a straw man. In Switzerland, citizens have been making decisions on contentious issues for hundreds of years, and their track record for making appropriate decisions is better than that of the vast majority of governments.

The most important advantage of direct democracy is that it enables people to repeal laws if they discover they have made a bad decision.

Just the threat of a referendum introduces an important check on government, and in Switzerland, politicians spend considerable time and effort accommodating as many interest groups as possible — and redrafting legislation until no group is so unhappy that it will seek a referendum rejecting the law.

Those consulted include labour unions, consumer groups, big business, small traders, language groups, religious and regional interests, and political parties.

If instituted in SA, direct democracy would give hope to every person living in this country. People who feel totally ignored by government would no longer have to feel so helpless. With direct democracy, people would have the power as opposed to only the elites.

If direct democracy were adopted in this country, all South Africans would be able truly to enjoy their hard-won freedoms.

• Urbach has a masters degree in economics

This article was first published by Business Day - 13 April 2016

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