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11 April 2017

Non-EU Switzerland is one of Europe’s great success stories. The Legatum Institute ranks it the fourth most prosperous nation on earth, taking high marks in education, health, economy, and governance. But what is the secret of its success?

Democracy: direct and representative

The Swiss have a long history of democratic politics dating back to the thirteenth century, with a highly articulate dual system of representative and direct democracy formed during the nineteenth century in the midst of European absolutism through a series of violent struggles and even a civil war.

Switzerland’s parliamentary system resembles those found in other democratic nations like the United Kingdom. However, under the Swiss constitution citizens enjoy extraordinary rights to control the actions of their lawmakers. They have the right to veto federal laws or constitutional amendments by triggering referendums through petitions, and the right to institute referendums on positive changes by a process of Popular Initiative.

The petition system is simple. 100,000 signatures are needed – representing about two percent of voters – over a period of eighteen months to trigger a referendum on positive change. 50,000 signatures are required within 100 days of the passage of a new law to win a referendum upon implementation. Referendums are automatically held on constitutional changes coming from parliament to prevent politicians from usurping popular power, with a majority of voters and a majority of cantons required to pass the change.

The rights of citizens to veto laws is an essential check on parliamentarians in the representative portion of Switzerland’s democratic constitution, and rather than undermining the rights of elected lawmakers it supports their work by encouraging a conscientious approach to legislation that is designed to respect constituents. 96% of Swiss laws pass through parliament without a petition gathering enough support for a public vote, highlighting the consensus that parliamentarians are able to find between politicians and public when the serious threat of a veto hangs over their heads. The Swiss example is the perfect antidote to those who condemn direct democracy as an impractical arrangement.

The constitution also has a strong degree of localism – essential in a multilingual country – with the document clearly outlining the areas of policy delegated to the federal government and leaving all other matters to the cantons, the equivalent of states in the US or any other federal country for that matter. Each of the individual cantons also has a unique constitution, which defines its relationship to the thousands of participatory municipalities across the country. With Scottish nationalism on the march and demand growing for a dedicated English parliament, the division between local and federal matters in Switzerland may be instructive for a future constitutional settlement in the UK, as well as the autonomy each federal player enjoys to defines its own relationship with more local government.

The Quality of Swiss Life

And what a successful system it is. The benefits of a fully participatory political system translate into higher quality of life. A March 2017 survey of the best cities on earth put three Swiss cities – Zurich, Geneva, and Basel – in the top ten. Switzerland is also among the more equal countries on earth despite a tax system that does relatively little redistribution. The alpine nation also hits above the OECD average for the Better Life Index in all categories other than voter turnout, which is usually low in wealthier and more stable countries where elections are frequent.

And it’s no coincidence. Research suggests that the cantons that make the most use of direct democratic mechanisms perform best relative to their neighbours. Studies show that these cantons enjoy more efficient public services, lower infant mortality and more university graduates, greater satisfaction over the level of taxation, and 5% higher GDP compared to cantons that do not hold budgetary referendums.Similar studies in the United States, where the electorate has more opportunities to vote than the UK,  have come to the same conclusion.

All the more reason for Brexit Britain to look abroad to brighter horizons and learn the lessons of our neighbours.