Swiss referendum to ban minarets

The Times and the BBC report that the Swiss referendum to ban minarets has passed. How much of this result is attributable to genuine anti-Islamic sentiment and how much is due government unpopularity (see my previous post on the topic) is unclear. Opinion polls suggested the opposite result and the turnout was uncharacteristically low, so it appears that this is a case of a vocal and committed minority outvoting an apathetic majority. Even though it is likely to be overturned in the constitutional court, this is a worrying result that highlights the dangers of direct democracy when it comes to emotive issues.


6 thoughts on “Swiss referendum to ban minarets”

  1. How is this a danger of direct democracy (especially ones backed by a constitution)? If it’s unconstitutional, then, sure, overturn it. But if it’s not, when why shouldn’t they be allowed to pass it? Surely this is even stronger than Voltaire: I may not like what you vote for, but I’ll defend to the death your right to vote for it…?

  2. The problem with direct democracy is that it produces bad law. In this case, it’s a law that is probably unconstitutional on human rights grounds (so I am reasonably hopeful that it will be overturned). Now, constitutions can also be changed by referendum, but this usually requires a government initiative to kickstart the process. A good (bad?) example of direct democracy is California, whose numerous contradictory propositions have made the state practically ungovernable (see this Economist article).

    Of course, even representative democracy can produce bad, kneejerk law (the UK’s Dangerous Dogs Act, for example).

  3. What is this standard for law being “bad” of which you speak? Who gets to decide that? Why have democracy at all if what the people want doesn’t matter?

  4. The poster child for the failures of direct democracy is California. It usually works rather well in Switzerland. I certainly would not want to be the politician that said to the Swiss people “you have made the wrong choice, so you won’t get another referendum” like the French and Dutch did. Why not? This is the reason :-)

    Of course, turnout is an issue. The danger is that you get student union democracy: 101 extremists on one side, 100 on the other and 10,000 who don’t care and don’t vote. Easy enough to solve: compulsory voting, or a mandatory level of turnout for the referendum to count.

    The next problem is the electorate itself. I don’t want to sound like Brecht talking about electing a different people, but direct democracy will work better if the people are strong and independent-minded. California has too much welfare dependency (not just the poor, but also favoured companies, public sector unions, NGOs, etc) and too much “victimhood poker”, thus the entirely rational choices (within that system) for individuals and/or particular special interest groups are damaging to the people and the state as a whole. If the politicians treat us like toddlers with ADD, we will act as toddlers with ADD.

    Finally, your point that “referendums, like local elections, are only ever about kicking the government in the nuts” is easily solved by providing an alternative means of doing this, e.g. by allowing the people to literally do it. :-)

  5. Why have democracy at all if what the people want doesn’t matter?

    Two problems with “the will of the people” come to mind straight away.

    Firstly, people are spiteful. Given half a chance they will prejudge, discriminate and gang up against the weak and the different. If we slavishly followed the public will we would have all the foreigners in jail, religious minorities suppressed, torture, sterilisation, concentration camps. This is why we have human rights legislation.

    And secondly, people are inconsistent. They want lower taxes but higher healthcare budgets, more surveillance but more freedom, greater international cooperation but fewer foreigners telling them what to do. This is why we have professional parliamentarians.

    I certainly would not want to be the politician that said to the Swiss people “you have made the wrong choice, so you won’t get another referendum” like the French and Dutch did.

    The decision to give the French and Dutch a referendum was just as arbitrary as the decision to take it away again. At least in Switzerland and Ireland there is a statutory basis for such decisions.

  6. This is why we have professional parliamentarians.

    Who are snake-oil salesfolk, selected by the spiteful and inconsistent population, and placed in a position where they have terrible incentives to do whatever it takes to stay in power. If the people are as bad as you say, how can we trust those they elect?

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