How a Swiss canton voted to deny a vegan citizenship – because she was “annoying”

The Swiss vote in more referendums than anywhere else. But in doing so, they reveal when direct democracy turns ugly.

NS

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

Following the result of the EU referendum, the only one in which I have been eligible to vote, I’m not completely sold on referendums. Unlike Ireland, apparently, given they’ve endured 35 since the 1970s.

Despite having spent over €133m on the 15 referendums held this century, the Irish show no signs of slowing, and are set to be presented with no fewer than ten ballot papers over the next two years. Seven of which will be referendums.

Topics on the agenda include abortion, blasphemy, and reducing the voting age. Unlike in the UK, where elected MPs can vote on our behalf, the Irish constitution can be reformed only through a system of direct democracy. But does this make for a happier population? Or a nation at war with itself?

To find out, you could look to the Swiss, who, as a nation, make more trips to the ballot box than anybody else on earth. If Ireland seemed a bit extra, they’ve got nothing on Switzerland, which, since 1970, has held a frankly mind-blowing 397 referendums and popular initiatives. The former concern citizens’ amendments to parliamentary decisions; the latter a vote on popular proposals from the public, for law changes or new laws altogether.

Given Switzerland has had something to vote on approximately every three months for the past 47 years, it’s perhaps unsurprising that their average turnout is low: hovering around 45 per cent on national votes. That said, a 2016 study found that 90 per cent of people had voted in at least one of the past 20 elections – suggesting, understandably, turnout depends on the issue.

On 11 March 2012, Switzerland voted on whether everybody should receive six weeks paid holiday, up from four. Polling station queues would surely snake around blocks nationwide should the UK hold that referendum tomorrow; with Brits overwhelmingly declaring that yes, more time off work would be nice, thanks. See you sometime in September, probably. Sensible Switzerland, however, did not care for an extra fortnight’s holiday.

Based on this one example, you’d be forgiven for thinking increased constitutional responsibility renders citizens more politically level-headed. But since I have to confess to clicking on a date at random, it’s in no way a scientific case study; as is made obvious by the case of Nancy Holten.

When asked about Switzerland’s democratic model, the actress and model, who lives in the Swiss canton of Aargau, is quick to offer praise. “I think it's good that people can start their own initiatives and vote democratically,” she says. “But that also means using it responsibly and not allowing yourself to be guided by emotions, as is the case now in Switzerland.” She cites a 2009 initiative in which the construction of minarets was outlawed when 57 per cent of voters came out in favour of a ban proposed by the anti-immigration Swiss People's Party, which is critical of Islam.

That Dutch-born Holten is in favour of Switzerland’s direct democracy is significant, given she has more reason than most to oppose it. Holten, 43, has lived in Switzerland since she was eight-years-old. She has two Swiss children. Yet her citizenship application has been rejected twice by local residents, who often have a say in the naturalisation process in Switzerland.

Voters in her village took an apparent dislike to her veganism and anti-cowbell campaigning, and she was deemed “too annoying” to be given her passport.

“The people here in my church gathered against me and came together to vote against my naturalisation. Unfortunately, that happened two times. The second time even more citizens came,” Holten says, claiming that it was mainly men, most of whom did not know her personally, who took issue with her.

Holten has since won her case on appeal, after the canton agreed her village’s rejection was unjustified, allowing her to bypass a third local application. She expects to be granted a Swiss passport in the next few months, after obtaining the federal court’s approval – the third and final stage of the process.

Although one reason she wants citizenship is to vote, Holten admits there are issues with Switzerland’s democratic model. For a start, she says, communities should not have the power to reject an applicant’s request for citizenship, explaining that in some areas laws have been changed so that the local council alone votes, in a manner that she describes as “more objective and neutral”.

So where should the line be drawn? Because there’s no denying that the Swiss are generally pretty content; they topped the 2015 list of the world’s happiest countries, falling to fourth in 2017 – behind a trio of cheery Scandinavian nations, but still 15 places ahead of the far gloomier UK.

It seems as though there is a correlation between increasing public political responsibility and a happier population; yet, offer too much responsibility and people are seemingly able to go mad with power, discriminating against a woman simply because she’s concerned about some cows.

Are there certain matters that we, the people, just shouldn’t be trusted to vote on? Well, yes, says American political scientist and philosopher Jason Brenan: basically all of them.

“With very few exceptions, almost every referendum asks more of the public than they can give,” he says. “When we survey voters, we find that the overwhelming majority lack even the most basic information relevant to current political questions, let alone the social scientific knowledge needed to use that information.”

The solution, he says? “Have referenda for local questions, such as whether we should increase spending on schools or parks. But for the big questions, let parliament and representative democracy do its job.”

Brenan says the cognitive demands of local issues are far lower and the stakes more immediate; offering citizens more incentive to become better informed on the issue.

Yet, with many nations turning to referendums for questions of morality – such as abortion and the death penalty – that evoke especially strong emotional reactions, many would be unhappy to sit back and let politicians decide for them.

The solution offered by Michael Bruter, a political science professor at the London School of Economics, is to either hold the referendum at the very end of a political process, as a means to vote on politicians' “extremely developed and comprehensive” policy plans, or at the outset to amass public opinion, which can then be used to guide specific policy plans, without necessarily being treated as binding.

A solution with which, right now, it's hard to imagine anybody but the Brexiteer ultras arguing.

Indra is the New Statesman’s digital sub-editor.