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The state and I

What is a good democracy? When does it threaten to erode and what happens after the framework agreement? Historian Oliver Zimmer and journalist Beat Kappeler discussed these questions in public in Zurich.

Claudia Wirz
Democracy is fragile. If we are not careful, it threatens to erode.


The Progress Foundation could not have chosen a better time. Not only did the easing of the coronavirus measures on May 31st make it possible to hold an event with real people, albeit still on a reduced scale. The hosts also hit the bull’s eye with the topic so soon after the end of the framework agreement.

What next for Switzerland?

There was a discussion about “sovereignty from below” and about the Swiss understanding of the state, which is not always congruent with that of the international environment. Unsurprisingly, the event offered plenty of scope for a review of last week’s events, but also for a look into the future in terms of the question of what the future holds for Switzerland, its sovereignty and its direct democracy.

In order to clarify the terms, the Swiss historian Oliver Zimmer, who teaches at Oxford, first discussed the nature of democracy. For him, a democracy is an instrument for sharing power and creating meaning, a constant process between the state and citizens that must take place on an equal footing.

But democracies are fragile. Depending on the behavior of the elite and their particular opportunities to exert influence, democracy can erode and the state and authorities can take on a life of their own. For example, when the elite considers citizens to be incompetent in the sense of “rule by those in the know” and prefers to let technocrats or judges sort things out instead of letting the democratic process decide. International organizations are often the instrument of this circumvention of democracy.

So what kind of elite does a liberal democracy need? One, said Zimmer, that knows its own limits and cultivates an “enlightened skepticism” towards itself. What is needed is not the supposedly omniscient caretaker from above, but politicians who are capable of questioning their own position and do not regard those who think differently as enemies of the truth.

Democratic lack of freedom

Publicist Beat Kappeler then examined the anatomy of parliamentary democracy and its elites and drew a “sobering sketch” of it. In parliamentary democracy, he said, there is strong pressure from the top down. Individual parliamentarians are not free; decisions are made by party staffs and state committees.

Things are different in Switzerland. The possibility of cumulation and panache in elections, for example, gives voters a much stronger influence on the composition of parliament and thus strengthens the position of the elected parliamentarian. The “federal system of checks and balances” ensures a balanced distribution of power and, finally, the consultation democracy associated with the people’s rights ensures that broad sections of the population are involved in the political processes.

The danger of legalization

In view of these differing views on what a democracy is, it seems logical that the framework agreement had to fail. Beat Kappeler said in the panel discussion that the agreement would have meant a “massive renunciation of sovereignty”. Switzerland has long suffered from the division over the EU issue, said host Gerhard Schwarz from the Progress Foundation. With the end of the framework agreement, “a moment of honesty has now arrived” after seven long years.

It remains to be seen what will happen after this moment. In any case, there were no fears of the end of the world on the podium, quite the opposite. You have to put up with being a little unsympathetic for a while, said Schwarz. And after all, there is a world beyond the EU.

However, the danger of an erosion of democracy is far from over. In the panel discussion, NZZ journalist and lawyer Katharina Fontana referred in particular to the tendency of supranational organizations such as the UN to want to handle state processes by means of legalization instead of allowing them to be democratically legitimized. The question of how “sovereignty from below” can continue to function in the future therefore remains more topical than ever.

Nebelspalter: The state and I

Translated in DeepL