This Sunday the Swiss will vote on whether to restrict access to the guns they have traditionally kept at home, between stints of compulsory military service and afterwards—a custom blamed for roughly 300 deaths a year. But in an unusual twist, non-Swiss residents will also be giving the ruling Federal Council their opinion on the question. Though would-be citizens must usually endure a twelve-year wait to become Swiss, since last November these foreigners have been offered the chance to be virtual voters in all federal referendums. This imaginative online experiment, known as Baloti, has been designed by university researchers, and paid for by the integration fund of the Department of Justice and Police.
The Swiss are proud of their ‘bottom-up’ participatory democracy. Many consider it the supreme national treasure. Micheline Calmy-Rey—whose one-year term as Councilpresident has just begun—thinks Switzerland’s unique democratic system, in which referendums and elections take place roughly four times a year, “gives all political decisions a rock-solid legitimation.” She credits this system with Switzerland’s routinely high position in international rankings for competitiveness, quality of life, innovation and research. Wolf Linder, a Swiss political scientist, considers direct democracy the single most important bond holding together what he calls an ‘artificial’ nation, with no common language or culture to unite its inhabitants.
Baloti extends Switzerland’s intrinsic acceptance of cultural diversity into the digital age, offering a response to two of the most powerful forces shaping society today—immigration and the drift towards digitally mediated ‘virtual’ living. The website allows foreign residents of Switzerland to cast e-votes—through elaborate identity authentication procedures—after having been briefed by screens that teach them the basics of the political process, and tell them where the leading political parties stand on the issues.
Yet this seemingly inclusive scheme appears surprising after the Swiss voted in 2009 to ban the construction of minarets in their country, and, last November, to deport foreigners convicted of certain crimes. Both those results were strongly influenced by anti-immigrant campaigning by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has ridden a huge swell of populist, conservative and xenophobic sentiment over the last fifteen years to become the largest party in the governing coalition.
Unsurprisingly, Baloti is anathema to immigrant-hating right-wingers, but it has left-wing detractors too. One critic dismisses this experiment in online education as unconvincing techno-chic that smacks of ‘instant democracy’—as unsatisfying as instant coffee.
Even so virtual inclusiveness is an undeniably progressive idea. In every other democratic nation, voting in any election or referendum is the one right withheld from foreigners—even in the great melting-pot tradition of the United States.
Baloti acknowledges foreigners’ contributions to the domestic economy by politely designating the results of their artificial referendums as ‘consultative’ for the federal government. It can also be seen as a welcome mat opposing the ‘keep out’ signs that many in the SVP would like to see posted everywhere. But its value could be more than symbolic. A University of Zurich study in the early 1990s showed that in those cantons with the most extensive voting rights, citizens were happiest, which, in turn, led to increased productivity and significantly less tax evasion.
The co-existence of progressive and reactionary politics is typical of the many contradictions that the Swiss political process has produced over the decades. To take just one example, Swiss women—though they now dominate the seven-member Federal Council—had to wait until 1971 to gain universal suffrage, yet sex between consenting men was decriminalised as early as 1942.
Switzerland could be said to have a reverse melting-pot tradition, since, as Linder puts it, his country “renounced the idea of creating a one-culture, one-language nation” from its creation (in its present form) in 1848. The Swiss approach to diversity could arguably replace the US system as a model for dealing with diversity in a world in which immigrants are increasingly reluctant to discard their native culture on theroad to citizenship.
So while Switzerland has received justified criticism for its recent record on immigrants’ rights, schemes like Baloti show another side of a country which is also inherently multicultural, inclusive and receptive to ideas from other places.
A Swiss broadcasting law implemented in 2007 requires cable television providers to include programming from neighbouring countries—for the convenience of Swiss nationals who share their language and culture. This is content chosen not just for its educational and cultural merit but, as the Swinglish version of the code quaintly puts it, to permit “free opinion-forming.” This law, like Baloti, represents the best of Switzerland.