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…