Swiss Referendums and Perceptions of Legitimacy
By Jack Presson
On February 9, the Swiss public voted to install legal protections against discrimination for gay citizens. By referendum, voters approved a new revision to an existing 1995 anti-discrimination law that will make illegal any acts of public discrimination against Swiss citizens on the basis of sexual orientation (“Swiss Voters Approve,” 2020). In the days leading up to the referendum, experts anticipated a close vote (Foulkes, 2020). However, the referendum yielded a decisive victory for gay rights advocates, with 63.1% of voters approving the revision and 36.9% voting no (Geiser, 2020). Supporters are celebrating the victory as not only a concrete measure which will protect gay Swiss from being barred from public facilities or from being fired due to their sexual orientation, but also as a symbolic message of acceptance in a country where the suicide rate in the gay community is five times that of heterosexuals (Foulkes, 2020). Meanwhile, opponents of the revision are concerned that the new protections will stifle freedom of expression as well as freedom of religion (Foulkes, 2020). This begs the question: is the Swiss public likely to accept the results of the referendum, and the legal changes which will follow, as legitimate?
To answer this question, it is first necessary to understand the process of referendum voting in Switzerland. Referendums are commonly used to decide on major policy decisions, and votes can be held on four pre-set election days each year (“Referendum Process”). Eligible voters are automatically registered, and every eligible voter is sent a ballot in the mail to be filled out and either returned by mail or in person at designated voting stations; nearly 100% of completed ballots are returned by mail (“Referendum Process”). Thus, the entire voting population enjoys very easy access to the voting process, with little to no institutional barriers to participation.
This fact would seem to support the hypothesis that the Swiss public would generally accept referendum results as legitimate. In this course, we’ve seen numerous instances of governments facing considerable blowback from their populations due to widespread belief that the political process is unresponsive to the will of the people, with Malawi serving as just the latest example. A common theme in such situations is the presence of significant institutional barriers to political participation, such as polling fees, complicated registration processes, or restrictions on public demonstrations and advocacy. Furthermore, such backlash is often in response to complicated representative structures in which politicians are not directly responsive to the public’s policy preferences and instead enjoy considerable leeway to set policy in accordance with their own interests or beliefs. The Swiss referendum system avoids both of these problematic realities so common in many other countries. By automatically registering voters and providing them with the structure and resources to vote in referendums from the comfort of their own living rooms, the Swiss referendum system ensures that any eligible voter who wishes to participate will have the opportunity to do so. In addition, by answering major policy questions through a direct poll of the adult population, the Swiss system places the direction of its governance directly in the hands of its electorate, inoculating itself against complaints of political elites subverting the will of the people.
However, one key aspect of the February 9 referendum could potentially fuel cause for concern about the potential for significant portions of the Swiss public to sour on the legitimacy of the vote. The turnout in the referendum, defined as the percentage of eligible voters who actually returned a completed ballot, rested at just 41.7% (Geiser, 2020). Thus, the decision to install institutional protections against public discrimination for gay citizens was made by less than half of the public. Could opposition groups use this fact to claim that the result of the referendum was not truly representative of the will of the people?
One can never say never, but two factors, one specific to this referendum and the other a historical reality in Switzerland, suggest that such a scenario is unlikely. First, support for the revision was quite widespread across different regions of the country. Out of the 26 states in Switzerland, known as cantons, just 3 saw a majority vote against giving sexual orientation protected status, and in none of those 3 cantons did the no vote exceed 54% (Geiser, 2020). If the vote had produced results in which one region with a large population overcame no votes from numerous less populated cantons, one might be able to make a claim of illegitimacy, but given the widespread support for the change across so many different areas of the country, it would be quite difficult to convincingly make that argument.
Secondly, the turnout of 41.7% is not significantly lower than turnout in past referendums. Voting events in Switzerland average turnout of just 46.58%, less than 5% higher than the turnout in the February 9 referendum (“Swiss Confederation”). Thus, the most recent referendum cannot be considered significantly less representative than previous votes. Furthermore, 74.4% of Swiss citizens report feeling that they do have a say in what the government does, a percentage well above the 36.8% average among OECD countries (“Country Fact Sheet- Switzerland,” 2019). This indicates that the Swiss historically have been quite satisfied with the referendum process despite relatively low voter turnout on average, thus casting doubt on the potential for claims of illegitimacy on the basis of low turnout in this referendum.
By all indications, the results of this referendum are likely to be implemented and to be accepted by the Swiss electorate. Furthermore, the high voter confidence and contentment produced at least in part by the referendum process suggests that giving voters a direct role in setting policy could be an attractive option for governments hoping to increase perceptions of legitimacy among their peoples.
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