We are used to hearing about Switzerland as the closest modern example to modern democracy, as they are used to holding referendums to decide issues affecting the country. Parties and citizens alike can start an ‘initiative’, as they call these petitions, to call for new laws and reforms of the Constitution, and these can happen at a federal or at a cantonal level.
If they are federal, 100,000 signatures are needed and for it to be approved there must be both a citizen and cantonal majority. Sometimes they go wrong, as happened with the recent popular initiative “Against mass immigration”, which was approved by a difference of 0.5% (under 20,000 votes).
Last Sunday the Swiss electorate was called to vote on four initiatives. One of them has been widely reported in world press: the proposal to establish a national minimum wage of nearly £15 an hour, or its monthly equivalent, 4,000 CHF (£2,650).
If passed, this would have become the highest minimum wage in the world. The Swiss are no dreamers, though, and so the initiative failed, with over 76 per cent of votes and all cantons against it. In the past Swiss citizens have also voted against a six-week paid leave and against limiting top executives’ wages to 12 times the company’s lowest wage.
The minimum wage was not the hottest issue in Switzerland, nevertheless. Swiss media like the Neue Zürcher Zeitung and the Tribune de Genève seemed much more worried about the Gripen affair. This consisted of a government plan to buy 22 fighter jets from Swedish firm Saab.
The deal, valued at 3.1bn CHF (£2bn) was backed by the Swiss Defence Minister Ueli Maurer. With 53.4 per cent of the votes and 12 cantons against, the citizenry has deprived the government of the funds to acquire the jets. This vote occurred along Rösti-ditch patterns: while the German-speaking rural cantons voted in favour, the French-speaking cantons Basel and Zurich voted against.
The other two issues attracted less attention from the media but were not the least important precisely because of that. Over 88 per cent of voters and all cantons voted in favour of adding an article to the Constitution guaranteeing better conditions for doctors and other health workers so there will be no lack of medical professionals in the country.
Furthermore, a movement called “White March” put forward an initiative so that condemned paedophiles can never work in a job where there is contact with people who are not of a certain age. This would apply even if the criminal is rehabilitated. This initiative has been passed by a majority of just over 63 per cent and all cantons, although larger shares of citizens voted for the motion in French and Italian-speaking cantons.
Our media focused on the ‘absurdity’ of people rejecting such a high minimum wage. On the contrary, it is possibly because Swiss citizens are entrusted with a large share of the decision-making process that they do not vote only on what’s best for themselves but largely on what they think is best for the country. Not to mention the other three important issues voted on that will, at least to Swiss eyes, improve the country. And after all, this is what democracy is meant to be.