Is direct democracy sensible?


The recent Swiss referendum on re-introducing migrant quotas underscores the problematic nature of direct diplomacy. 55.8 per cent of eligible voters cast their vote, and the bill passed with 50.3 per cent. The Swiss government now has to establish migrant quotas in its legal framework, which would affect multiple existing international treaties. As the editor-in-chief of the liberal Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung commented, the right-wing Swiss People’s Party managed to push their referendum “against all odds”: against the Federal Council, all other parties, economists, and the liberal media. With no quorum in place, a simple majority of casted votes is able to significantly change foreign policy.

Though the Swiss People’s Party applauded the ostensibly high voter turnout, what weight should a majority of 20,000 votes have if almost 45 per cent of voters didn’t cast their vote? A large proportion of elected political leaders even opposed it. However, a majority speaks for itself… right? Not exactly – referendums are mainly an instrument of populism, rather than democracy. A homogenous collective of “the people” with similar motivations is simply an illusion in today’s globalized world. A diverse group of people cannot conceivably join together and unanimously agree on any nuanced political issue.

Referendums give an illusion of a simple solution to deeply complex issues. Such problems can hardly be summed up in a question on a ballot and the consequences are often downplayed or ignored. This plays into the hands of populists as issues are presented as black and white rather than truly multifaceted.

The Swiss People’s Party has effectively instrumentalized this binary thinking in their strategy to pass the referendum.  They claim mass immigrations is detrimental to Swiss culture and country. According to them, 80,000 immigrants per a year causes the rapid growth of cityscapes, creating slums and reducing green areas.

While this may carry some truth, nowhere is it mentioned that bilateral treaties with the EU already control immigration numbers. Furthermore, quotas for non-EU immigrants already exist and are subject to economic and social criteria – in Switzerland, wages and unemployment have remained unaffected by European immigrants. The Swiss People’s Party has managed to pander to the Swiss public’s fear of unemployment and change while neglecting to mention the overwhelming benefits of immigration.

With new restriction on freedom of movement, many bilateral treaties with the EU are up in the air; close coordination of research and the ability to travel efficiently forms the basis of many agreements. Switzerland is more dependent on trade with the Union rather than vice-versa , and its economy relies heavily on skilled foreign workers. This fact has been largely ignored by the voters, and direct democracy and referendums have given them power to decide what is best for the nation.

Misinformation and ignorance are the primary reasons why direct democracy is not effective. It allows people with no foreign policy experience to make political decisions – can an average citizen do that satisfactorily? Political leaders are elected so that the everyman does not have to worry himself with the implications of trade or immigration; referenda undermine the powers of elected officials powers as well as silence minorities.

Though perhaps they appear more “fair,” direct democracies are actually less reflective of a population’s desires than their representative counterparts. Policy decisions should therefore be referred to practiced elected officials, and referenda should be carefully considered before implemented.


  1. One problem ballot initiative doesn’t diminish their record of being the start of MOST reforms. I’m no expert on Switzerland, but in the US, ballot initiatives were the origin of everything from Women’s Suffrage to Sunshine Laws to Renewable Energy Requirements for Utilities to Medical Marijuana. Colorado where I live is a stellar example: Here is some of the US record, with a link at the bottom to a searchable database of ALL of them:


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