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What are the challenges for our democracy?

Switzerland's semi-direct democracy and its federalist tradition are unique in this world. By means of initiatives and referendums, the people can exert direct influence on government policy. The federal state itself ensures the separation of powers and thus the competences between state, cantons and communes. Everyone has his own role to play and privileges to exercise. However, will our democratic system meet current and future internal and global challenges? Where do we see a need for reform?

The rule of law, human rights and right to equality are accepted principles of our constitution. But what about their implementation?

In an interview in the “TagesWoche” of 13 October 2015, Jakob Tanner recalled:

“Scientific political consulting, social media and big data have greatly changed the way modern democracies work. We have to analyse these new factors.”
Jakob Tanner Professor of Swiss history

Expert consulting and the use of resources are of a new order of magnitude, he says, creating new inequalities in election and referendum campaigns.

Digitalisation is developing rapidly. While electronic bank transactions have been functioning worldwide for a long time, e-voting in Switzerland is suspended despite good experiences with it for years. The Swiss Abroad can no longer exercise their political rights. Other countries such as Estonia are more advanced in that area. What can we learn from them?


The Corona crisis also raises questions about democracy. Heads of state worldwide have reacted with special regulations and emergency laws to fight Covid-19. Around the globe, popular votes have been postponed. Is the Corona pandemic a threat to our democracy? Or could it offer an opportunity for online democracy? Experts believe that we will have to prepare for more pandemics. What challenges does this pose to our direct democracy?

Democracy and globalisation

In a globalised world, nation states and democracy are facing increasingly strict limitations. Climate change, air and sea pollution as well as regional conflicts and the movement and migration of large population groups are examples of topics that cannot be sustainably tackled by nation states alone but only in cooperation with other countries.

The result is a tension between democracy and globalisation. It is the function of supranational bodies such as the European Union (EU) and international institutions like the UN to guarantee improved global and regional autonomy. These globalised interactions may, however, also undermine the sovereignty of a democratic state and expose it to an increasing number of political, economic and financial forces that contradict the will of the majority of its people. The coexistence of national sovereignty, democracy and globalisation thus poses new challenges to all democracies, and particularly to Switzerland with its system of direct democracy. Risk elements include:

Both the UN and the WTO lack democratic structures. A UN parliament with delegated parliamentarians from the member countries (UNPA) is an already widely supported model to strengthen supranational democracy.

Information and communication technologies

The new information and communication technologies (NICT) also challenge sovereignty over a territory. Nation states can scarcely control the flow of information. National culture may be endangered by the creation of a standardised, globalised and often Americanised culture.

Control over information sources and thus the truth of the information provided makes democracies vulnerable with regard to “fake news”. The risks of mass manipulation of public opinion that could influence political decisions are real. With regard to the NICT, certain states are tempted to exercise excessive control or even censorship of the internet and information as a whole. A state faced with protests by any part of its population may very well be tempted to withdraw into isolation. Examples include increased protectionism, borders closed to immigrants and the election of parties that only defend the national interest.

What role should be played in future by the Swiss Abroad, who often see themselves as representatives of Switzerland and its democratic values in their country of residence, against the background of the globalisation of these values?