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Democracy at work – remember that, Mr Johnson?


THE Swiss have voted. On Sunday it was announced that by a margin of 60 to 40 the electorate had come out in favour of the government’s Covid-19 emergency measures. Of the 26 cantons, 17 voted for the government. There were significant regional variations. The three major cities of Basel, Zürich and Geneva voted Yes with between 65 and 70 per cent of the vote, while smaller rural cantons in the east and south voted No.

The ‘Covid Law’ which curtails many aspects of public life was being challenged by a referendum brought by a group of concerned citizens, driven by concerns over the current prominent role of the national executive in the country’s federalist and direct democratic system, as well as scepticism about the government’s vaccination policy. By holding this referendum, Switzerland became the first country in the world to grant its citizens a say over the legal basis for handling the Covid crisis.

The decisions made by government last September included financial support for companies and individuals hit by restrictions introduced to curb the pandemic; labour protection; border closures; and cultural and sporting issues. Rejection at the ballot box would have meant that all aspects would become obsolete by this September.

In the event the government has been given the green light to continue, and while the result was no wipe-out, it was a great disappointment for the activists who had been hoping to curb the freedom of the national government to act without specific voter and cantonal approval, and it has done nothing to dampen their determination to continue to fight their corner, in particular against a vaccination certificate and financial support for the media.

Since November there have been regular demonstrations against current policies, especially in the German-speaking areas. Last Sunday, several thousand people rallied in the town of Zug. The diverse groups of protesters, critical of lockdowns, masks and vaccination programmes, believe the government has violated the country’s constitution. The government’s defence is that it had to act quickly to try to prevent the collapse of the country’s health system and avert a serious economic crisis, and that their actions fell well within the country’s legally defined democratic principles.

So the fight will go on, in particular around those aspects of government action not specifically covered by the Covid Laws, notably the vaccination policy, or the definition of the government’s role under emergency rule. This referendum has acted as a brake on any political power grab, rather than an out-and-out veto, and the executive will need to remain aware of public sentiment and work for voter support.

There has been a marked contrast between the UK and the Swiss way of handling the crisis. Switzerland is known, at times ridiculed, for being keen on rules and regulations, and its population is generally law-abiding. So the application of restrictions and recommendations has been less draconian than in Britain, and as cases continue to drop there will be a steady relaxation of Covid-related restrictions.

Re-opening measures would include abolishing the mask requirement in public, at secondary schools, and at work; raising capacity in restaurants, recreation and sports venues, as well as nightclubs and discos. The proposed Covid certificate should widen the scope for large gatherings and public events. Even now, existing restrictions are pragmatically encouraged, rather than punitively enforced.

The Swiss authorities are guided by the principle that outcomes are optimised where they have the approval of their citizens. The view is that fear is a poor basis for good law. Compare this with the blanket of fear which has enveloped the UK population over the last year and a half, with ever-more stringent regulations and loss of freedoms, while – according to the authorities – cases suddenly proliferate. It was left to an angry Speaker, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, to rail against the Johnson administration for failing to come to the House to present and debate the latest postponement of lockdown easing. Not only does PM Johnson see fit to ignore the sentiments of the electorate in this, he doesn’t even consult Parliament!

It goes without saying that if the UK Prime Minister had to keep looking over his shoulder to stay abreast of fluctuations in public opinion, things would be very different. British representative democracy looks more like a totalitarian state.

The real meaning of this Swiss referendum is that, while the Government got its Yes for the time being, the possibility, even probability, of a No the next time round is ever present, and, like a stick and carrot combined, keeps the good of the nation to the forefront, and all the politicians on their best behaviour.

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Janice Davis
Janice Davis
Janice Davis is a grandmother and former girls’ grammar school teacher

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