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Swiss Democracy Unexceptional Compared To Other Countries

January 27, 2011

Switzerland is not the democracy par excellence as thought, but only a mediocre one and ranks fourteenth when compared with twenty-nine established democracies. These are the finding of the democracy barometer, a new instrument for measuring the quality of democracy developed at the University of Zurich and the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB).

According to the democracy barometer, Denmark has the highest quality of democracy, followed by Finland and Belgium. These countries best fulfill the functions of democracy ““ selected from the areas freedom, equality and control ““ analyzed by the democracy barometer. As outlined at a University of Zurich press conference, the democracy barometer measures nine quality indicators: the protection of personal freedom from infringements by third parties, especially the state; the rule of law; an active citizenship; transparency; participation; representation; political competition; a system of checks and balances; and the ability to implement democratic decisions. The comparison of thirty established democracies between 1995 and 2005 also revealed that the democracies in Poland, South Africa and Costa Rica are the lowest in quality.

Marc Bhlmann from NCCR Democracy at the University of Zurich explained why Switzerland only averaged out at a disappointing fourteenth place in the eleven-year study: Switzerland is a model country when it comes to satisfying the criteria of personal liberties, an active citizenship, competition and governmental capability. However, the system of checks and balances, transparency and participation are only very poorly implemented. In Switzerland, the legislature is insufficiently able to control the executive branch, the judiciary’s independence is weak compared to other democracies, there is no transparent party financing, and ““ as of 2005 ““ no effective legal guarantee for the freedom of information.

Free and unequal

Moreover, political participation in both elections and referendums is very low. “Political involvement across the social stratification in Switzerland is particularly uneven,” stress the two project leaders Prof. Wolfgang Merkel (Berlin) and Marc Bhlmann (Zurich). A large part of the Swiss population does not engage in politics and those who do are primarily educated, well-off, older and disproportionately male. Switzerland is further away than most other democracies from the ideal of a democracy of political equals in which all citizens are politically active and their interests and values are ad-dressed equally in the political arena. “Overall, it appears that while Switzerland has implemented the principle of freedom well, the principle of political equality is distinctly lacking,” concludes Bhlmann.

The democracy barometer can also be used to illustrate developments over time. And, here, the out-come for Switzerland looks brighter: the constitutional revision of 1999 in particular, but also some progress regarding transparency and participation catapulted Switzerland from nineteenth place in 1995 to ninth in 2005. Switzerland is also the nation in the group of countries studied that exhibits the most striking positive development in the quality of its democracy.

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