The Future of Democracy: Why the Trends of Participation and Deliberation Give Hope
What can be done when citizens do not trust their governments or do not exercise their rights of participation? Innovative approaches are needed and are being tested worldwide, including in Switzerland. The second article from the project “Demokratielabor Basel” gives an insight into new forms of citizen participation and their promise for the democracy of tomorrow.
First of all, there is currently a problem: democracies worldwide have a trust and participation deficit. Trust is a currency that is particularly in demand in democracies. The trust of citizens that the authorities will carry out the tasks entrusted to them in the interest and for the benefit of the population is essential for the functioning of a democratic state. If mistrust of elected bodies becomes widespread or large sections of citizens no longer want to participate (or are excluded from participation in the first place), a democratic system loses its representativeness and legitimacy. In concrete terms, a loss of trust can have a direct negative impact on the population’s willingness to cooperate with political measures and thus impair the execution of important state tasks by state bodies. When supporters of former US President Donald Trump stormed the Capitol in January 2021 because they doubted the official election results, an example of the loss of trust in established institutions by individual sections of the population was revealed. However, it is not necessary to look as far as the USA, because European institutions also seem to have been gripped by a crisis of trust: According to the OECD Trust Survey , on average just four out of ten people in the OECD area trust their national governments. Countries fare even worse when it comes to having a say in general: only three out of ten respondents believe that the political system in their country actually gives them a say .
70 per cent of the voting population in Switzerland’s most populous canton regularly does not participate in the selection of those who will deal with and shape social, economic and ecological issues (and thus the reality of people’s lives) for years to come.
While, according to surveys , Switzerland traditionally has very high levels of public trust in the government, parliament and political parties, the situation in this country is not all sunshine either. Problems for the health of democracy include – at the local level – the low turnout at municipal assemblies (which makes the events less representative of the broader population) and – at the national and especially the cantonal level – the low turnout at the polls. In the canton of Zurich, for example, voter turnout for cantonal bills fell from 57 per cent to just over 30 per cent between 1945 and 2019. The same picture can be seen in cantonal council elections, with an even more drastic drop of 40 percentage points . In other words, 70 per cent of the voting population in Switzerland’s most populous canton regularly does not participate in the selection of those people who, over the years, deal with and shape social, economic and ecological issues (and thus the reality of people’s lives). In view of this, and the greatly changed social and demographic realities, the question therefore also arises for Switzerland to what extent the democratic instruments (alone) that have remained practically unchanged since the 19th century are still up to date, or to what extent new approaches could help the Swiss democratic system to be updated.
One approach: participation and co-decision procedures
More and more countries around the world are now using participation and (less frequently) co-decision procedures to feel the pulse of the population and to counteract the trust deficit described above. Participation research suggests that deliberative representative processes in particular (cf. infobox) can contribute to broadening citizens’ knowledge about certain issues and strengthening their civic skills and perception of political efficiency (i.e. their own effectiveness) . If the projects are well communicated, such processes should also contribute to a higher level of knowledge and participation among the population . In view of such promising analyses, it is not surprising that public actors worldwide and at all political levels feel inspired to implement pilot projects. Based on a compilation of 574 practical examples, the OECD therefore also speaks of a “deliberative wave” . The most popular formats include so-called citizens’ juries or panels, in which randomly selected citizens express their opinions on specific political issues. Thematically, most processes have so far been applied to issues in the areas of urban planning, health or environmental policy, and least frequently in the areas of financial, tax, justice or security policy.
The big question is to what extent these participatory and deliberative approaches actually give citizens more political power. Observers and researchers agree that a successful participation format depends, among other things, on whether the participants can achieve a real impact with their input. If citizens are only listened to without their input actually being taken into account and at least partially implemented by the administration and political representation, citizens quickly lose interest and the participation event becomes a fig leaf. A well-known, positive example is the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, which has already been held several times. In the most famous edition in 2016, 100 randomly selected citizens were called to give their opinion on the constitutional ban on abortion. The Assembly’s recommendations led to a referendum in 2018 in which the abortion ban was actually overturned in favour of legalisation . The participatory approach has also been applied in Switzerland, albeit mostly in the form of pilot projects. Examples include the participatory total revision of the Valais cantonal constitution with a 130-member constitutional council (elected by the people, but representative of the parties and civil society) , the citizens’ panel for more climate protection in Uster , the participatory budget “Stadtidee” in Zurich  or also the recently launched first national citizens’ council in Switzerland on the topic of food policy . We can look forward to seeing how all these projects – not least the experiments within the framework of the Basel Democracy Lab – will contribute to the promotion of a lively and forward-looking Swiss democracy.
About the “Democracy Lab Basel
More information about the lab can be found here. The project team will report continuously on the projects and the insights gained from them in a series of articles. In the first published article, Daniel Schwarz gave an overview of the project’s goals.
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- J. Suiter, ‘Deliberation in Action – Ireland’s Abortion Referendum’, Political Insight, vol. 9, no. 3, pp. 30-32, Sep. 2018, doi: 10.1177/2041905818796576.
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