The benefit of Swiss democracy: You get a close look on, what the politicians are doing

Deciding on bigger and smaller political issues can be quite strenuous for a Swiss citizen, but at least the politicians know they are being watched on every administrative level. That keeps the politicians alert, writes Natanael Rother, Swiss visiting fellow of EVA.

Being a Swiss is no easy task. No, it is not because of our continuous struggles to stabilize the relationship with our most precious partner, the European Union. Rather it is because of yet another upcoming ballot. On September 26th we will have to figure out an opinion about policy proposals for the third time this year (one more to come). And that is for all three levels of government at the same time: the federal level, the regional (canton) level and the local (municipality) level.

Fairness always strikes a nerve for some.

At the national level the Swiss electorate will vote on the federal popular initiative reduce tax on salaries, tax capital fairly – sounds tempting for some, especially young socialists, who hope to increase tax income by 10 billion francs (9 billion euros) per year. Others understandably bring forward that capital owners already pay a whole set of taxes with their shares. They fear that the initiative puts an excessive burden on Swiss entrepreneurs and scare off wealthy foreigners now happily contributing to the public purse. While more fairness always strikes a nerve for some, the result of tax hikes is not necessarily beneficial in a long run for a country, that has benefited from low taxation and foreign investment. Luckily, the electorate usually decides sober-mindedly, incorporating possible costs of its decisions. That was the case for example at the end of 2013 when the Swiss electorate decided not to impose a limit on the discrepancy between the lowest and the highest salary paid by any given company.

The second question on the ballot box is long due. It is about whether same-sex marriage should be allowed. The effects are easy to imagine: When love wins, no one loses. Clearly a win for Switzerland as a whole. For me that is a “yes”. Luckily, the polls suggest that the electorate will approve same-sex marriage.

For the third question (this time at the regional, cantonal level) romance does not help. The 15-page brochure simply is a slow read. The cantonal parliament decided to support a proposal its government made to modernize a part of a road that connects rural and urban parts of the Lucerne region. Voters are now asked for permission for the spending as well. Despite my frequent running tours and bike rides I don’t know the street – but maybe that’s because it neither has a cycling path nor a foot path. They promised to build one now. Seems reasonable. Some mobility pricing would be good though – the place looks narrow and hard to avoid on the pictures in the brochure. Why not charge the ones who actually use the new road instead of everyone else? Unfortunately, we are not asked about that this time. Despite inputs for further betterment, that is a yes for the additional 57 million francs (53 million euros) from me too.

The last ballot question (this time at the local, municipal level) concerns a pool area that needs a proper make-over. The same bath was already renovated in 2014, but that could not stop time from going forward and water from leaking out of the 55-year-old pipes. Besides the project costs of one million francs (0,9 million euros) the voters are also asked for 15 million francs (14 million euros) for the building work itself. 0,6 million francs (0,55 million euros) of that are budgeted for the city gardener in the next ten years. Must be a lot of lawn to mow around that 25-meter-long basin, but let us not be too frugal. Plus, they are planning to reuse the seemingly famous “crazy jump slide”. So, yes for this one too. I am still puzzled however how some hobbies are heavily subsidized and others not. But that is a debate for another day.

Politicians are acting like everyone was watching.

You see, it takes time and effort to go through proposals like the ones upcoming. Not always are we asked about questions we were hoping for. But what better way to make public servants and politicians act as if everyone was watching than actually doing just that – not on all issues, but on those that matter for the respective level of government. The benefit of Swiss democracy accordingly not only is that “the state” has to ask people directly, but also that decisions are made close to the people at the matching level of government. At least most of the time.

Oh, and thumps up to the regional government of Lucerne for having proposed to lower taxes in the years to come. I cannot wait for the debate about it and for the Canton of Lucerne hopefully continuing its steady economic success afterwards. Way to go!

Natanael Rother (M.A. in political economy) is a visiting fellow at EVA. Before joining EVA he worked as a public servant in Zug and Lucerne and as a researcher in think tanks in Switzerland and abroad. Currently he’s an advisor to the ministry of finance in the Canton of Lucerne (Switzerland). After managing the Cantons attempts to support companies throughout the pandemic he decided to free up half of his calendar for another research stint abroad. While still employed by the ministry, his views expressed here are solely his own. In this blog section Natanael will share some of his insights of Switzerland’s modus operandi of decentralized decision making. In the months to come he will work out a proposal to implement fiscal federalism and strong regions in Finland, taking into account not just strengths but also weaknesses of the Swiss system.