The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) led political initiative known as the Durchsetzungsinitiative to be decided on February 28, 2016 will have drastic consequences for Switzerland should it pass and set the country on a dangerous path that it does not want to go down. If passed political flexibility, a strong point of Swiss democracy, will be limited and a two-tiered justice system, which is in opposition to the founding principles of the constitutional democracy the country is, will be breached.
A topic that should not be avoided
There are certain topics that one ought to avoid at dinner: religion, sex and politics. The problem is that we’ve been avoiding politics too long and in some parts of the Western world religion has been getting back into bed with politics. This article isn’t about religion and politics though, its just about politics and the ledge we’re standing on in Switzerland. Yes, the neutral country in the heart of Europe is standing on the edge of an abyss that no state wishes to fall into. History has a way of repeating itself if one is not careful and Switzerland stands to go down a road that its Teutonic cousin went down 83 years ago: slowly and silently curtailing people’s rights and creating a two-tier justice system, which is akin to a two-class society. The Durchsetzungsinitiative (Enforcement, Assertion, Implementation Initiative (The German word carries all of those meanings as does this piece of legislation.)) seeks to strongly enforce the “will” of the people as they voted on a referendum in 2010 that would grant the courts the power to deport criminals of serious offences from Switzerland.
Of course we don’t want criminals
On the surface this sounds legitimate. As American comedian Louis CK would say, “Of course, no country wants to have criminals… of course. If you’re a foreigner and you break the law, of course you should be deported to your home country, of course, but maybe…” It sounds rational. I, as taxpayer Christian Langenegger, don’t want my money going to house and feed criminals from other countries. In fact, I don’t want my tax money paying for any criminal. I don’t want criminals in my society. I also don’t want illnesses, and natural disasters either, but I can’t stop that. And like the diseases, floods and storms that I can’t control, I can’t control others, but I also know that they are human and need to be treated humanely, even if they are inhumane. The high road is still the noble road. And because I’m better than a criminal and know that a family member or friend could be one, I make room for my taxes to be used to house and feed criminals and hopefully rehabilitate them. So here’s the “…, but maybe…” point. But maybe if we do pass a law to deport criminals from Switzerland, we’ll be breaking international agreements that we (Switzerland) signed on to and swore to uphold and that guarantee all people safety of person. And maybe if, though they might have broken the law, we treat non-Swiss differently before the law, Swiss will be treated differently before the law in other countries. And most importantly, maybe if we adopt this law we’ll be on a very slippery slope towards creating a social and political system with two legal classes of people like in 1930s Germany and 1940s South Africa. We know how terrible these were and we know that we do not want to go down that road.
The use of fear
The Durchsetzungsinitiative is another example of what is all too prominent in Western society. The use of fear to manipulate the masses. In 2010 the posters used by the Swiss People’s Party was that of a group of white sheep kicking out a black sheep. While it plays on imagery and is metaphorical, it can also be interpreted as racist and the fact that the colours are red black and white doesn’t help the case. Unfortunately, the referendum passed and the Swiss government has been left with the duty of implementing it, though in a way that will maintain the freedoms guaranteed to the people in the Swiss constitution and befitting a constitutional democracy where there is rule of law and all people are treated as equals in the eyes of the law. For parliamentarians that has meant adding clauses that would have cases that could demand deportation be looked at on a case by case basis and have the punishment fit the crime. It must also be remembered that in Switzerland, being born here does not make you a citizen and there are hundreds of thousands of people living in Switzerland who were born and raised here that do not have citizenship. If the Durchsetzungsinitiative were to pass these people could for two crimes like speeding and running a red light within ten years be deported to a country they have never been to, without any legal recourse. This is the small print in the Durchsetzungsinitiative that does not get read by many and is not openly discussed by the initiators, namely the SVP.
Not just in Switzerland
Politicians around the world are using fear to promote their agendas of power. Politics is a living and breathing thing. It might not have any end goal in mind, or perhaps it does. What on the surface seems rational is also completely irrational when one sees what the further repercussions are. As Constantin Seibt wrote in Der Bund this referendum is dangerous and sets Switzerland up to be like California, where the direct democratic approach must be adopted in the literal form it’s voted on, despite the fact that the strength of Swiss democracy has been that politicians can amend popular initiatives to actually be good or in the worst case do the least amount of harm. The unfortunate truth is that people are generally short sighted. That is why in California people voted for lower taxes and increases in social benefits essentially bankrupting the state.
A politics of fear
Fear is a powerful and irrational force in this ever complex world we live in. Our minds cannot even comprehend how entangled our social, political, economic and environmental webs are. In the developed world we have plenty of material goods, and if we have a roof over our head, food on the table, and our health we’re doing better than a large percentage of the world’s people. Those things might seem like a given, but are actually dependent in large part on our ability to work and pay for it. We are therefore in a position to fear that loss. We like to keep the status-quo. Invoking loss aversion is a simple way for people to manipulate others: “If too many foreigners come into the country wages will fall and so will your style of life.”
We live in a world where loss aversion dictates more of our lives than hope and the striving for a better life does. This is especially true for the developed world where we are constantly reminded of how bad people have it in Sub-Saharan Africa and in Islamic countries. We fear terrorism, hunger, drought, environmental degradation, losing our jobs, our homes and our loved ones. The foreigner is portrayed as someone coming to take all that we have worked for away. If the fear of the foreigner doesn’t get one to obey and do their part in society, then the fear that the hands that feed us will take away our means of life will retract and punish us (Great article about this trend in Switzerland here). Either one buys the story of the threatening foreigner or one succumbs to the fear of punishment from above.
Everyone else will vote
Another issue I believe that effects elections and referenda is the bystander effect. In democracies everyone knows that all eligible citizens have a right to vote and because most of us are rational we tend to think that the more absurd political campaigns have no chance of passing. We think the majority of people are rational and good like us and that they will vote the right way and therefore our vote doesn’t matter. The bystander effect is why when a large group of people witness an accident most will not come to the aid of the victim — because they believe others will do it. This could partially explain why less than 50% of Swiss vote even when the stakes are quite high. It also says something about those who do vote and that is that they are afraid and are more likely to vote because they do not have that trust in their fellow citizens voting the way they would. They know that their vote counts.
Democracy is far from perfect
Winston Churchill is credited with saying that Democracy is the worst form of government except for all others. Democracy is a burdensome form of government because it demands the participation of its constituents. Participation is more than voting, it means taking time to understand the issues, their causes and the repercussions of political action and inaction. That alone involves going down numerous lanes of thought. We live in a time and a world where many political ideas have been tried and we can see the positive and negative effects and how they could be changed. Getting tough on crime — essentially what the Durchsetzungsinitiative aims to do — was one of President Bill Clinton’s mandates when he signed the minimum sentencing bill into law. That law did the opposite of what it was supposed to do and now has American prisons full of people for minor offences like marijuana possession. It costs the government billions a year and ruins lives. Since his presidency, Bill Clinton has said that it was one of his biggest regrets during his tenure and that had he known what the effects were going to be, he wouldn’t have passed that law. Just because we live in a democracy, does not mean that everything we and the government do is right. The majority can also be wrong.
No to the Durchsetzungsinitiative
The Durchsetzungsinitiative is dangerous for democracy in Switzerland in Europe and around the world. If Switzerland enacts this law other countries will want to follow suit. The negative repercussions are hopefully not the intent of the SVP, but clearly that party in its way of over simplifying the complexity of politics and economics especially in regard to Switzerland’s role in the world has not proven to the public that there will be no negative side-effects. History and the case of California has shown that this course is not one that countries should follow.
This is a poster from a former work colleague of mine and is very poignant about the dangers of the Durchsetzungsintiative. Parvez has said that the center and the left need to start speaking as clearly as the right and without apology. You can download the poster here: http://goo.gl/jDg1o4