Direct Democracy and Linguistic Minorities in Switzerland and South Tyrol – A Comparison

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Do procedures of direct democracy involve fundamental dangers with regard to social, ethno-linguistic and religious minorities? Is there even a conflict between popular decision-making by initiative and referendum and the requirement of interethnic consociational democratic procedures? The article focuses on the existing tension and supposed contradictions between procedures of direct democracy (initiative and referendum) and the protection of the rights and interests of minorities in multilingual areas. Drawing upon some recent examples of such kind in four Swiss bi- or multilingual cantons and in South Tyrol the author compares these experiences and discusses the crucial issue as to whether such a conflict can be resolved and what special precautions should be established when it comes to applying direct democracy in multilingual areas. Finally he presents a new approach to how civil rights to direct political participation, enshrined in Italy’s constitutions and South Tyrol’s statute of autonomy, might be brought into concordance with the need to respect the equality of rights of linguistic groups within a multilingual polity, an issue which is currently being debated in South Tyrol’s politics.

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There is a basic tension between the principle of democracy and the rule of law. This becomes obvious whenever the Swiss citizens accept an initiative that is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. First, we discuss the traditions behind these two principles before we survey the empirical papers about the relation between direct democracy and minority rights in the US as well as in Switzerland. Then we discuss the literature on the relation between direct democracy and death penalty. There, the conflict becomes rather obvious. Solutions, which will always involve compromises between these two principles, necessitate some role of the Supreme Court, at the cost of some, but only minor limitations of direct popular rights.
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Does direct democracy tend to endanger or to protect minorities inmulticultural countries? The response to this question has beencontroversial. Some scholars believe that direct democracy may resultin “disregard of basic minority rights”; others think that it “serves to protect minorities”. This paper explores the experience of Switzerland, a longstanding multilingual democracy and the country in which half of worldwide referendums and popular initiatives have been held. First, it points out some major methodological problems that research trying to quantify the cases of “minorisation” of linguistic groups needs to face. Second, it illustrates the relation between popular votes and the deepening of the linguistic cleavage in Switzerland in the 1990s. Finally, four case studies explore the experience of the multilingual cantons. In the vast majority of cases, the use of referendums and popular initiatives in the cantons has not caused particular problems for minorities, although from time to time one group or another is outvoted. Nevertheless, direct democracy has been a source of intergroup tensions and misunderstandings when the issues at stake were closely related to identity, culture, language, or balance of power between linguistic communities.
Democratic theory and theories of public frame the concern for the rights of minorities in the face of majority opposition. Without the filtering mechanisms of the representative system, direct democracy promotes majority tyranny as the scope of civil rights conflicts expands and citizens vote on civil rights laws. The paper analyzes over three decades of initiatives and popular referenda from five major civil rights areas: housing and public accommodations for racial minorities, school desegregation, gay rights, English language laws, and AIDS policies. Citizen initiatives that restrict civil rights experience extraordinary electoral success: voters have approved over three-quarters of these, while endorsing only a third of all initiatives and popular referenda.
Do small but wealthy interest groups influence referendums, ballot initiatives, and other forms of direct legislation at the expense of the broader public interest? Many observers argue that they do, often lamenting that direct legislation has, paradoxically, been captured by the very same wealthy interests whose power it was designed to curb. Elisabeth Gerber, however, challenges that argument. In this first systematic study of how money and interest group power actually affect direct legislation, she reveals that big spending does not necessarily mean big influence. Gerber bases her findings on extensive surveys of the activities and motivations of interest groups and on close examination of campaign finance records from 168 direct legislation campaigns in eight states. Her research confirms what such wealthy interests as the insurance industry, trial lawyer associations, and tobacco companies have learned by defeats at the ballot box: if citizens do not like a proposed new law, even an expensive, high-profile campaign will not make them change their mind. She demonstrates, however, that these economic interest groups have considerable success in using direct legislation to block initiatives that others are proposing and to exert pressure on politicians. By contrast, citizen interest groups with broad-based support and significant organizational resources have proven to be extremely effective in using direct legislation to pass new laws. Clearly written and argued, this is a major theoretical and empirical contribution to our understanding of the role of citizens and organized interests in the American legislative process.
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