Goes Direct Democracy Digital?

Political campaigns increasingly take place on the internet, and in Switzerland, initiatives and referendums can now for the first time be signed (almost) online. Will this stimulate interest in politics or undermine the coherence and credibility of the system, asks Marc-André Miserez.

One click to select the topic, three fields to fill in (surname, first name, email) and, hey presto, you receive a form that you can print out, sign, fold in two and slip into a mail box - the postage is paid by the recipient. From now on, this method of collecting signatures for the tools of direct democracy (initiatives, referendums) could well replace the traditional market stalls and door-to-door canvassing.

In just a few days, wecollect.ch has already garnered more than 50’000 signatures in support of the five initiatives it is promoting. The fact that these texts were launched by the left-wing Social Democratic Party and other left-wing groups - the website is on this side of the political spectrum - is immaterial. The right is bound soon to follow suit, if necessary by launching its own platform.

Digital impact

Of course, Swiss politics has not waited for wecollect to make use of the worldwide web. As so often in recent years, the conservative right has been the trailblazer in the field of communication.

"The campaign by the Swiss People’s Party for the 2015 parliamentary elections marked the beginning of a revolution in political communication in Switzerland, which now really uses social networks and the Internet systematically as a source of information and, above all, mobilization", explains Lukas Golder, political scientist at the research institute gfs.bern.

And the strategy is paying off: in October 2015, the People’s Party boosted its representation in parliament’s lower house from 54 to 65 seats. Young people have also been won over, not least thanks to the fast-paced, and rather humorous video clip “Welcome to SVP” - in Swiss-German dialect, with electro music playing in the background - that went viral, with over 900,000 views so far.

Then, a few months later, in February 2016, it was the joint campaign by the left, right and civil society against the so-called enforcement initiative on -foreign criminals that earned the People´s Party a stinging defeat. This time, there was no trendy clip, but rather mobilization and fundraising on social networks, which observers have described as "unprecedented".

Dynamic campaigns

Of course, Switzerland has already had some very dynamic political campaigns, as in 1989, when over one third of citizens voted to abolish the army, and in 1992, when voters refused to join the European Economic Area (EEA) by a hair’s breadth. Yet at that time there was no web and no mobile phones. "Regarding the EEA, more than 10% of those who voted had also physically taken part in a campaign event", remembers Golder.

"This is an all-time record, and it meant that political mobilization was also very visible in the streets. Back then, television was the mass medium par excellence. While still important today, it is gradually losing ground."

Social networks are taking over as the new mass medium. However, as a mass medium it is paradoxically also very individual, as people can withdraw into their information "bubble", where they see only the content that interests them and read only the opinions of people who think like them, according to Golder.

Not so fast!

In a world where the Internet is omnipresent, the advent of wecollect seems a logical consequence. Its founder Daniel Graf, who was formerly secretary of the Green Party in Zurich and a spokesman for Amnesty International, is now committed to the campaign for an unconditional basic income.

With his platform, he is seeking to create a "fast, effective and viral" striking force, using the member lists of left-wing parties and some NGOs. "Anyone who is backed by a dynamic community that can be activated by email has a real gem,” he recently told the Sunday press.

At first glance, all this seems like grist to the mill for direct democracy. By facilitating access to its instruments, the Internet can only make it more dynamic and reactive. However there are risks, which Golder places in the broader context of the acceleration of political processes.

"This evolution began already in the days when television reigned supreme", he notes. "The faster the media get, the quicker politics must react. However, Swiss politics is not known for its high speed of reaction, as it is founded on the search for compromise, which can take years."

New dimension

"With a tool like wecollect, we are again entering a new dimension", he continues. "If collecting signatures becomes very easy and inexpensive, we will witness a further acceleration, with the growing risk that trivial questions are put forward, or texts that have not been properly thought through, as the authors didn’t have time to ponder all the eventualities." Not to mention the fact that a proliferation of initiatives could make politics unnavigable, both for citizens and the media, which still plays a key role in explaining issues and putting them into perspective.

Whatever the case it is early days yet, and Golder is looking forward to seeing where it all leads, while keeping an open mind.
"It is above all a means to raise interest in politics. And with our militia system, especially at the municipal level, which is closest to the citizen, this is going to make a big difference for our country."

Marc-Andrè Miserez is journalist at our hosting media partner SWIssinfo where this piece was published first. Translated from French by Julia Bassam.