Swiss democracy unexceptional compared to other countries

Switzerland is not the democracy par excellence as thought, but only a mediocre one and ranks fourteenth when compared with twenty-nine established democracies. These are the finding of the democracy barometer, a new instrument for measuring the quality of democracy developed at the University of Zurich and the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB).

According to the democracy barometer, Denmark has the highest quality of democracy, followed by Finland and Belgium. These countries best fulfill the functions of democracy – selected from the areas freedom, equality and control – analyzed by the democracy barometer. As outlined at a University of Zurich press conference, the democracy barometer measures nine quality indicators: the protection of personal freedom from infringements by third parties, especially the state; the rule of law; an active citizenship; transparency; participation; representation; political competition; a system of checks and balances; and the ability to implement democratic decisions. The comparison of thirty established democracies between 1995 and 2005 also revealed that the democracies in Poland, South Africa and Costa Rica are the lowest in quality.

Marc Bühlmann from NCCR Democracy at the University of Zurich explained why Switzerland only averaged out at a disappointing fourteenth place in the eleven-year study: Switzerland is a model country when it comes to satisfying the criteria of personal liberties, an active citizenship, competition and governmental capability. However, the system of checks and balances, transparency and partici-pation are only very poorly implemented. In Switzerland, the legislature is insufficiently able to control the executive branch, the judiciary’s independence is weak compared to other democracies, there is no transparent party financing, and – as of 2005 – no effective legal guarantee for the freedom of information.

Free and unequal

Moreover, political participation in both elections and referendums is very low. “Political involvement across the social stratification in Switzerland is particularly uneven,” stress the two project leaders Prof. Wolfgang Merkel (Berlin) and Marc Bühlmann (Zurich). A large part of the Swiss population does not engage in politics and those who do are primarily educated, well-off, older and dispropor-tionately male. Switzerland is further away than most other democracies from the ideal of a democ-racy of political equals in which all citizens are politically active and their interests and values are ad-dressed equally in the political arena. “Overall, it appears that while Switzerland has implemented the principle of freedom well, the principle of political equality is distinctly lacking,” concludes Bühlmann.

The democracy barometer can also be used to illustrate developments over time. And, here, the out-come for Switzerland looks brighter: the constitutional revision of 1999 in particular, but also some progress regarding transparency and participation catapulted Switzerland from nineteenth place in 1995 to ninth in 2005. Switzerland is also the nation in the group of countries studied that exhibits the most striking positive development in the quality of its democracy.

Country comparison (average quality of democracy 1995-2005)

Country Quality of democracy
Denmark 88.3
Finland 87.7
Belgium 85.1
Iceland 83.5
Sweden 82.9
Norway 82.1
Canada 79.4
Netherlands 79.0
Luxembourg 75.2
USA 74.9
Germany 73.2
New Zealand 72.1
Slovenia 69.6
Switzerland 67.8
Ireland 67.0
Portugal 66.7
Spain 66.6
Australia 65.5
Hungary 63.2
Austria 63.1
Czech Republic 58.2
Italy 57.0
Cyprus 55.5
Malta 54.2
Japan 45.8
Great Britain 44.6
France 42.8
Poland 42.0
South Africa 39.8
Costa Rica 32.7