IRI Europe's Briefing Tour to Switzerland, June 10-15 (2010)

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Last days of the Swiss Briefing Tour

Politforum coordinator, Michael Fritsche giving a brief history of the tower we had our meetings in
Lukas Golder talking about polls and opinion gathering in the country

By Johanna Herman

So the Swiss Briefing Tour is now officially over, a lot was learned and discovered, both people and places. The second to last day was spent in Bern, the capital of the country of Switzerland. We met with multiple people at the Politforum office, which is housed in an old tower in the city of Bern that was once a prison for criminals in the city. We were first introduced to the organization, given a brief history of the tower as well as the use of the tower now, to house political groups and meetings to help further different political ideas. Although it is a government building, it is free to use by any group who wants to discuss or exhibit any political issue. We next heard from Lukas Golder who works for a company that conducts polls throughout the country. He also further discussed the differences between how the people use referendums and initiatives in the country. The Swiss minaret vote was discussed and how polls showed it would fail, but in actuality it passed. The reason for this was that no polls are done in the last ten days before the vote and that many people did not indicate their real opinion when called up by a pollster.

Bruno Kaufmann introducing Michael Reiterer, the EU ambassador to Switzerland
The Swiss Chancellor, Corina Casanova, explains how the chancellery works in the Swiss government
The European Union ambassador to Switzerland, Michael Reiterer, was next to come and talk to the group. He talked about the roll Switzerland plays in the larger European view as well as the dependencies the Swiss people have on the EU. He talked about the potential upcoming Citizens Initiative, which would allow citizens from multiple European countries to petition for an issue to be discussed by the European Parliament. This initiative process is far weaker than the Swiss model, but it is seen as a stepping stone into introducing more democracy on the European level. He also talked further about how more democratic means could be introduced on the European level and the issues that are faced by politician working for the EU. Daniel Schwarz then came in to discuss an online method of simplifying the candidate elections throughout the country. His company compiles the information on where different politicians stand on issues and helps voters make a more informed decision by selecting politicians that are similar to their ideals. Due to the large amount of candidates on all levels of government, it is hard for residents to choose the members of their government, this method makes it easier to make an informed decision. The last person to speak to us was Hans-Urs Wili, who is the administrator of initiatives and referendums in the country. He has been at his post for 35 years, each time appointed by the new government to stay at his post. He gave a brief history of democracies in the world, noting that those few other countries that have adopted the Swiss system do not have a functioning direct democracy system like Switzerland. He also introduced the group to the idea of the counterproposal. Where the government would, if they do not like the proposed idea presented to them, they would offer a counter idea, something similar to the original but a little different, and propose that be approved instead. It is a flexible way for the government to work and allows for enabling more issues to get approved by the government.

The group then went to visit the Parliament building where we listened in on both houses as they discussed, and voted on, different issues. We also met Andi Gross again and the current proposed treaty between the USA and Switzerland regarding bank secrecy was the main topic of discussion. At dinner, a sum up and evaluation was held in between courses. Members of the group highlighted the points that interested them the most, what they learned and the objective to help further goals to try to implement changes back home where possible. All agreed the trip was informative and enjoyable, with Bruno offering the best services and tour coordinator could do.

The last day of the tour was just a meeting in the morning with the Federal Chancellor, Corina Casanova. She briefly talked about the role of the chancellery in the government, the different duties she and her staff attend to as well as her role in the cabinet. Other members of the group asked her questions, she asked a few of her own too. The issue of transparency in the US system, as opposed to the Swiss system was an interesting item brought to attention, as well as the campaign add ban. With the end of the meeting, the tour was officially over. Members said their goodbyes, leaving with promises to see them again at the San Fransisco Conference on Global Democracy. A lot was learned during the short trip and understanding everything fully will still take a few days. With that in mind, overall it was a wonderful experience and a great opportunity to be a part of the group.

Days Three and Four of the Swiss Briefing Tour

A brief history given by Andi Gross on the history of Direct Democracy in Switzerland
Lunch with the former mayor of Rapperswil, Walter Domeisen

By Johanna Herman

Day three was spent in the city of Rapperswil-Jona, two cities that decided to merge to meet mutual benefits offered by the other. In the morning we got to listen to Andi Gross, a member of the swiss Parliament who talked about the history of Direct Democracy in Switzerland and mostly concentrated on the Swiss Parliament and how democracy grew in the country. Lots of questions were asked by members about parties in Switzerland as well as comparing the system to California and how things differ and if they are for better or worse. Lunch was then had with the former mayor of Rapperswil, he mainly talked about democracy locally in the city and the history of the city and neighbor Jona. He then went on to explain how the two cities merged and what benefit democracy achieved and how it was accomplished.

Adrian Schmid talked about Lucerne ballot issues and campaigning at the top of Mt. Rigi
Toni Aschwanden talked about the Alpine Initiative
The group then headed up into the mountains where we stopped at Mount Rigi and met Adrian Schmid who talked to us a bit about Lucerne and the vote they had on Sunday. He also talked about his political history and issues that he has dealt with while working in the city government. Day three ended with a long trip down the other side of the mountain via a cable car and across a lake by boat to get to the beautiful city of Lucerne.

Day four began with a trip to the only ballot station in Lucerne, most people mail their ballots in before hand, where we saw a few older residents dropping off their ballots. We then got to sit and hear about the Alpine Initiative, a measure the government of Switzerland did not think would pass but did so with great enthusiasm. The initiative called for a timeline to reduce the amount of truck transporting goods across the Alps for environmental reasons and switch the cargo to the rail lines instead. Although the initiative passed, it has been a larger undertaking then first imagined and has taken the government longer to implement than foreseen.

Our group then headed to Bern, the last city on our agenda, where we got a wonderful walking tour of the city that was conducted by Claude Longchamp, who also gave us a comprehensive history lesson about the country including how democracy was started, the wars that preceded it and how it developed. He used the various important historical buildings to tell his story, adding a rich element to the history. Although it was a long walk, it was very informative and interesting. Another day ends and two more are left to learn about the democratic process in the country of Switzerland.

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Participants on the tour include:

Johanna Herman and Chase Lindsay participated in the trip for Ballotpedia.

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