Direct Democracy: a Risk or an Opportunity for Multicultural Societies? The Experience of the Four Swiss Multilingual Cantons

Nenad Stojanović

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Does direct democracy tend to endanger or to protect minorities in multicultural countries? The response to this question has been controversial. Some scholars believe that direct democracy may result in “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.

Suggested bibliographic reference for this article:

Stojanović, Nenad. Direct Democracy: a Risk or an opportunity for Multicultural Societies? The Experience of the Four Swiss Multilingual Cantons. IJMS: International Journal on Multicultural Societies. 2006, vol.8, no.2, pp. 183-202. UNESCO. ISSN 1817-4574.


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