Swiss Democracy: Possible Solutions to Conflict in Multicultural Societies

alt Wolf Linder
Published by: St. Martin’s Press Inc., New York, 1998
ISBN: 10: 0333715624 13: 978-0333715628

Reviewed by: Hussein Solomon
In Conflict Trends Issue 4 of 2000

It is often asserted that we live in a globalising world and that our planet increasingly represents a ‘global village’. Witness the increasing prominence of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in national economies, or the rise of such regional blocs as the European Union, the Association of South East Asian Nations, or the Economic Community of West African States. In essence, globalisation is characterised by convergence at the socio-cultural, political and economic levels.

However, one of the most puissant contradictions of the current epoch, is that such convergence coexists with divergence based on identity and difference. Religious fundamentalism, virulent nationalism and ethnicity all form part of this divergence. It was divergence that caused the painful disintegration of former Yugoslavia. It was this divergence that pitted Indonesian against Timorese nationalism, and it was this divergence that, at the time of writing, resulted in Philippine Muslims kidnapping foreign tourists to be used as hostages and bar- gaining chips to pressurise their government for a separate Muslim homeland.

Africa, too, has not been immune from the politics of identity and exclusion: Angola has seen Ovimbundu versus Mbundu; Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and Burundi continue a macabre dance of death; Senegal and the Comoros have been plagued by strong separatist movements in Casamance and Anjouan; Mozambique has witnessed Shangaan pitted against Ndau; Islamic militants have been active from Khartoum to Kaduna; and Christian fundamentalism, in the form of the Lord’s Resistance Army, continues to ravage northern Uganda. Further complicating the African situation are the inherited colonial borders, which have resulted in few post – independence African states being homogeneous in character. Exacerbating such differences are deteriorating economies that have resulted in greater alienation, and have pitted one group against another, as seen in recent fighting between Ijaw and Itsekeri youth in the Delta State of Nigeria.

For most African States, then, the challenge is how to manage such differences, and at the same time, build an overarching construct of citizenship. This is where Wolf Linder’s book is so useful. Linder provides a critical dissection of Swiss democracy in theory and practice, and illustrates its relevance to other multicultural societies struggling to manage such differences. Switzerland is a country characterised by cultural, linguistic, religious and regional diversity. As a country, it has existed for more than 700 years. What accounts for this success? According to the author, it is because the Swiss have, over the years, developed unique institutions aimed at minimising any conflict emanating from such differences. Consider the following, ‘First, Switzerland renounced the idea of creating a one-culture, one language nation-state. Second, the Swiss were able to develop a type of democracy that favours and enforces political power-sharing between Protestants and Catholics, between the German-speaking majority and French-, Italian and Romansch-speaking minorities, and between organised employers and trade unions. This has led to social integration, peaceful conflict resolution by negotiation, and national consensus amongst a once- fragmented and heterogenous population’ (p. xviii).

Linder also notes how ordinary citizens are involved in the decision-making processes. For example, the author highlights how Swiss citizens not only participate in parliamentary elections, but also vote and ratify parliamentary decisions of major importance. In this way, all feel ownership of the political institutions, processes and outcomes. This Swiss form of direct democracy, in my view, would also resonate very well with traditional forms of African governance.

Importantly, Linder stresses that it is not the formal design of the institutions alone, but also the underlying political culture, that makes consensus democracy work. Consequently, for African policy-makers, the challenge is not only the construction of more inclusive institutions which reflect the needs and concerns of all citizens. The challenge is also to change attitudes so that citizens respect difference and are aware of their rights and responsibilities in a democracy, and act accordingly. Of course, Swiss consociational democracy cannot simply be imported to African soil, especially given the specificity of the conditions prevailing on the continent. This is not what the author suggests. However, the Swiss experience is fascinating and holds some valuable insights for African scholars and policy-makers. The book’s lucid style and its various tables, boxes and figures all contribute to a highly enjoyable and thought provoking read.

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