(MENAFN – Swissinfo) Under emergency rule, the Swiss government has taken control in guiding the nation’s response to Covid-19. As parliament prepares to return to work, digital democracy activist Daniel Graf discusses how the crisis will impact participatory politics in the future.
swissinfo.ch: Both parts of Swiss semi-direct democracy, the people and parliament, have been ruled out by viruses. How big is this problem for democracy?
Daniel Graf: People in Switzerland generally believe that the government is doing its best to resolve the crisis while considering citizens’ concerns. There was a public debate about the steps, but there was no feeling that something was wrong. However, we do not see behind the scenes at Bern, where steps are being tracked quickly and heavily influenced by lobbyists. Normally, citizens will have oversight of decisions such as the aviation sector bailout, and even if they cannot choose it, they can show it against it. But even demonstrating on the street is not a choice now.
swissinfo.ch: Can parliament be more digitally involved?
D.G .: Before, when we started talking about digitalization, nobody listened, especially in the parliament itself. His thinking is always to protect the status quo, to keep things as they really are. Now it is clear that this is a topic that needs to be discussed. It’s hard to believe that the main institution of our society cannot carry out its core oversight function without physically being in Bern. We need a new way of thinking about how parliament works. Digitalization will become a priority in the coming months.
Daniel Graf (born 1973) is an activist and campaigner for democracy for initiatives and referendums. In 2015 he founded the WeCollect democracy platform, which will be converted into a non-partisan, non-profit foundation in June. Together with Maximilian Stern, he is the co-author of the book “Agenda for Digital Democracy” (2018). He lives with his family in Basel.
swissinfo.ch: What does digitalization look like?
D.G .: The main point is that this isn’t just about video conferencing. And it’s not just copying what’s happening offline to an online platform. The beauty is that you can develop digital systems according to new goals – making citizens more involved, for example. Parliament is very old-fashioned in the sense that you have to be there to participate; technology can open this. More transparency around who meets and talks with whom is also possible. But this is what always leads to pushback. Parliament is like an old castle, full of dark corners and rooms, with only a lucky few allowed to enter. Many do not want this to change.
swissinfo.ch: E-voting is still out of control, including for the national elections in September. Will it return to the agenda after coronavirus?
D. G. .: What we have learned from this crisis is that trust is the highest value in democracy. In Switzerland, this also applies to sound. People believe that the results are accurate – this is why you never see a protest in Bern after the results are announced. The security flaws found in the e-voting system last year made it clear that it would be a bad choice to proceed with launching them on a large scale. I would say the real barriers are higher now than before, because trust has proven to be very important.
swissinfo.ch: Will the crisis cause more people to give up privacy – in the form of a contact tracking application for example?
D.G .: With the contact tracking application, we talk about fundamental privacy. Not just accepting to be tracked online; it expresses where you are physically, who you meet. As for the technology, it will usually take months or years to develop, but we will probably use it on a large scale soon. If the health situation remains serious, people might take risks. But now the trend seems to be going in the opposite direction; when the curve flattens, and we move away from extreme results, people become more critical.
swissinfo.ch: Will we see an increase in digital campaigns by political parties over the next few months, because the rules of social distance mean they cannot arrange large meetings?
D.G. I think there will only be a small effect on the campaign. Here, the world remains more or less the same before and after coronavirus. But perceptions will shift about the collection of electronic signatures for initiatives and referendums. Before closing, electronic gathering was not much talked about. Now this is very problematic, especially because e-voting – previously the only thing the government wants to consider – is sluggish. The drive for e-collection can be one of the best outcomes of a pandemic, from a democratic point of view.
swissinfo.ch: Such crises can reveal fundamental gaps and problems in society and democracy. What appeared in you all this time?
D.G .: Perceptions about our democratic system will slowly but surely change. Previously, the idea was that the Swiss system worked so well, that nothing needed to be changed. We will begin to realize that we need to adapt it sustainably, using technology, just as we adapt other areas of our lives. Switzerland tends to regard its democratic system as a stepping stone; This crisis shows that some of its tools need to be more flexible.
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By Urs Geiser
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