This week’s democracy newsletter: the picture painted by recent democracy rankings, and the aftermath of the Swiss “burka ban” vote.This content was published on March 11, 2021 - 19:18
India – a sinkhole for the democratic world?
For almost 75 years, India – the mega-state in South Asia of almost 1.4 billion people – has borne the proud title of “The World’s Biggest Democracy”. As part of an independent federal election commission, established to oversee free and fair elections in this diverse nation, I observed for many years the integrity with which Indian citizens went about the process of electing their leaders. In spite of all its weaknesses and inequalities, India managed to prove to the whole world – and especially to its autocratic neighbour to the north, China – that size and democracy can and should be combined. A powerful expression of this were the (at least) five peaceful transitions of powers which India managed since 1947.
But for now, this democracy saga seems to be stagnating. For the first time, all the key ranking institutes assessing the “global state of democracy” have downgraded India from “electoral democracy” to “electoral autocracy”. Since a first election victory in 2014, Indian Prime Minister Narenda Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has promoted a Hindu-nationalist agenda, incompatible with key freedoms for the media, academia and civil society. Furthermore, the famous independence of the national election management body has been curtailed, while widespread censorship has limited the freedom of expression.
Unfortunately India is only the latest – and largest – example of an ongoing democratic decline which researchers at the three main democracy ranking institutions have identified. 2020, these institutes agree, was a specifically “bad year” for democracy, as the backsliding was reinforced by the pandemic, enabling executives in many countries to limit freedoms. While a host of big nations, including the US, Brazil and – as noted above – India, have fuelled this trend, many smaller countries – including Switzerland – have done better. Hopeful democratic developments are also reported from Ecuador, South Korea, Taiwan and Malawi. Plus: the biggest progress has been made on the subnational level and when it comes to participatory and direct democratic rights.
- Visit out our updated focus page on measuring democracy worldwide with all the essential links, rankings and comparisons of people power globally
- The 2021 “Varieties of Democracy” reportExternal link, entitled, “Autocratization turns viral”, which was published this week
- In a panel this weekExternal link, V-Dem Director Staffan Lindberg discussed the new findings with Larry Diamond (US), Yuko Kasuya (Japan) and Sandra Botero (Colombia)
Unveiled – from minarets to burkas
In Switzerland last Sunday, during the first round of national votes this year, a small majority of citizens said “yes” to a ban on facial coverings – including the Muslim burka and niqab – in public spaces. It’s the second time in just over a decade the country has held a public vote on symbols of Islamic faith, after a ban on the construction of minarets back in 2009. It’s also the second time the right-wing “Egerkinger Committee” (who collected signatures to launch both votes) has managed to achieve success with a religious- and identity-based campaign.
But with all the similarities between the two votes, it’s also interesting to wonder why there was such a difference in the results. Whereas 57.5% came out a decade ago against minarets – symbols of Islam generally – “just” 51.2% expressed an aversion to the burka, a symbol (as campaigners said repeatedly during the campaign) of a more extreme and patriarchal form of Islam. And with the right-wing anti-burka camp boosted this time by some liberal feminists as well as some progressive Muslims, in theory the burka ban could easily have been more resoundingly accepted than it was (and as early opinion polls predicted it would be).
Was the 2009 vote more a question of protest, a “lightning rod” (as the NZZ newspaper wrote External linkat the time) to show the political establishment that the people were worried about Islam? Has a certain part of the population moved away from such a populist “illusion of participation” (as the Le Temps paper wrote External linkin 2009) that drove the resounding rejection of minarets? Has Switzerland in fact become slightly less wary of Islam over the past decade (just a few votes in the other direction and the tone of things this week would be very different)? Or was it that the other defining feature of this vote (beyond Islam), the question of female bodies and dress codes, added another dimension of discord to the menu?
We’ll have to wait a bit before a post-vote analysis can throw more light on how various parts of the population – gender, political affiliation, age etc. – voted. But it’s an interesting thought experiment: how would the Swiss have voted in 2021 had the ballot been once again about minarets, rather than burkas?
- Political philosopher Katja Gentinetta explainsExternal link why a liberal feminist stance led her to vote “yes” last Sunday (in German)
- Though international reactions this time seemed more muted than in 2009, the Office of the UN Commissioner for Human Rights called the burka ban a “restriction of fundamental freedoms”
- From the archives: how SWI swissinfo reported on the acceptance of the minaret ban in 2009
Also on the radar
Face coverings weren’t the only thing on ballot papers last week: at the national level, voters also threw out a proposal by government to introduce a new electronic identification (eID) system which would have allowed citizens to more easily and uniformly log in online. Meanwhile, a free trade agreement with Indonesia just scraped past the post.
Both results will have ramifications: the first will put pressure on the government and federal authorities to step up their game when it comes to digitalisation, an area where they often take flak. And on the free trade issue, as our SWI colleague Jessica Davis-Plüss recently wrote, the government is going to have to consider in future the possibility that voters will be keeping a close eye on trade accords signed with distant – and possibly dubious – nations.
Also last Sunday, at the cantonal and local level, voters in Zurich accepted that in future, the nationality of criminal suspects will be published by police reports; voters in Geneva said “yes” to granting more emergency Covid-19 funding to low-income earners; and voters in Bern said “no” to allowingExternal link shops open more often on Sundays. And so, in the Swiss capital, the Sabbath will remain a day of rest for each weekend of the year bar two...