Each time there is a cantonal election in Geneva I am pleased and astonished at the system. It works. Ballots are sent out on time and eligible citizens can vote by mail, electronically or in person. Like a reputable Swiss watch, everything worked again this time. There were only minor complaints of irregularities. (I am still traumatized from the 2000 Bush vs. Gore Florida recount.) All this confirms Switzerland’s recognized position as an exemplary democracy.
Nonetheless, closer examination shows that following the election and before the swearing-in, the democratic process started to break down in two significant ways. The future Conseil d’Etat met several times to decide on the attribution of the departments and who will be the president. We know Switzerland has a long history of citizen participation in the legislative branch through checks and balances by referendums and initiatives, but the activities of the cantonal executive branch in these meetings showed a democratic deficit. The seven future members of the executive met behind closed doors; decisions were made about the future functioning of the Geneva government with only the interested parties present.
There are seven members of the Geneva executive because there are seven departments. When voting in the election, citizens were asked to select the candidates without any reference to which department the person would head if elected. In other words, we voted for individuals with no knowledge about which department the elected would lead. The law says that the elected officials decide among themselves. Really? With no citizen input? Is this direct democracy?
How many citizens voted for a candidate thinking that that person is eminently qualified for a specific job? How many Genevese voted for Micheline Spoerri or Isabel Rochat in previous elections thinking they might eventually head the Department of Security? How many people voted for Nathalie Fontanet this time hoping that she would not have to lead that department and suffer the same unfortunate fate as her predecessors?
Based on seniority, the Geneva elected officials chose among themselves the different department assignments. We, the citizens had no say. In the United States, not often cited these days as a democratic example, there is a democratic oversight by the Congress of major executive choices. The legislative branch must confirm the President’s choices for ministers. In Geneva, as well as in the other cantons as well as at the federal level, citizens have no say about which official will head which department. Since the legislative branch also has no say, this system is not even indirectly democratic.
The second puzzling element of the election is the naming of the departments themselves. Once the seven Conseillers d’Etat were elected, they chose among themselves the various functions each department would have as well as the department’s title. So the seven elected officials decided among themselves without checks and balances which departments they wanted to lead as well as the titles of and activities within each department.
Not only is this changing denomination process undemocratic since there is no consultation, it is also expensive in terms of changing offices and letterheads. Why in one legislature are economy and health in the same department and not in future legislatures? Are the designations and names and functions of departments solely up to the executive branch? Hello democracy!
Switzerland prides itself as an example of best democratic practices, the bastion of direct democracy. The above two elements in the electoral process appear to be fundamentally undemocratic with absolutely no checks and balances by citizens or other elected officials. The assumption is that those elected should have the freedom to make choices, a freedom which, to these democratic eyes, appears to be democratically deficient.