Cow-Horn Vote Parades Switzerland's Populist Safety Valve

(Bloomberg) -- The Swiss will get another chance to challenge political orthodoxy on Sunday: this time they have cow and goat horns in their sights.

Armin Capaul, an anti-establishment protester-turned farmer, has proposed state subsidies for livestock owners who keep the horns on their cows and goats, saying the practice of de-horning is painful for the animals. The vote is the latest in a series of popular initiatives -- from abolishing the military to granting everyone six weeks holiday -- that give Swiss people the chance to vent their frustrations with the political elite.

Cow-Horn Vote Parades Switzerland's Populist Safety Valve

At a time when populist politicians from the U.S. to Hungary are exploiting a backlash against globalization, Switzerland’s system of direct democracy gives the nation a safety valve. The plebiscites make it easier for populist forces to express themselves -- successful initiatives over the past decade include banning minarets -- but it also makes it easier to integrate them within the country’s consensual political order.

“Clearly, it might seem a bit strange given the big problems the world is facing,’’ said Andreas Ladner, a professor of public administration at the University of Lausanne. “You have debates that don’t take place elsewhere. If you have such an outlet, then people can bring up matters that have been forgotten or suppressed by the system.’’

Cow-Horn Vote Parades Switzerland's Populist Safety Valve

Popular initiatives have been around since 1891, but their number has increased sharply in the last few decades. Voter turnout averaged 45.6 percent last year.

The “Horned Cow’’ initiative is backed by 49 percent of voters, with 46 percent against, according to a Nov. 14 poll for national broadcaster SRG. Opponents, including the government, argue horned cows and goats are a health and safety risk. The majority of cows in Switzerland have had their horns removed.

Cow-Horn Vote Parades Switzerland's Populist Safety Valve

While Swiss voters usually take a pragmatic approach to whimsical initiatives, there is the risk of potentially damaging measures being passed.

In 2014, the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party, which has repeatedly used direct democracy as a campaigning tool, successfully sponsored a vote to curb immigration from the European Union. That threatened to unravel about 120 treaties that underpin Switzerland’s relations with the EU, until lawmakers in Bern agreed to fudge the implementation of the plebiscite result.

Another vote on Sunday, which proposes giving Switzerland’s constitution supremacy over international law, risks fueling nationalist tensions and making it harder to forge a new economic relationship with the EU.

Switzerland’s reputation as a haven of stability and affluence means its system of direct democracy also garners international attention and a degree of legitimacy for unconventional ideas. In June, the nation’s sovereign money initiative turned a spotlight on a plan to dismantle fractional reserve banking, which underpins global financial system.

“They’re a platform for more radical ideas and they do help to increase awareness,’’ said Fran Boait, executive director of Positive Money, which wants to bring the sovereign money system rejected by the Swiss to the U.K. Engagement by the Swiss government and the central bank also makes it “a credible conversation,’’ she said.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.