Coping With the “Power of Towers”

In November 2009, 57.5% of Swiss voters, in a fit of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiment, accepted a direct-democratic initiative against minarets. Ever since, article 72 para 3 of the Swiss constitution states that “The construction of minarets is prohibited.” Soon after, representatives of Muslim communities in Switzerland took the issue to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg, the supreme court in Europe for such issues. The court issued its verdict in early July of this year (ECHR documents no. 65840/09 and 66274/09).

In a decision many legal experts had expected from the start, the court dismissed the case and left it open whether the Swiss ban on minarets violates the European Convention on Human Rights. This Convention guarantees the freedom of religion and prohibits discrimination of religious communities. The court argued that the complainants were not victims in the sense of the European Human Rights Convention, primarily because they had not been prevented by Swiss authorities from building a minaret in a specific case. A valid case, in the court’s view, would involve a formal request to a local authority for permission to build a minaret, refusal by the respective authority to issue a construction permit, and unsuccessful appeals within the Swiss national legal system. The ruling of the ECHR in the minarets case is clearly in line with the court’s role as a judicial decision-maker in specific cases of suspected human rights violations. The ECHR does not act as a constitutional court that can evaluate and formally invalidate national laws.

The most appropriate (because democratic!) way of getting rid of the shameful and disgraceful provision in the Swiss constitution would be to launch a follow-up initiative. This requires support from 100,000 eligible voters. Such an initiative could propose to reverse the earlier decision and remove the minarets provision from the constitution. It is very unlikely that such an initiative will be launched anytime soon, and its fate, when put to a vote, would be uncertain.

The best approach – from the perspective of opponents of the minarets ban – in the foreseeable future is to take the problem through the courts, rather than democratic politics. In view of the ECHR ruling, this means that someone has to set up a specific construction project for a minaret in Switzerland. After lengthy legal proceedings from local courts all the way to the ECHR, this is likely to leave Switzerland with an “emasculated,” i.e. non-implementable, provision in its constitution. The Swiss constitution may, de jure, still ban the construction minarets. But once the ECHR has approved an appeal in a specific case, local Swiss authorities and courts will be much less likely to refuse construction permits for minarets with reference to the respective provision in the Swiss constitution. The reason is that they know that appeals are very likely to succeed in higher-level courts.

How to set up such a construction project in order to maximize the chances of then winning the legal battle? For an almost guaranteed winner, look at this picture:

This building, including both towers, is real. Trust me! It is located in Chania, the second largest city on the Greek island of Crete. It was first built as a Christian church in 1320. In 1645, it was taken over by the Turks under the Ottoman Empire and converted into a mosque (with a minaret added). In 1918, it was transformed back into an Orthodox Christian church. Unfortunately, the eventual Christian occupants were not interested in sharing the building with Muslims – most of them were in fact deported in the infamous 1923 population exchange between Greece and Turkey. But, interestingly, neither of the two types of occupants dismantled the tower of the other over the centuries.

Inspired by the building in Chania, I would suggest that a Christian and a Muslim congregation in Switzerland join forces and submit a building request for a combined church-mosque with two towers, to be used by both congregations for their respective services and rituals. I find it very hard to imagine what kinds of reasonable and defensible arguments a court could use to prohibit such a project symbolizing mutual religious tolerance, respect, and cooperation.

And if any of the two congregations using the joint church-mosque had, at some later stage, second thoughts about this arrangement, its skeptics could simply take a little walk around the building, as I did in Chania. Amazing, how this can change your perspective!

As a Muslim, you might be pleased to observe the building from this side.

And, as a Christian, from this side…

This, at least to me, appears to be a more civilized way of coping with the “power of towers” than including blatently discriminatory rules in an otherwise wonderful national constitution.


Who should elect the Swiss government? The Swiss People’s Party’s strategy as a boomerang

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) wants Swiss voters to elect the Swiss government (Federal Council) in a direct vote. Today, they submitted a popular initiative, proposing an amendment to the constitution, to the authorities. They were required to collect the signatures of 100,000 citizens for this aim, and now, Swiss voters will be given the opportunity to decide on this proposal in a popular vote in the years to come – unless the party should withdraw its initiative in the meanwhile. As of now, it’s the legislative assembly that elects the government every four years, without any possibility of removing the government from office.

Usually, amendments to the electoral systems are proposed by political parties that expect to profit from such changes. It is not very surprising that the proposition to change the election modus for the Swiss government comes from the Swiss People’s Party. Although the Swiss government is usually composed of a large coalition, and mandates are almost proportionally allocated to the largest parties according to their share of parliamentary seats, in recent elections, the SVP has experienced difficulties to get represented in proportional terms, and/or the parliament refused to elect their official candidates (as they often did, in earlier periods, with Social Democratic candidates).

Surprisingly, however, our analysis shows that the SVP might be an important loser of the change in the electoral rules. In a newspaper article (available in German and in Italian), Karima Bousbah and myself discussed whether the SVP might profit from such a change in the election mode. Therefore, we have analysed the elections of the governments in 22 Swiss cantons, which are already elected directly, according to the same rules as they would apply at the national level. (While in the newspaper articles, we solely report correlation analyses, and some descriptive data, we also used panel data over the last 20 years, in order to understand why and when the SVP manages to win seats in governments, and when not.)

Similarly as at the national level, and despite the direct election by majority rules, cantonal governments are large coalitions, which roughly follow the rules of proportional seat allocation. Only the SVP is severely under-represented, holding 23% of the mandates in cantonal parliaments, but only 14% of the governmental seats. The SVP addresses right-wing, conservative voters, but the position of the party branches used to vary across cantons, especially before a party split in 2008. The most radical branches of the SVP often have difficulties in building alliances to other parties. In order to get their candidates elected under majority vote systems, the SVP relies on the support of the other right-wing parties, the Liberals (FDP) and the Christian Democrats (CVP). Where the SVP has a very pronounced right-wing position, it has difficulties to do so.

Also, young party branches fail to get their candidates into governments. Before the 1990s, the party only existed in a few cantons. Elsewhere, the party has difficulties in finding experienced and credible candidates for governmental positions.

Certainly, dynamics in national elections might be slightly different than in cantonal ones, where public attention is low, and candidates are often unknown to the voters. Nevertheless, we argue that the cantonal elections might be the best available indicator of possible governmental elections at the national level.

So why does the SVP start such an initiative? Most likely, because the other parties are afraid of a direct election of the government, and the initiative serves the SVP as an instrument to receive certain concessions from the other parties, for instance in December this year, when the Swiss Parliament will elect the Federal Council. Probably this won’t be the last indirect election, though.

Swiss Political Science Review now published by Wiley-Blackwell

Starting with volume 17 (2011), the Swiss Political Science Review is published by Wiley-Blackwell, under the editorship of Cédric Dupont and Florence Passy. This is a great development in the professionalization of the flagship publication of the Swiss Political Science Association, which will help to further increase its international visibility and its appeal for scholars not based in Switzerland. A large part of the credit for this accomplishment is due to the former president of the Association, Simon Hug, and to the former editor of the Review, Daniele Caramani. Check it out and consider it for your next publication!

More on suicide rates and support for the gun control initiative

Some readers pointed out (please, leave a comment here next time!) that the relationship between suicide rates and support for the gun control initiative might be spurious. Well, it looks like it is:

Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)
Suicide rate (females) 0.52 0.64 0.81 0.42
Suicide rate (males) -0.09 0.26 -0.32 0.75
German speaking -10.53 2.80 -3.77 0.00
Urbanization 0.09 0.05 1.76 0.09
% Catholics -0.15 0.07 -2.08 0.05
(Intercept) 47.74 11.52 4.15 0.00

However, controlling for urbanization and share of Catholics, there seems to be a correlation between suicide rates and percent of yes to the initiative — but only in non-German-speaking cantons:

Suicide rates and support for the gun control initiative

The gun control initiative was rejected yesterday by more than 56% of voters and in all but 6 cantons. One of the arguments advanced by advocates of the initiative was that stricter gun ownership rules would reduce suicide rates. So, was there more support for the initiative in cantons with higher suicide rates? Surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between approval and female, but not male, suicide rates. The relationship holds after controlling for language region:

Estimate Std. Error t value Pr(>|t|)
Suicide rate (females) 1.94 0.57 3.41 0.00
Suicide rate (males) -0.20 0.29 -0.68 0.50
German speaking -9.36 3.18 -2.94 0.01
(Intercept) 31.86 8.03 3.97 0.00

(OLS regression; dependent variable: % yes; N=26; R2=0.51)

Any ideas how we can explain the difference?

UPDATE: more analyses here.