Sharing experiences of democracy

Earlier this month youth leaders from 15 Lebanese political parties (pictured) travelled with International Alert to Switzerland to learn about the Swiss experience of democracy.

The trip, which included representatives from a broad range of political parties in Lebanon, focused on how the Swiss manage plurality in politics and governance.

In preparation for the trip the group met in Beirut to talk with Switzerland’s Secretary of the Bern Canton, who gave them an introduction to the Swiss political system. This focused on the country’s system of direct democracy, whereby the Swiss vote quarterly on issues that affect them, from the local to federal level.

In Switzerland the group met with representatives from the government and other political experts to explore and reflect as a group on the Swiss experience of democracy. This included managing conflict in a plural society, by looking at the example of the Jura Canton, which seceded from the majority German-speaking Canton of Bern in the 1970s. They met with politicians from the Bernese Jura and Canton of Jura, to hear views on possible solutions for the region, and also those from a federally appointed fact finding commission that is tasked with exploring the different needs and options for the people concerned.

What was particularly interesting about these discussions was the opportunity for the group to learn about the processes and mechanisms in place for people to collaborate to find solutions for the future of the region. These are elaborate and engage citizens in the decision-making process, and focus on key issues such as economic development, minority rights and plurality.

In Bern the group met with Emeritus Professor Wolf Linder and Dr Andrea Iff of swisspeace, who discussed the evolution of the Swiss political system, its values and how it works – including its strengths and weaknesses. Then in Basel the group got to hear from Professor Georg Kreis on managing narratives of history in a plural society and from Professor Irene Palmieri-Herrmann on the conditions that allowed the formulation of the Swiss system, underlining its uniqueness and potential shortcomings.

Some of the key themes raised during the trip included the question of a gradual formation of democratic governance systems; the importance of an inclusive process and consensual decision-making; the significance of discouraging a winner-takes-all approach to politics – particularly as today’s majority may be tomorrow’s minority; the importance of political debate focusing on issues rather than identities; the decentralisation of decision-making to the lowest possible level; and the need to build consensus in order to move forward as a country.

The trip was part of Alert’s ongoing project to encourage more peaceful approaches to politics on Lebanon. Find out more about this work here

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