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Minarets in Switzerland: The Dilemmas of Public Opinion

Sina Odugbemi's picture

The leaders of Switzerland have a ticklish problem, one of the most difficult problems in political thought and practice. A clear majority of the Swiss have just voted to ban the construction of minarets in Switzerland. 57.5 per cent of voters in 22 out of 26 cantons voted  in the recent referendum to approve the ban. According to press reports, under Swiss law the ban will be added to the Constitution. Now, that is a major development, and, as you must know, the referendum result has proved controversial...to put it mildly. The impact will be felt for years to come. But I am not going to get into the issue. The Swiss have to sort this one out. What I am interested in is the fact that the leaders of government and business in Switzerland do not regard the referendum decision a wise one. According to the justice minister, Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, while the referendum result 'reflects fears among the population of Islamic fundamentalist tendencies' and the concerns 'have to be taken seriously' still 'The Federal Council takes the view that a ban on construction of new minarets is not a feasible means of countering extremist tendencies'.

So, here is the question that has divided political philosophers for a long time: Under what conditions should public opinion create obligations for those who govern? Put another way, the question is: Should leaders lead or follow public opinion? Or as a British wit once put it during an assault on Tony Blair when public opinion opposed the Iraq war: Is our leader our bitch or our boss?

Liberal democrats tend to say 'yes'. Leaders should yield to public opinion, but they push for efforts to create an educated electorate and one that is fully informed on public matters. Conservatives tend to say 'no'. They are totally sceptical of public opinion. They argue that the true test of leadership is being able to stand up to public opinion when it is right to do so.  But who decides when it is right to do so?

In his History of Western Philosophy, Bertrand Russell frames the problem as a tussle between two ideas regarding who should govern a political community: the people themselves or unelected Platonic Guardians, a committee of the wise or the great and the good. The truth is that most  constitutional democracies have hybrid systems.  Representative democracy already insulates decision making from the direct impact of public opinion. Elected leaders and legislators have to worry about public opinion because another election is always around the corner, but they can take decisions that are not necessarily popular for a time if they think it is in the overall public interest to do so. In addition,  certain decisions are deliberately left to unelected committees of the 'wise', modern versions of Platonic Guardians. So, you have Supreme Courts able to take major decisions without worrying too much about public opinion; and you have  independent Central Banks able to set interest rates on purely technical grounds. Such bodies are designed resist  the gales and tumults of public opinion...and they play major roles in constitutional democracies.

The problem with constitutional referendums or  citizen initiatives is that the people themselves can decide directly  in political systems with such constitutional devices.There is no revising chamber - like the Senate - to impose a pause for reflection.  And can 'We the People' sometimes take stupid decisions? Yes, we can.

Photo Credit: Flickr user roel1943

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