Sortition in Switzerland

The Swiss news website 24heures has a story about sortition in Switzerland. (Original in French, my translation, corrections welcome.)

And if parliament members were allotted?

Democracy A seminar examines the use of sortition in Switzerland, which some citizens want to implement.

By Caroline Zuercher, 25.10.2017

Antoine Chollet, research professor at UNIL. Photo: Marius Affolter

Allotment is useful not only for selecting the winners in lotteries. A group of citizens, Generation Nomination, wants to use it for selecting our people’s representatives in Berne. In time, they place to launch a initiative to this effect. The mechanism is far from being new having already been used in ancient Greece. An international seminar, on Friday and Saturday at the university of Lausanne is examining exactly these experiences in Switzerland and in Europe.

Sortition has been used in various contexts. And it has not always been synonymous with democracy. Antoine Chollet, teaching assistant in the University of Lausanne, gives and example. In the 18th century Berne used it to name bailiffs and other magistrates, but only the members of noble families participated in the allotment. The goal was therefore about all to share power among the powerful.

Switzerland had more democratic experiences as well. Studies supported by the National Swiss fund for scientific research examined cases in Schwytz and in Glaris. “There, the people demanded allotment in order to reduce the corruption of the elites and to enhance the circle of powerful families”, explains the researcher. In Glaris at the end of the 18 century, for example, the deputies were for allotted among the entire body of citizens. With limited success: “Our research shows that it was transformed into a form of lottery. Those who were selected could resell their post: that was the great prize!”

The idea has reappeared about thirty years ago. Scientists have looked into the subject and their research has been picked up in public debate. Some applications have conducted abroad. In Ireland, an allotted consultative assembly addressed the delicate issue of abortion.

In Switzerland, Génération Nomination proposes using the mechanism for designating national representatives, while the State-level representatives are elected “normally”. The allotted could decline the offered seat. This group, created in 2015, started in a June a call for “commitment to sign”, which should be followed by a legislative initiative.

“In our two-tier society there are more and more who are left out,” argues the group’s coordinator Charly Pache. “That creates malcontent toward our democracy.” Pache is a former member of the Pirate party aims to achieve better distribution of power and new sensibilities for Parliament. “The goal is to diminish the gap between the elected and the citizens and to reduce the power of the lobbies.” Isn’t all this populism? “On the contrary – populism is created by the ambition to be elected.”

At the moment, Génération Nomination is seeking to raise funds and disseminate its ideas. It also promotes an intermediate proposal based on citizen assemblies. These are bodies of allotted citizens that are assembled in order to study a single controversial question of general interest. They then write a report with recommendations for the authorities.

Does all this have a future? “In certain circumstances, sortition can be the right tool,” Antoine Chollet concludes. “But it has to be accompanied by other democratic elements, like rotation of power.” He envisions this mechanism at the local context, or for distributing offices in associations and parties. Allotment would therefore occur within a predetermined list of candidates. And for the National council? “A chamber formed of inexperienced people risks being weak compared to the Council of states or to the Federal administration. But there could be surprises.”

10 Responses

  1. Can anyone tell me why they chose sortition in Berne in the 18th century. I’m interested because I think sortition has general curative properties – as the Venetians seem to have realised. It interdicts a lot of intrigue and projection of power whether the constituency is the populace or some privileged subset. I’ve also argued the merits of something similar in interdicting the way in which preferment and promotion is so tightly associated with self-assertion and careerism.


  2. Chollet claims that the idea was to distribute power more equally among those in the lottery (a small set of powerful families). That makes sense.

    I very much agree with the idea that power in our society has to be wrested away from the hands of the power hungry. “Meritocracy”, however, is so deeply ingrained in our society that it is hard to imagine how things would look like if and when it is purged.


  3. Yoram, why do you feel there is a necessary connection between the hunger for power and meritocracy (with or without scare quotes)? The defining principle of the latter would be competence and this has no obvious link with the hunger for power. It’s true that (pace Manin) it was primarily the search for competent political officials that led to the demise of sortition, but there is no obvious reason for election to be the selection method employed.


  4. With sexism, racism and classism being ideologically on the decline (a decline that is closely associated with electoralism, BTW), “meritocracy” (or equivalently “competence”) are the last refuge of the elitist.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. *** I don’t know the Swiss history, and anyway the use of lot in Switzerland (in what is now Switzerland) appears to have been without serious historical study until recent years. My one source is Chollet (Antoine) “Un tirage au sort mixte: sur quelques exemples oubliés du XVIe au XVIIIe siècle”,
    *** Chollet tells us that sortition may be seen in 18th century in various communities, in oligarchic Bern, in less oligarchic Basel and Schaffhausen, in democratic Glarus, and in the small equalitarian communes of the Grisons, before disappearing from all.
    *** We can first notice that the sortition in Switzerland developed in the beginning of 18th century and later disappeared in the end of 18th century. Therefore we have here a no-linear historical process. Here, we can remind a parallel no-linear process in the thought of High Enlightenment thinkers: interest into sortition, and later vanishing of the idea.
    *** Therefore, I will propose an hypothesis; the interest to sortition by Montesquieu and Rousseau was not purely antiquarian and abstract, it was correlated to ideas getting in the mind of the Enlightenment West, which could not hope practical success in the big States but came their way in the mind of audacious thinkers, and in the practice of small independent communities.
    *** The sortition idea could be entertained with two horizons. First a positive one, a tool for democracy in small States; but not very strong, without the modern idea of representative sample, and generally I think without the analogous idea of rotation. Second, a negative one, against the established powers, of the oligarchizing elites in more democratic communities, and, in oligarchic ones, of the upper established part of the oligarchies. Some say it was used “against corruption”; but you can buy an allotted councilor as an elected one, therefore sortition is useful against established links of corruption, it is the established character which is the point (I think corruptors will usually prefer elections, resulting in stable corruption networks).
    *** At the end of the 18th century and at the beginning of the 19th century, big States were clearly the dominant political morphology, democracy was no more a serious horizon. At the same time the negative use of sortition lost its appeal, the new bourgeois elites aiming power or having won it could no more accept sortition; the time was no more a time for negation of old Establishments, but affirmation of new ones. The sortition idea came out of the mind of the West until last third of 20th century. It could not subsist, even in the more remote valleys of the Grisons, because these communities had not the critical mass allowing for independent political thought. They belonged to the West, and could not stick to an idea which had fallen in the Limbo.
    *** Now, sortition got out of the Limbo, with likewise two horizons. A positive one: democracy-through- minipublics, possible even in big States because of technology and of the representative sample concept. And a negative one, as in Rosanvallon’s polyphony discourse – here sortition is not used against the Established powers, but against the populisms menacing the Established powers.


  6. Yoram,

    I’m not really trying to reconstruct society here – even if I had the power, I wouldn’t have the knowledge to do it responsibly. I’m just suggesting that one can introduce ways of selecting some people for promotion in our society in such a way as to interdict self-assertion.


  7. > I’m not really trying to reconstruct society here – even if I had the power, I wouldn’t have the knowledge to do it responsibly.

    It is not a matter of trying to do it right in one fell swoop. High-stakes points of decision (like a once-in-a-generation constitutional convention) should be avoided. Reconstruction of society should be an ongoing process of experimentation, feedback, learning and correction.


  8. Yoram:> With sexism, racism and classism being ideologically on the decline (a decline that is closely associated with electoralism, BTW),

    Then why are you opposed to electoralism?

    >“meritocracy” (or equivalently “competence”) are the last refuge of the elitist.

    That’s clearly true in the tautological sense (we want the best athletes, (super)models, pilots, flute-players, politicians etc). Why would you want to offer these positions to persons without lacking domain-specific merit?

    Andre:> the interest to sortition by Montesquieu and Rousseau was not purely antiquarian and abstract

    Really? Montesquieu was interested in the spirit of republicanism, monarchy and tyranny, not democracy per se. My understanding also was that Rousseau’s preference was for aristocratic (elected), not democratic (allotted) government.


  9. *** Keith Sutherland writes : “Montesquieu was interested in the spirit of republicanism, monarchy and tyranny, not democracy per se. My understanding also was that Rousseau’s preference was for aristocratic (elected), not democratic (allotted) government. »
    *** Montesquieu was interested in all regimes ; and as he said , rightly, that democracy was not possible in small States, he was not afraid of a democratic mutation in France (he had no idea of the« representative democracy » model – I think it cannot be found in French thinking before Robespierre).
    *** As for Rousseau,we must beware the meaning of word in specific writers. Rousseau has a specific meaning of “democracy”, he uses for system where the dêmos exercizes more or less directly the executive power. He does not accept any system where the people is not sovereign, and he considers sovereignty as identical to legislative power, issuing general rules, including the rules establishing the executive power, or « government », which issues punctual decisions. For executive power, Rousseau prefers « elective aristocracy », considering however mixed systems, therefore possibly systems using sortition for some bodies (he considers specially judiciary bodies).
    *** What I was saying is that sortition in the middle of 18th century had some presence in the intellectual world ; and when high thinkers as Montesquieu or Rousseau considered it, that was in relationship with antiquity, sure, but partly likewise with the real or possible use in some contemporary little States.
    *** Coming back to Rousseau’ thought, the dual system of « legislation » and « government » had sense in a static society. Rousseau, living at the edge of modernity, was a great thinker of the Ancient Times. In Modern Times, with permanent change, the political power in a dynamic society must be seen differently. A modern sovereign, the sovereign people for instance, must consider the situation in a specific field – let’s say energy, or internet regulation, or migration -, then deciding the policy, then issuing the new rules corresponding to the policy and choosing the men or bodies enforcing it. For the last step in a democracy (in the meaning of sovereignty of the people) may occur elections (for managers, I think ; and sortition for overseeing bodies). The basic step, in a dynamic society, is choosing the policy answering to a problem which usually will be new, at least with some parameters which are new. Rousseau did not have that in mind.


  10. […] As in previous years, French speaking countries showed the most noticeable moves toward seeing sortition as a way to redistribute significant political power. In France, two of the three most successful presidential candidates in the 2017 elections, including the winner, Emmanuel Macron, were politicians who made sortition part of the political agenda. In November, La France insoumise allotted members of its constitutional convention. Sortition was also discussed, again and again in French media. Proposals for using sortition in Belgium and Switzerland received some attention. […]


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