Switzerland worries about voter apathy

Switzerland, the country where citizens have a direct say in everything from raising taxes to vivisection, is worried about voter apathy.

According to a survey by Swiss political scientist Thanh-Huyen Ballmer-Cao, around one out of five Swiss finds politics completely is ''inexplicable'' and never bothers to vote. Only 38 percent of the voting population go to the polls consistently, she concludes.

What is going on?

Here's a country that offers the average person a virtually unparalleled political influence . . . and yet it has a problem with voter apathy.

Between 1947 and the last Swiss federal election in 1979, voter participation dropped from 72.4 percent to 48.1 percent. During the same period the number of voters turning up for the country's frequent national referendums sank from 61.7 percent to 44.5 percent. State referendums now show a grim voter participation average of 20 to 25 percent, and community votes have fallen as low as 9 percent.

Admittedly Swiss are called to the voting hall a lot. Of the more than 550 referendums on national issues held in the world since 1793, more than 300 have been in Switzerland. Add to this the hundreds of regional and community votes.

Any Swiss citizen who gathers 50,000 signatures can challenge a law that has passed through federal parliament, forcing a nationwide vote. Recently parliament passed a law improving conditions for foreign workers. It was challenged in a referendum and thrown out by the people.

If 100,000 signatures are collected, any reasonable issue can be brought before the electorate. An average of 11 such people's initiatives are handed in to the responsible federal government department each year. They range from restrictions on construction of nuclear power plants and introduction of a 40 -hour working week to banning cars from the roads on Sundays.

Why do such a large number of Swiss not vote? Swiss researchers have come up with a package of reasons.

* Votes are too frequent. In a recent survey, 75 percent of those interviewed said that ''there are too many.''

* Doing away with compulsory voting. The small canton of Schaffhausen on the West German border regularly records the highest voter participation in the country. It is the only canton left where voters get fined for not turning up at the polls without an excuse. The fine, though a modest Sfr 3 francs ($1.40), does the trick. A 70 percent participation rate is not unusual.

* A feeling that they cannot get on top of complicated issues which Swiss voters often have to decide.

* Today's small family is inward oriented, with an emphasis on the individual. ''Privatism'' is uppermost, with little interest in political activities as long as society provides the family with a satisfactory environment. Surveys have shown that on the value ladder politics comes well below profession, education, entertainment, and relaxation.

* Swiss politics are dull. There is no excitement in studying bulky referendum issues and voting for peaceful, compromise politicians.

What to do about voter apathy? Experts suggest more education in schools, fewer but clearer laws, simple explanations of issues in official publications, and more education through television.

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