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Democracy under Pressure

The 10th edition of the Aarau Democracy Days is dedicated among other things to looking into the effects of digitalization on democracy. In his essay, UZH political science scholar Uwe Serdült discusses the potential of digitalization to change our day-to-day political life. He makes the case for using the opportunities of digital democracy in a constructive way.
Uwe Serdült
How will digitalization change our day-to-day political life? (Image:


Digital democracy has been a part of Switzerland’s daily political business for quite a while already. More and more cantons are offering e-voting, petitions can be started on the internet, and the use of online voting advice tools such as smartvote has become par for the course. And the question of taking the next step towards the digitalization of direct democracy has been raised: Collecting signatures electronically.

How do these developments affect democracy in Switzerland – a democracy that is characterized by topical votes and referendums? In particular, it’s the combination of the uses listed above that takes us into uncharted waters. Voting through the internet may be perceived as a security risk, but doesn’t in and of itself have a great effect on how we form our personal political opinions. However, this changes as soon as online voting advice tools enter into the equation. Whether candidates who are up for election make it onto our list – or whether they narrowly miss out – depends on the settings and algorithms used by the online voting advice tool.

While we’re no longer in the early stages of change processes, we have to expect digitalization to have even wider-reaching consequences as soon as these applications can be automatically linked through digital interfaces.

Loss of lifeblood

Until now, the focus of public and academic discussion has been on government authorities, the media, and the individual citizen. The question of how the internet is affecting the fabric of democratic societies has thus far received little attention. In a full-blown digital democracy, the entire intermediary sector of interest group representation is at risk of falling to the wayside, despite the fact that political parties, associations, organizations, foundations, and cooperatives can be considered the very lifeblood of a democracy.

They would become irrelevant, since only traffic, clicks, and electronic addresses actually matter when it comes to the internet. In an internet democracy, websites with high site visit rates would be the new influential political actors, rather than political parties and associations.

"Implemented systematically, digital applications make politics more unpredictable and open to outside influence," writes political scientist Uwe Serdült. (Photo used with permission)

Abolish or strengthen government?

Digital democracy can also be an interesting political strategy, especially for those wanting to limit or even abolish government along with the entire political establishment including parties, associations, and interest groups as far as possible. Their goal is to establish a direct democracy that is even more direct. Moreover, forced digitalization can put political parties that are less internet-savvy at a disadvantage. On the other hand, there are also those favoring digital democracy who wish to use online applications to improve the substance and democratic legitimacy of government decisions – for example, by tapping into the wisdom of the masses.

To be able to constructively use the possibilities of a digital democracy, we must get off the beaten path. Digitally mirroring the democratic processes of the analogue world will not take us very far. Instead, political parties and associations must come up with their own ideas, for example establishing joint networks among each other and offering real-life activities to citizens with similar interests (event-based social networks). Another possible innovation: Why does collecting signatures always have to lead to a referendum? There is a successful set-up in Finland, where popular initiatives can be launched and supported on online platforms before they have to be treated as a parliamentary initiative in parliament (crowd-funding legislation). The use of blockchain technology is also still in its infancy, but it has great potential to help us get to grips with problems that have previously remained largely unsolved in democracies. For example, there is the idea of creating a separate campaign currency that would make all of its transactions transparent and that could even be traded on stock markets.

Politics more unpredictable

How does the internet change our society and our government? Implemented systematically, on the whole digital applications make politics more unpredictable and open to outside influence in an environment shaped by social media. Democracy is tied to nation states or other territories, whereas this doesn’t apply to the internet.

We should combat the negative developments and take advantage of the opportunities offered by digitalized politics. In so doing, we also need to reach an understanding with regard to certain questions – as called for by the Digital Society Initiative of the University of Zurich in its manifesto (in German). In particular, we need to ask ourselves the following: What should governments do? What should civil society do? And what do we leave up to the markets?