Swiss men were less willing to vote to enfranchise women if they feared it would prise their fingers off the levers of local politics in future. That is the central finding of research by Anna Maria Koukal and Reiner Eichenberger, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference at the University of Bristol in April 2017.
The Swiss enfranchisement process, which began in 1919, used a series of 95 regional and two national votes among men to decide whether women should be given the vote, with the final canton (region) enfranchising women only in 1990. This study tests whether men in regions that had already granted the vote to women locally were more likely to vote for enfranchisement in the two national referenda. It discovers that controlling for other factors, men were less likely to vote for enfranchisement in regions with strong direct democracy but only male voters.
There are two influences of strong direct democracy on male voters, the authors explain: it makes them more willing to empower women in general; but it also gives them more to lose locally if they share their influence with women. Remarkably, the evidence is that the second effect often dominates the first.
The authors conclude: ''The late introduction of women''s suffrage in Switzerland is not an indication of direct democracy being a threat to politically weak groups or human rights in general. Rather, it illustrates that direct democracy boosts the will of voters to extend human rights, but it increases the price of extending suffrage if their own power in the decision-making process is reduced.''
In many countries, there is an intensive debate on strengthening direct democratic institutions. Empirical evidence suggests that direct democracy positively affects outcomes such as public finances, economic growth or citizens'' happiness.
But critics argue that direct democracy could bring about discrimination and violation of human rights. As a prime example, they hint at the late introduction of women''s suffrage in Switzerland. When compared internationally, Switzerland has the most developed direct democratic institutions, but women were enfranchised at the national level in 1971 and in the last canton only in 1990 – much later than in countries like Germany (1918), the UK (1928), the United States (1929) or even Iran (1963).
Our analysis is the first to analyses empirically the enfranchisement of Swiss women. We find that direct democracy has two countervailing effects. While it boosts the general willingness of men to empower women, it increases the price for men to enfranchise women in their own district: the more influence men have on politics, the more they lose when sharing their influence with women. Remarkably, the second effect often dominates the first effect.
The Swiss enfranchisement process (1919-1990) provides ideal data to disentangle the two effects. Unlike in other countries, it wasn''t politicians but Swiss men who decided about enfranchising women. They voted in two national referenda to enfranchise women for national decisions, and in 95 cantonal referenda to enfranchise women at the cantonal and municipal level. The extent of direct democracy varies between cantons and municipalities. The raw data indicate that cantons with stronger direct democracy tended to introduce women''s suffrage later.
We disentangle the two effects of direct democracy by investigating male voting behaviour in the national votes of 1959 (rejected) and 1971 (accepted). In between 1959 and 1971, some cantons introduced women''s suffrage for cantonal and municipal matters.
Switzerland exhibits two types of municipal institutions: in municipalities with strong direct democracy, citizens discuss and decide about municipal policy in local town meetings. In municipalities with weak direct democracy, some of the decisions are delegated to municipal parliaments.
Thus, we can compare two types of municipalities under two different conditions: municipalities with strong versus weaker direct democratic institutions and municipalities in cantons that already have versus those that not yet introduced women''s suffrage. By using standard econometric methods, we simultaneously compare voting results from all Swiss municipalities while controlling for a large number of other voting behaviour determinants.
In cantons that already had enfranchised women for municipal decisions, men''s support for enfranchising women at the national level is larger in municipalities with strong direct democracy than in municipalities with weak direct democracy – that is, direct democracy boosts the willingness of men to provide women with voting rights.
In contrast, in cantons where women had not yet been enfranchised at the municipal level, men''s support for enfranchising women at the national level is lower in municipalities with strong direct democracy than in municipalities with weak direct democracy.
We interpret this as reflecting the higher price for men to enfranchise women at the federal level, which increases the probability that in the longer run female franchise is also enforced at the municipal level (which actually happened). Thus, direct democracy at the local level retarded the enfranchising process.
To conclude, the late introduction of women''s suffrage in Switzerland is no indication of direct democracy being a threat to politically weak groups or human rights in general. Rather, it illustrates that direct democracy boosts the will of voters to extend human rights, but it increases the price of extending suffrage if their own power in the decision-making process is reduced.
Explaining a Paradox of Democracy: The role of institutions in female enfranchisement Anna Maria Koukal and Reiner Eichenberger (Department of Economics, Center for Public Finance, University of Fribourg)