A deep dive into democratic institutions: 'Rules of the Game'

Every two weeks the political economic Stephan Kyburz publishes an exciting episode of his podcast ‘Rules of the Game - discussing democratic institutions’ on a highly interesting, political topic. In the future, our newsletter will always include a 'Rules of the Game - discussing democratic institutions' episode.

Our intern Alina Krintovski introduces Stephan Kyburz in the following interview.

Hello Stephan, thank you for taking the time. Can you first tell us something about yourself and your professional career?

Thank you very much, I am very happy to be able to present my podcast - my platform. I grew up near Zurich, in Switzerland, in the countryside. But what has always driven me is the interest in other cultures, in other countries. I traveled a lot early on, even during my studies. I studied economics, then I traveled to South America during my studies, for several months, and then I also did an internship in Cape Town, South Africa, in development aid and also volunteered for an Anti-HIV/Anti-Aids campaign. These experiences then also drove me to want to understand even more how countries develop. At first, I was more interested in the economic development of countries, in other words - why certain countries are poorer and others richer. That traveling experience really inspired me and motivated me to just understand that better. I also studied in China for half a year, so I got to know not only Western countries, but also China with its very different political system. After my master's degree, I started a dissertation at the University of Berne, where I looked more deeply into development issues, both economically and politically. After the dissertation, I was lucky enough to be able to do a postdoc in London at the London School of Economics (LSE) and at the Center for Global Development (CGD), thanks to a scholarship from the Swiss National Fund. I then also worked in London, I was a Visiting Fellow at the CGD and at the London School of Economics I had a position as a Research Fellow. In my free time I like to take pictures and do sports as well. Here in Porto, I'm surfing and in winter I like to go snowboarding in the Swiss Alps.


That's the dream, of course! When did you start to get interested in democracy and democratic institutions?

I've always been interested in politics and political institutions, and during my studies I felt more and more that I needed to understand more about economics to understand how countries develop. But then I realised more and more that political institutions are very, very central. So; how do we elect our parliaments? Who sits in our government? How is our government elected or determined? That, in turn, has a big impact on legislation and the constitution. The longer I looked at this question of how countries develop, the more I realised that democratic institutions are very central in terms of how balanced, how equitable, how sustainable economic growth really is. That's why I then turned more and more to democratic institutions, and all these experiences sort of inspired me to look even more at democracy and democratic institutions.

“I want to show the main pillars in a democracy, how can democratic institutions contribute to stability and development.”


You came to us through your podcast, 'Rules of the Game - discussing democratic institutions'. How did you get started and what is it about?

What inspired me to start the podcast was to contribute to the public discussion of democratic institutions. I realised that democratic institutions, for example in Switzerland, which is my original environment, work very differently than for example in Nigeria, where I also did a lot of research. It seemed to me that we have a lot of knowledge about institutions, but that the public doesn't know very much about it and isn't aware of how important it is and how big the influence of institutions is on development and on social conditions in the countries themselves. There are many countries where people are not really represented, countries that have governments that are political elites and therefore are not democratic, for example in the USA, at least on the national levels. There was this gap that I wanted to fill with the public discussion on democratic institutions.

“I want to make the podcast interesting both for an audience that already knows a little bit about this discussion but also for people who want to learn more about democratic institutions.”


Would you then say that the podcast is interesting for everyone?

Yes, definitely. The podcast is primarily aimed at people who are interested in democratic institutions themselves and how democracy works. But also, of course, to democracy activists. I feel like there are a lot of people who want to contribute to the development of democracy, and from my perspective, institutions are just very central. Also, that for countries that are maybe less democratic it becomes clear that you must reform the institutions if you want more democracy. But the audience consists of researchers who might want to participate in this more public discussion. I want to make the podcast interesting both for an audience that already knows a little bit about this discussion but also for people who want to learn more about democratic institutions.


For us, of course, the episode on direct democracy was the most exciting. Do you have a favorite episode?

The different episodes shed light on very different aspects of democratic institutions, and I always found it exciting to talk to guests about it and see their perspective from their countries, so how they perceive it and how institutions have developed. Two episodes that I found very exciting was on the constitutional reform in Chile with Claudia Heiss* because Chile is going through a rapid democratic development and now, with the new constitution, they really step on new territory. And the other one was just now, on direct democracy in Taiwan with Yen-Tu Su, because direct democracy has only really been applied in Taiwan for barely a year, but the people are already very convinced already and like to have their say when it comes to the future of their country.


Because you just mentioned your guests: do you know all of them in advance?

That varies. I certainly draw on my network, so I already know some people through being active international and also through my research. But they are often people I don't know personally yet. I got in touch with Yen-Tu Su quite by chance through someone else on Twitter.

“The discussion is certainly very active among political scientists, but it is not carried over to the public. I think change in society only happens when the public is involved and understands that.”


We've already touched on a couple of things, that the discourse is often one-sided and only happens in the academic field. Do you have anything else where you say you see difficulties within the discourse of political science or in the discourse of democracy in general?

I think political research has a responsibility in democracies because political scientists understand these institutions best, that is, the democratic institutions, along with public law researchers. The problem I see is that political science has become much more quantitative; if you want to publish in top journals, it often has to be very quantitative and innovative, researchers don't really have that much incentive to contribute to the public discussion. But it seems for me that the basic questions about for example alternative governmental systems and the public discussion, that doesn't bring so much for the career of political scientists. That's where I see a gap. The discussion is certainly very active among political scientists, but it is not carried over to the public – there is of course exceptions to this. I think change in society only happens when the public is involved and understands everything. That's why I started this podcast, or this platform: it should become more of a broad platform.


In the future - what can we look forward to in the podcast?

It's always about institutions, but I want to shed a lot of different light on that. I'm interested in cases like Chile or Taiwan, which quickly became more democratic. What ingredients does it take for a country to make that difficult evolution? We also see today that many countries are backsliding into more authoritarian regimes. I want to show the main pillars in a democracy, how can democratic institutions contribute to stability and fair development. It should give insights into different countries so that one can also compare. Another topic will certainly be direct democracy, because for me personally from Switzerland this is an important institution - that the power is with the people and not with the politicians or the economic elite. If direct democracy is used correctly, it is a very powerful instrument, but it can also be misused by authoritarian rulers for legitimacy.


This brings us to the last question: Is there anything you would like to share with young or new democracy activists?

I think a lot of energy is put into direct political competition, a lot of effort is put into political, social concerns. But basically, I think you can achieve a lot if you develop the institutions, improve them, so that the people who sit in parliament and the people who are elected to the governments really represent the interests of the people – how can we give more power to the people? I think at the moment more energy should be put into how we develop our institutions, rather than always trying to influence the day-to-day political business. The knowledge about democratic institutions is central to make these referendums happen.


*Claudia Heiss is Head of Political Science of the Institute of Public Affairs at Universidad de Chile, where she is also a researcher in the Center for the Study of Conflict and Social Cohesion.

**Yen-Tu Su is Associate Professor at the Institutum Iurisprudentiae at the Academia Sinica.