Direct Democracy in Switzerland

The Swiss people can influence political affairs through a highly developed system of direct democracy which means citizens can both propose legislation, or reject legislation already approved by parliament. Switzerland’s existence as a modern federal state dates back to 1848 and is a confederation comprised of 26 Cantons (county/states). The government is made up of seven members, elected by the Federal Parliament. Government members are President for one year.

Direct democracy is deeply rooted in Swiss politics, with the first direct citizen vote occurring in 1294 in the canton of Schwyz and recorded by the canton Landsgemeinde (provincial assembly). The Landsgemeinde assemblies were annual assemblies of all male citizens with voting status. The smallest such assemblies being under 1,000 people, and the largest over 10,000 people. Particularly remarkable is that whilst these cantons practiced direct participation on quite a large scale, the rest of Europe was under feudal or absolutist systems.

The modern day referendum has its roots in the current day canton of Graubünden, formerly the Raetian Republic of Three Leagues. By the beginning of the 15th century the Republic introduced a form of referendum in which discussion of policies occurred at municipal level before adoption. The first national referendum was in 1802, when Napoleon imposed a constitution and submitted it for approval. In 1848 the Constitution adopted the obligation of national referendum for all proposed constitutional amendments. Later additions to the system mean that there are four ways in which direct democracy can unfold.

The constitutional referendum (obligatory).Any amendments to the Constitution must be put to a referendum. For approval of amendments, a “double majority” is required. The referendum must be accepted by a majority of the Swiss people on a national basis, and a majority of votes in more than half of the cantons.

The Optional or Facultative referendum on legislation. Laws passed by the Federal Parliament can be challenged if 50,000 voters or eight cantons demand one within 90 days of publication of the new law.

The Constitutional Initiative. A popular initiative (campaign) can be started by the collection of 100,000 valid signatures within 18 months. An initiative demands a change to the Swiss Constitution and must pass on a “double majority”. One of the quirks of the Swiss system is that the people can propose any law, for example the Alpine Initiative which forced freight on to a new rail system, providing they do it as a constitutional change. If the proposal is passed at referendum it then becomes part of the Swiss constitution. The government then periodically 'tidies up' the constitution and transfers the changes into 'regular' laws at which point they drop of the constitution.

An Optional Treaty Referendum. May be demanded by 50,000 voters. This mechanism is used for any agreements which may impact on Swiss neutrality which have not been put to constitutional referendum. An example was the decision to join the IMF.

System supporters say it forces Federal Parliament members to seek compromise in debating bills and that opposition groups or minorities can provoke discussion on issues that might otherwise be ignored.