Blind belief in authority is the greatest enemy of truth.
~ Albert Einstein
The two key instruments of modern direct democracy in Switzerland are the citizens’ initiative and the popular (optional) referendum. Since their establishment in 1874 (referendum) and 1891 (initiative), these instruments have been used frequently to promote ideas and control the elected parliament.
An important consequence of the democratic citizen’s right is that Parliament tries to include all possible stakeholders from an early phase in the law-making process.
Agenda/Political Direction Setting
The most important feature of the citizens’ initiative process is the ability to set the political agenda/direction of the country. In Switzerland, a nationwide citizen’s initiative needs to address a constitutional amendment (or propose a total revision of the constitution). Out of 446 (numbers as at 1 Feb 2017) registered citizen’s initiatives in Swiss history, 324 have managed to gather the required minimum of 100,000 signatures (until 1977 you only required 50,00), 209 have been the subject of a popular vote. In 114 cases the initiators did not manage to gather enough support, while in 96 cases the initiative committee chose to withdraw their proposal before the end of the process. This can happen when the government and parliament submit a counter-proposal.
In addition, the right to an optional referendum offers Swiss citizens the chance to control the legislative process at the national level. Every law emanating from parliament (Swiss Federal) can be put to a popular vote if at least 50,000 signatures are gathered within 100 days after the official publication of the law. It is a direct democratic right with mainly indirect effects. Parliament tries to avoid such referendums by working through potentially critical positions (party bottom lines) during the law-making process. Therefore, only a small percentage of all adopted laws are put to a vote by the citizen voters. Since 1874 this has happened in 183 cases. In additional 34 cases, the referendum committees were not successful in gathering the required support.
The initiative and referendum rights are important tools when it comes to exercising popular sovereignty in Switzerland beyond election day. These rights ensure a continuous conversation between the citizens and their elected representatives on a daily basis-a conversation that makes representative democracy more representative.
Citizens' Initiatives: Years of Work for a New Idea
The citizens’ initiative is an important instrument of modern direct democracy. It enables citizens to make their voices heard by going through a process of dialogue with the political institutions. The instrument gives a minority the right to place an issue on the agenda for the whole electorate – and to get an answer. In Switzerland, the citizens’ initiative at the national level typically provides for the following process
Imagine that you want to transform your idea of change or innovation into a proposal for a constitutional amendment. In such a case, you need to establish an initiative committee in order to be allowed to register the initiative at the Federal Chancellery. You need yourself and at least six more colleagues in the committee. Then you can contact the Federal Chancellery to receive guidelines for drafting your constitutional amendment. You have to register the proposed article in three national languages and you can start to gather signatures after the formal publication of the text in the Federal Gazette.
A Long Process
Now you have 18 months to find at least another 100,000 people who support your idea. This requires a huge amount of PR work and some money. As part of the initiative committee you will be responsible for sending all signature forms to the municipal administrations that are responsible for verifying them in the electoral register. Finally, you will be responsible sending all forms to the municipal administrations that are responsible for verifying them in the electoral register. Finally, you will need to personally submit the boxes containing the signature lists to the Federal Chancellery. From that point on, your initiative is an official federal government issue.
Now it is the government’s turn: it has to respond within one and a half years. In most cases, the Federal Council does not exactly agree with an initiative. Therefore, it sometimes proposes an alternative counter-proposal to the initiative. The initiative committee is allowed to withdraw an initiative until the government has set a date for the popular vote. In Switzerland, the published position of the government and the two chambers of Parliament on an issue are just recommendations. In most cases, the three stakeholders agree on one common recommendation. The final say is always with the highest authority in the country – the Swiss electorate. For this reason, a citizens’ initiative is almost always a multiyear process, requiring considerable patience, money and time from the initiators
The government will set a date for the final popular vote on your initiative. Until then you will have to campaign very hard to have a chance of winning. Six to three weeks ahead of the vote (depending on where you live) all Swiss citizens (including those living abroad) will receive ballot papers sent to their homes. Most of them will send them back by post. In several cantons there is a new option of voting online. Only a few voters will go to the polling station on the weekend of the vote. To win the vote you need both the majority of the overall popular vote and majority votes in the cantons.
Popular Referendums: 100 Days to Stop a New Law
With the popular referendum, citizens get to genuinely test the law-making process. In contrast to the pro-active citizens’ initiative, a referendum is a re-active tool allowing citizens and organisations to enter into a dialogue with political parties and elected lawmakers during the preparatory stages of law-making.
Important preparatory work cannot wait until a new law is officially published in the Federal Gazette. At that point, the 100-day countdown for gathering and verifying the required signatures starts. You need to get in touch with the Federal Chancellery ahead of the adoption and publication of the law. They will offer you advice and precise information about what your signature form needs to contain to make sure the signatures are valid. Your form must make clear reference to the law you want to put to a popular vote across the country. And you need to ensure that the signature forms are available in at least three languages (German, French and Italian) before the end of the process.
No Time to Lose
As the time frame for gathering the number of signatures required is short (at least in comparison to the 18 months available for citizens’initiatives), you need to have a clear plan as to where and how you want to reach out to the public. The other option is for eight cantons to demand a referendum. So far, this has only happened once since 1848. Since the introduction of this right only one such referendum has taken place – in 2004 on a national tax law.
If you have been successful in gathering the required 50,000 signatures within 100 days, the contested law will not come into force but will be put to a nationwide popular vote – normally at the next scheduled voting day. Popular referendum votes on laws only require a simple popular majority in favour or against. A double majority with the cantons is not required
The Unfinished Swiss Democracy
Swiss people can change the Federal Constitution whenever they can agree on such a change. Few constitutional changes and popular votes are just about the procedures of modern direct democracy themselves. But this does not mean that they are accepted uncritically. Although many important extensions – such as giving voting rights to new groups – have been accepted, proposals for new forms of direct democracy are sometimes rejected
The Question of Balance
Today, Switzerland is a modern representative democracy with strong tools for direct democracy. This means that most decisions are made by elected representatives. At the same time the Swiss constitution ensures individual human rights and the collective rights of minorities. The principle guaranteeing this is the rule of law. However, the ways in which these classic representative principles need to be balanced by direct democratic instruments have been debated since the establishment of the modern Swiss state in 1848.
Counter Proposals and ‘Double Yes’
A telling example of the fine-tuned character of modern Swiss democracy is the story behind the introduction of the so-called ‘counter-proposal double yes’. In order to allow for a dialogue between citizens and elected institutions, Parliament has the right to draft a counter-proposal to a citizens’ initiative. If the initiative sponsor is happy with the counter-proposal, a compromise is reached and the initiative can be withdrawn. If Parliament and the initiative sponsor cannot agree, the voters are asked to vote either yes or no on both the initiative and the counter-proposal. Voters are also asked a third question – whether they prefer the initiative or the counter-proposal in the event that both are approved by the voters. This method was introduced in 1987.
Options and Limits
Ever since the creation of fundamental popular rights during the first 50 years of Swiss statehood (mandatory constitutional referendum 1848, optional popular referendum 1874, citizens’ initiative 1891) these instruments have been continuously revised, fine-tuned, extended and sometimes even restricted. Famous extensions include the introduction of popular referendums on international treaties in 1921 and the overdue establishment of female suffrage in 1971. In 1977 the citizens approved the federal decision by Parliament to double the number of required signatures for initiatives and referendums. However, this just balanced out the fact that through the introduction of female suffrage the electorate had been doubled.
More Not Always Better
There are also many examples of when the electorate has deemed that a proposal to extend citizens’ rights is not very useful. Citizens’ initiatives proposing the direct election of the seven members of the Swiss Federal Council have been launched and put to a vote three times. Each time a clear majority has voted no, leaving the prerogative to elect the government with Parliament. Proposals to extend the referendum right to all military expenditures have also been defeated at the ballot box. Democracy in Switzerland is and will in no doubt remain an unfinished journey
Popular Votes in Switzerland: What About and How Often?
How Often Do the Swiss Vote?
On average a Swiss voter is called to the ballot box four times a year. The most popular issues deal with European integration, transportation, the environment, foreigners and social services. A calendar sets out all voting dates for the next twenty years. The average number of national issues coming up at the ballot box is rising and lies currently around ten per year. Every fourth year in October, however, elections for Parliament take place. On this occasion no other issues are voted on.
But in addition to the national issues, a Swiss citizen is also eligible to vote at the local and the regional level. Independent of federal issues, in communes and cantons many issues are voted on directly, and citizens have – depending on where they live – comprehensive initiative and referendum rights. Typically, the more populated the city or canton you live in, the more occasions you will have to make your voice heard at the ballot box.
What Are the Swiss Voting on?
Since the year 2000 more than 150 different issues have been subject to a nationwide popular vote. 81 of them were citizens’ initiatives to amend the federal constitution, 48 were popular referendums, and the rest were mandatory popular votes on constitutional changes proposed by Parliament. The topics most often voted on are the government system, transportation, social services, environmental issues and healthcare. The Federal Council and Parliament have been on the winning side in more than two thirds of all votes. In some instances, one of the four government parties may even have to accept that its initiative has been rejected by the people
Many Ways To Participate
Being invited to have a formal say as often as the Swiss requires a solid participatory toolbox. While a few (fewer and fewer in fact) opt for the traditional walk to the polling station on Sunday morning, 9 out of 10 Swiss people return the envelope sent to them by the authorities for postal voting. Recently, a third option has been added for some: e-voting. It is mainly Swiss citizens living outside the country (there are more than 700,000 of them but only 150,000 are registered) who have been given the opportunity to vote electronically. When it comes to signing an initiative or a referendum, all eligible Swiss citizens across the globe can print the initiative or referendum sheet and submit their signed form by post. The fact that Swiss people are able to vote around one month before Election Day is also important.
The Rise In Citizen’s Initiatives
More In Every Decade
After the introduction of the federal citizens’ initiative in 1891, only five citizens’ initiatives were submitted in the first decade afterwards. At that time, there was no time frame for gathering the required number of signatures. Between 1911 and 1920, only two citizens’ initiatives made it to the popular vote. Since then however, this form of participation has become more and more popular, especially after 1989 when there was a real boom in citizens’ initiatives. Every decade since then, a new record has been set. Between 2011 and 2017, 35 initiatives have already been voted on.
Not many citizens’ initiatives are fully accepted by both the people and the cantons: out of 209 citizens’ initiatives which have been brought to a vote, only 22 – about 10.5 % – have been accepted by both the people and the cantons. There are many reasons for the growing popularity of the citizens’ initiative tool. One is that political parties, which are represented both in Parliament and government, like to see the citizens’ initiative not just as an opposition tool for under-represented groups, but also as a way of setting the political agenda – and getting public attention ahead of elections
Types Of Initiatives
This rise in citizens’ initiatives has also led to greater diversity when it comes to their intended purpose:
- The original and classic purpose of the citizens’ initiative is the ‘gas pedal’ function, which means using the initiative process as a way to promote a new idea. Successful examples include the Alpine Initiative (1994), UN membership (2002) and the so-called Fat Cat Initiative (2013), which limited bonus payments in stock market companies.
- A second and also traditional use of the initiative is as a brake, for example in the case of the initiative to limit the construction of minarets (2009), the limitation of free movement for EU citizens (2014), and the continued use of nuclear energy (2016).
- Third and in fact in most cases, the initiative can also be used as a bargaining chip to get Parliament and the government to respond, possibly with a direct (or indirect) counter-proposal. Many of those initiatives set an issue on the political agenda without being able to convince a majority. Recent examples include the left-wing 1:12 initiative (2015) on salaries and the right-wing ‘self-determination’ proposal (to be voted on by 2019) regarding the relationship between national and international law.
According to the European Social Survey, Swiss citizens are generally highly satisfied with the way democracy works in their country – even including the losers of popular votes. On a ten-point scale of democratic satisfaction, more than 66% give 7 or more points and only 7% choose a score between 0 and 3 points. In other highly developed European democracies such as Germany, France and the United Kingdom, respondents have been much less happy with their democracy: depending on the country, between 25% and 33% gave a score between 0 and 3 points and 24% to 37% a score between 7 and 10.
The Design Of Modern Direct Democracy: A Key Factor For Success
In many countries around the world, direct democratic tools of participation come with many hurdles and restrictions. These limitations include (too) short time frames for gathering signatures and the need for extensive documentation to validate signatures. Obstacles to voting procedures on issues include high turnout quorums, which limit the possibility that a popular vote will be considered valid, and non-binding decisions – opening up the process to all kinds of manipulative manoeuvres that ultimately undermine the legitimacy of (direct) democracy.
Interestingly, Switzerland does not have many of these problems that are linked to the design of the initiative and referendum process. All popular votes here are binding, the time frames offer plenty of opportunities even for less well-off citizens’ groups to gain the support they need, and there are several different ways citizens can cast their vote: at the polling station, by post, and even online in some cantons
Six Swiss Lessons for Designing Direct Democracy
Several lessons may be drawn from Switzerland’s long-standing experience with direct democracy:
- Keep it low. High signature requirements – such as more than 5% of the electorate – may hamper opportunities for smaller groups and thus limit the impact of direct democracy. In Switzerland the requirement is approximately 1% for a referendum and 2% for an initiative.
- Keep it long. Reasonable time limits ensure a more intense debate and a better chance to collect enough signatures; overly short time allowances limit the debate and the opportunities for weaker groups. One has 18 months to gather the necessary signatures for a constitutional initiative – and 100 days for a referendum.
- Keep it free. The right to collect freely without the need for an official supervisor as is practised in Austria for example. This helps promote discussion between the initiators and the people.
- No voter turnout quorums (minimums). Switzerland has no thresholds that require a certain level of turnout for a vote to be considered valid, as they tend to undermine the democratic process by counting ‘no’ and non-voters together, creating incentives to boycott a popular vote.
- Few restrictions on the subject matter. In Switzerland, there are very few restrictions on the topics people can consider (only some issues in international law are considered out of bounds). In principle, citizens should have the same decision-making rights as their elected representatives in Parliament.
- Binding decisions only. Direct democracy is about setting the agenda and making decisions, not about consulting the people in top-down processes. The latter are plebiscite, not referendums.
The information for this article is put together with extracts from MODERNE DIRECTE DEMOCRATIE First Edition 2018, Published by the Swiss Department of Foreign Affairs (FDFA), Presence Switzerland.
With kind permission from the author Bruno Kaufmann, Swiss Democracy Foundation.
Edits; D K McKenzie