Switzerland’s Direct Democracy
Definition of Direct Democracy
Direct Democracy can be defined as a form or system of democracy giving citizens an extraordinary amount of participation in the legislation process and granting them a maximum of political self-determination.
Origins of Switzerland’s Direct Democracy
In Switzerland, Direct Democracy has a long tradition: The origins of Direct Democracy can be traced back to the late middle ages: archaic forms (assemblies of the electorate discussing and deciding major political issues) have been practised in part of the country since the founding of the Old Swiss Confederacy in 1291.
The origins of Switzerland’s modern system of Direct Democracy with formalized opinion polls and frequent referendums lie in the experimental phase of democracy in the 19th century when Switzerland was surrounded by monarchies on the European continent that showed little to no enthusiasm for democracy. Read the History of Switzerland’s Federal Constitution (1848) and Direct Democracy
Basic Facts & Features of Switzerland’s Direct Democracy
- The Swiss constitution defines in some detail all areas subject to federal legislation. Anything not explicitly mentioned is left to the legislation of the cantons (federal states).
- Therefore it is necessary to update the constitution from time to time to take account of changes in society and technology that demand for standardized solutions throughout the country.
- The Swiss constitution may be changed only if an overall majority of the electorate agrees in a referendum, and if the electorate of a majority of the cantons agrees, too. The latter is sometimes just a little more difficult because it means that the rather conservative electorate of smaller rural cantons must be convinced to vote in agreement.
- Nevertheless, minor changes to the Swiss constitution are quite frequent without affecting the basic ideas nor the stability of Switzerland’s Political System. To the contrary: Direct Democracy is the key to Switzerland’s famous political stability.
- All federal laws are subject to a three or four step process:
- A first draft is prepared by experts in the federal administration.
- This draft is presented to a large number of people in a formalized kind of opinion poll: Cantonal governments, political parties as well as many non-governmental organizations and associations of the civil society may comment on the draft and propose changes.
- The result is presented to dedicated parliamentary commissions of both chambers of the federal parliament, discussed in detail behind closed doors and finally debated in public sessions of both chambers of parliament. Members of parliament do take into account the results of step 2, because if they fail to do so, step 4 will be inevitable.
- The electorate has a veto-right on laws: If anybody is able to find 50,000 citizens signing a form demanding for a referendum within 3 months, a referendum must be held. Laws do only need to find a majority of the national electorate to pass a referendum, not a majority of cantons. Referendums on more than a dozen laws per year are not unusual in Switzerland.
- Frequent referendums on minor changes to the federal or cantonal constitutions, new or changed laws, budgets etc,- referendums on constitutional changes are mandatory — referendums on laws are “facultative” (only if 50,000 citizens, i.e. roughly 1.2% of the electorate, demand for it). Learn more about Referendums in Switzerland
- Corresponding rules apply for referendums on cantonal and communal level. While referendums concerning budgets are not possible on federal level they are common on communal level. It depends on the 26 cantonal constitutions whether they are mandatory, facultative or possible at all.The number of citizens that may demand for a cantonal or communal referendum depends on the size of the corresponding electorate, as a rule of thumb, about 1% is usual.
- Popular Initiative: 100,000 citizens (roughly 2.5% of the electorate) may demand for a change of the constitution by signing a form. The federal parliament is obliged to discuss the initiative, it may decide to recommend or to reject the initiative, or it may propose an alternative. Whatever they choose to do, all citizens will finally decide in a referendum whether to accept the initiative, the alternate proposal, or stay without change.