Direct Democracy in Switzerland & its Discontents


Richard Moore

        Last but not least, let me say a few words about the notion
        of the 'people'. The best metaphor I can think of to
        describe the role of the people in Swiss direct democracy is
        that they are a phantom. They are certainly there and in the
        end as individuals have the final say over important
        political matters. However, they only on very rare occasions
        intervene directly and try to organize a referendum or an
        In the first place, the arsenal of direct democracy is an
        institutional weapon for organized interests (political
        parties, interest groups, employer's and employee's
        associations) and not for the people.


Uwe Serdült 
Research Centre on Direct Democracy 
Université de Genève 

Direct Democracy in Switzerland and its Discontents

The conventional paper on Swiss direct democratic institutions given in a 
conference outside of Switzerland usually ends up praising and defending the use
of popular initiatives and referendums. After an introduction of the basics 
about Swiss direct democracy, I try to address some of the more problematic and 
neglected aspects of Switzerland's semi-direct democracy. I thus try to 
challenge the conventional wisdom we find in the scientific literature about the
preconditions of a vote, turnout as well as the effects of direct democracy in 

Organizada por: 
1. Introduction 

As it is widely known Switzerland's political system includes important elements
of direct citizen participation for the creation, change and abolishment of 
binding legal norms. However, most legislation is passed by parliament without 
interference of the voters (see Graph 1). In fact, most of the bills going 
through parliament are prepared by the executive, namely the public 
administration. Hence, the literature often refers to the Swiss political system
as being a semi-direct democracy.

Graph1: Percentage of parliamentary bills voted in a referendum 1848 - [Table] 
Source: Federal Chancellary and c2d

In an international comparison on the national level over time Switzerland 
usually stands out as the country with the most frequent and constant 
application of direct democratic mechanisms such as the referendum and the 
citizen's initiative (see Table 1). We can roughly identify three groups of 
countries for a chosen time frame in respect to the practice of direct 

Table 1: Number of referendum polls conducted in 30 European countries and in 9 
Latin American countries, 1995 to 2005 
Source: c2d and Zellweger/Serdült (2006).

Countries with a low level of referendum practice organised one to two polls (26
countries in total), mainly in order to ratify a new constitution, to sanction 
important changes in the constitution, or in relation to EU membership (find out
more about the latter in Alexander Trechsel's contribution for this conference).
Countries with three to ten polls use direct democratic instruments more 
frequently and also to decide important political matters other than 
constitutional, territorial or supranational issues (12 countries). Switzerland,
with 33 polls during the observed time frame, represents the well- known 
exceptional case and forms a category on its own (Zellweger/Serdült 2006).

In this conference paper I am only going to reproduce the most important 
institutional features of Switzerland's semi-direct democracy and refer to the 
literature for a more detailed account (see bibliography at the end). I am 
mainly going to focus on the national level (but see Hug's account of Swiss 
direct democracy on the cantonal level).

Swiss direct democratic institutions

Historically, direct democratic institutions developed from bottom-up from the 
municipal and cantonal level to the national level. Between 1848 and 1873 only 
mandatory referendums and initiatives aiming at a complete revision of the 
Federal Constitution were allowed. The optional legislative referendum was 
introduced in 1874, and the citizen's initiative for a partial amendment of the 
Constitution in 1891. These institutions of direct democracy were advocated by 
the so called 'democratic movement' which stood in opposition to the dominating 
party (find more on the historical and philosophical roots of Swiss direct 
democracy in Andreas Auer's paper for this conference).

During the 20th century, only minor modifications were made to direct democratic
institutions. The referendum for international treaties, introduced in 1921 and 
extended in 1977, provided participation of citicens in foreign policy 
decision-making. Furthermore, the right of the Federal Assembly to withdraw its 
decisions from the referendum procedure through the use of the so-called 
³urgency clause² (Article 165 of the Constitution) was limited in 1939 and 1949 
by the introduction of the abrogative referendum. Six years after the 
introduction of women¹s suffrage in 1971, the number of required signatures for 
an optional referendum was raised from 30¹000 to 50¹000, and for a popular 
initiative from 50¹000 to 100¹000. At the cantonal level, the popular rights 
have developed considerably since the 19th century, and now include legislative 
initiatives, referenda on administrative acts, as well as referenda on one-time 
or recurring financial decisions (Linder 2006).

The most important direct democratic institutions that are actually in operation
are the mandatory referendum, the optional referendum, and the citizen's 

The mandatory referendum

A referendum is mandatory for all amendments to the federal Constitution and for
membership to some international organizations (See § 140 of the Constitution). 
A popular vote must be held in such cases and a double majority is required. For
adoption, a majority of the popular vote, the votes cast throughout the country,
and a majority of the cantons, cantons in which the majority of voters adopted 
the proposal, is needed. In the case of a split cantonal vote (11.5 of 23 
cantonal votes), the bill does not go trough.

The optional referendum

Citizens can also challenge parliamentary decisions through optional 
referendums. Federal laws, generally binding decisions of the Confederation and 
some international treaties are subject to an optional referendum (See § 141 of 
the Constitution). In these cases, a popular ballot is held if 50,000 citizens 
request it within 100 days after a decree¹s publication. A double majority is 
not required for an optional referendum. In other words, only a majority of the 
people (not a cantonal majority) is needed. Optional Referendums were introduced
in 1874.

The citizen's initiative

An initiative allows citizens to seek a decision on an amendment they want to 
add to the federal Constitution. A popular vote takes place if 100,000 
signatures are collected in favor of the initiative within the legal timeframe 
of 18 months (See § 138 ­ 139b of the Constitution). For adoption of the 
initiative again a double majority is required, i.e. a majority of the popular 
vote (the votes cast throughout the country) and a majority of the cantons 
(cantons in which the majority of voters adopted the proposal) is needed.

Voting experience 

In Switzerland the scope of direct democracy is wide, and the decisions taken on
a poll day are binding. It is possible to write a citizen's initiative demanding
the abolishment of the Swiss Army. Such a vote took place in 1989 but did not go
through (although an astonishing 36% voted in favour of the initiative), as it 
is the fate for most of the citizen's initiatives. From all the 254 citizen's 
initiatives that were handed in between 1848 and last February, 77 were 
withdrawn by the initiators themselves, 161 were voted, but only 15 were 
accepted at the ballot box.

Just to cite the most recent expample in Switzerland as an illustration for a 
normal polling day, the one which took place last week-end, with a national vote
on the health insurance system trying to centralize health the several dozen 
insurance companies into one (did not go through). At the same week- end there 
were also many cantonal and local referendums, such as the one in Zurich, with 
the decision to introduce broadband network with the help of the infrastructure 
of the local public electricity provider (did you through).

Also, it might be worth noting that postal vote (introduced 1994 on the national
level) is the preferred way of voting for most citizens. In bigger cities 80-90 
percent of the voters vote by correspondance. Voting via internet and in one 
case even cell phone are operational in three selected cantons on a trial basis 
(see Fernando Mendez' contribution for this conference). Graph 2: Number of 
votes per decade (all referendums and citizen's initiatives) 1848 - [Table]

Referendum votes can take place up to four times a year (as a rule of thumb 
rather) and are often combined votes on all three state levels (national, 
cantonal, and municipal). Over time the number of votes on the national level 
has increased (see Graph 2). Since direct democratic institutions are in the 
first place a political weapon for parties contesting majorities or in general 
the political opposition, an increase in the use can be interpreted as a period 
of intensified political struggles often related to incertain or unstable 
economic or social conditions. Such was for example the case during the 1970s 
with the economic crisis and to a lesser degree in the 1980s with cultural 
unrest and then again during the economic recession of the 1990s. In these three
decades Swiss society and economy underwent major transformations. These phases 
are usually also marked by an increase in party competition.

Graph 3: Share of rejected and accepted referendums as well as citizen's 
initiative votes per decade. 1848 - [Table]

Sources: Federal Chancellary and c2d.

As one can see in Graph 3, at least in modern times the success rate of direct 
democratic referendums and initiatives together are relatively high and well
4. Discontents of Swiss Direct Democracy

For the remaining time I would like to bring up the issue of campaign financing 
as well as a few thoughts and more or less provocative theses on selected topics
related to Swiss direct democracy.

Campaign Financing

One would expect Switzerland, with its longstanding and frequent use of direct 
democracy institutions, namely the popular initiative, the optional referendum 
and the mandatory referendum, to have developed an extensive regulation on 
referendum campaigns, including rules on campaign financing and on media access.
Surprisingly, this is not the case.

The referendum at the federal level is governed by provisions of the Federal 
Constitution and by the Federal Act on Political Rights. None of these contain 
rules dealing with referendum campaigns in particular. However, several 
fundamental rights guaranteed by the Federal Constitution have to be considered 
while examining the legal framework of referendum campaigns.

According to article 34 paragraph 2 of the Federal Constitution, the guarantee 
of political rights protects the free formation of opinion by the citizens and 
the unaltered expression of their will. This provision does not impose strict 
neutrality on political authorities during the referendum debate. Authorities 
are allowed to take a position and to recommend the approval or the refusal of a
referendum question. However, any kind of political propaganda by political 
authorities would be contrary to the constitutional guarantee of the political 
rights, even more so if public funds were to be used for such propaganda. It is 
also forbidden to grant public funds to private referendum committees. Other 
fundamental rights guaranteed by the Federal Constitution ensure that a 
referendum debate is fair are the freedom of opinion and information, the 
freedom of the media, the freedom of assembly and the freedom of association. 
However, there is no specific regulation on the financing of referendum 
campaigns by political parties and other civil society groups. Therefore, no 
public funds may be used for political propaganda, campaign spending is not 
limited, and there is no obligation for campaigners to reveal their donors or 
the amount of money spent on a referendum campaign. In this context we should 
also mention that the financing of political parties is not regulated in 
Switzerland. Political parties do not receive any public funds for their 
activities. As a result, they finance themselves from membership fees, from 
donations of party members, non-members, private companies and organisations, as
well as from contributions from office holders. On the federal level, there are 
no transparency rules at all. Whereas this is generally also the case at the 
cantonal level, two cantons have introduced transparency rules. In the canton of
Ticino, donations of more than 10¹000 Swiss francs to political parties have to 
be published. In the canton of Geneva, anonymous donations are forbidden and 
transparency rules apply not only to political parties, but also to other 
political groups engaged in campaigns. But for the time being, such rules are 
still exceptional.

Regarding the access to media by political parties and other civil society 
organisations engaged in a campaign, there are no rules that would apply during 
referendum campaigns only. Contrary to the situation in other member states of 
the Council of Europe, Swiss law does not determine an official time frame for 
the referendum campaign.


The on the longterm decreasing turnout rates for direct democracy votes in 
Switzerland are recurringly deplored and debated. While the average turnout was 
approximately 60 percent just after World War II, this figure dropped to 40 
percent by the mid-1970s. Turnout for referendum votes in the last few years 
(from 1970 onwards) fluctuated between 55 percent per year and around 32 percent
on average.

I would like to make the statement that average turnout rates are misleading 
because the don't measure political participation in an adequate way. My 
critique has to do with the validity of the measurement. Most of the Swiss 
citizens do participate occasionally in one or a few referendum votes per year. 
They might not participate in all the four votes per year but let's say in two. 
In my understanding these citizens had then been politically active in this year
and therefore participation in a referendum poll should rather be cumulated over
the year and not averaged. Calculated that way turnout rates would look much 
less dramatic than they seem and be in addition a better, more valid measurement
of political participation.

Direct Democracy and Federalism

For direct democracy to work and to be overall beneficial (and be it only in the
subjective understanding of citizens) certain preconditions need to be 
fulfilled. Among the most important for me is the presence of strong, competing 
political parties. Party competition has positive effects on the use of direct 
democratic instruments. In general, direct democracy needs powerful political 
actors besides the government, providing the connection between the state and 
society. In federal political systems these actors can also be territorial 
subunits. Federalism is therefore a component in a political system enhancing 
the beneficial use of direct democracy. Or to put it the other way round, direct
democracy is more problematic in centralized systems without a sound 
powerbalance between the state and organized civil society.

Development of direct democratic institutions over time

The introduction of direct democratic elements into a Constitution can be 
perceived as a 'critical juncture' on a historic path, to put it in the jargon 
of neo-institutionalist theorists. Once it is in the system there is hardly ever
a return to the status quo ante. Some direct democratic institutions might be 
ill- designed or not work well, they might even stagnate and not be used much, 
however, since direct democracy provides the means to redesign itself by its 
1own mechanisms, such difficulties can in the long run usually be overcome. 
Especially political elites making use of direct democracy or advocating it also
have to keep in mind that the instrument could one day be turned against them.

The 'people' in Swiss direct democracy

Last but not least, let me say a few words about the notion of the 'people'. The
best metaphor I can think of to describe the role of the people in Swiss direct 
democracy is that they are a phantom. They are certainly there and in the end as
individuals have the final say over important political matters. However, they 
only on very rare occasions intervene directly and try to organize a referendum 
or an initiative.

In the first place, the arsenal of direct democracy is an institutional weapon 
for organized interests (political parties, interest groups, employer's and 
employee's associations) and not for the people.

5.  Literature

Kriesi, Hanspeter (Ed.) (1993) Citoyenneté et démocratie directe. Zürich, 

Kriesi, Hanspeter (2005) Direct democratic choice: The Swiss experience. Rowman 
& Littlefield.

Linder, Wolf (2007) Direct Democracy, in: Papadopoulos, Ioannis et al. (Hg.) 
(2006) Handbook of Swiss Politics. Zurich: NZZ Publishing.

Luechinger, Simon; Myra Rosinger and Alois Stutzer (2006) The Impact of Postal 
Voting on Participation: Evidence from Switzerland. WWZ Discussion Paper 06/02. 
WWZ, University of Basel.

Papadopoulos, Yannis (Ed.) (1998) Démocratie directe. Paris, Economica.

Rothmayr, Christine and Uwe Serdült (2004) Switzerland: Policy Design and

Direct Democracy, in: Bleiklie, Ivar; Goggin, Malcolm; Rothmayr, Christine 
(eds.) Comparative Biomedical Policy: Governing Assisted Reproductive 
Technologies. London: Routledge/ECPR Studies in European Political Science, 

Trechsel, Alexander and Uwe Serdült (1999) Kaleidoskop Volksrechte: Die 
Institutionen der direkten Demokratie in den schweizerischen Kantonen 
(1970-1996). Basel/Genf/München, Helbing & Lichtenhahn.

Trechsel, Alexander (2007) Popular Votes, in: Papadopoulos, Ioannis et al.

(Hg.) (2006) Handbook of Swiss Politics. Zurich: NZZ Publishing. Zellweger, 
Tobias and Uwe Serdült (2006) Campaign Financing and Media Access Regulation for
Referendums, in: Venice Commission, The preconditions for a democratic election,
71-100. [Collection Science and technique of democracy, No. 43] . Strasbourg, 
Council of Europe Publishing.

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