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Direct Democracy in Switzerland

By Paul Ruppen

Additional remarks by Hans-Urs Wili, Rolf Büchi, Bruno Vanoni,
and Bruno Kaufmann

Re-printed from
Direct Democracy in Europe: A Comprehensive Reference Guide to the Initiative and Referendum Process in Europe
Edited by Bruno Kaufmann and M. Dane Waters
Carolina Academic Press, Durham, North Carolina.
Sponsored by IRI Europe, Initiative & Referendum Institute Europe
and IRI Initiative & Referendum Institute

* Some country statistics are at the end of this paper.

The basic fact about I&R in Switzerland is: Switzerland did not create the referendum; the referendum created Switzerland. There is a full range of compulsory and citizen-initiated referendum institutions at all levels of government: the federal level, 26 cantons, and 2,973 municipalities.

The I&R institutions were established step by step: compulsory referendum in 1848; optional referendum in 1874; popular initiative at the federal level in 1891.

Average turnout is approximately 50%; this trend has recently become positive again after a long period of decreasing participation. Younger citizens are participating in I&R decisions more than they are in elections. Important developments have taken place in recent years.Women’s suffrage at the national level was introduced only in 1971, and transparency laws were adopted very recently.

Types of Initiative and Referendum

The forms of direct democracy in Switzerland derive from various historical sources. As specific institutions, referendum and initiative appeared in the Montagnard Constitution of June 24, 1793 (Article 10 and Article 56-60), during the French Revolution. Before this, the Swiss had preserved both direct-democratic mechanisms of decision-making, such as the "Volksanfragen" (popular consultations) in the cantons of Zürich, Bern, Solothurn and Neuenburg, and hybrid federal-democratic mechanisms, such as the community referendums or "Zendenreferenden" in Graubünden and the district referendums in Wallis, some of which go back as far as the 15th century. It was because of its own longstanding democratic traditions, including "Landsgemeinde" or community citizens’ assemblies, that the idea of I & R fell on such fertile ground during the modernization of democracy in the Swiss cantons after the Restoration in 1830.

In the search for forms of which would preserve the traditions of co-determination while permitting a more modern form of government, initiative and referendum formed an acceptable compromise among the positions of the various political factions. Historically, the introduction of I&R shows three main trends:

1) The rights of direct democracy are introduced gradually over time. First to be established is the right of veto; then the statutory constitutional referendum; then the legislative referendum; and finally the right of initiative.

2) Citizens’ rights are introduced first at lower levels, and move upwards. They were introduced first in the member states (cantons), and introduced later at the federal level.

3) Rights are normally established by a broad coalition of differing interests.

When the federal state was established in 1848, only the statutory constitutional referendum was grounded in the constitution. The legislative referendum became law in 1874. Finally, the right of initiative was established in 1891.The 20th century saw the gradual extension and refinement of direct democracy. The referendum on international treaties was established in 1921: open-ended and irrevocable treaties were now subject to facultative referendum. Direct-democratic control of foreign policy was extended in 1977, when the scope of the optional referendum was widened to include accession to international organizations and acts involving the multilateral standardization of laws. Accession to organizations for collective security (e.g. UNO) and to supranational communities (e.g. the EU) was also made subject to mandatory referendum. In 1949, the popular referendum on urgent federal resolutions was introduced. So far, other possible extensions, such as the legislative initiative or the referendum on the national budget, have been rejected by the people.

The new federal constitution of 2000 contains the first explicit limitations on the subject matter of initiatives. Mandatory rules of international law, e.g. fundamental human rights such as the principle of "Non-Reversal," cannot be subjected to referendum, and initiatives launched on such matters are declared invalid by parliament (cf. note 1).

Direct-democratic rights have had a lasting influence on Swiss institutions, since it was by means of initiative that the right to proportional voting was secured, which then led to the proportionalisation of the whole of political life. Proportionalisation
is reinforced by the power of referendum possessed by the most important social groups.

In Switzerland, it can be said that if the citizens’ initiative is the daughter of the referendum, proportional voting for the National Council (parliament) is its granddaughter, and the so-called "magic formula" (proportionally elected government) its great-granddaughter.

I. National Level

The various instruments can best be described by quoting from the relevant articles of the constitution:

a. Popular Initiative

Article 138 (Popular Initiative for Total Revision of the Federal Constitution): (1) 100,000 citizens entitled to vote may propose a total revision of the Federal Constitution. (2) This proposal has to be submitted to the people by referendum.

Article 139 (Popular Initiative for Partial Revision of the Federal Constitution): (1) 100,000 citizens entitled to vote may propose a partial revision of the Federal Constitution. (2) The popular initiative for a partial revision of the Federal Constitution may be in the form of a general suggestion or a formulated draft. (3) If an initiative does not respect the principle of unity of form, the principle of unity of subject matter, or mandatory rules of international law, the Federal Parliament shall declare the initiative invalid in whole or in part. (4) If the Federal Parliament approves an initiative in the form of a general suggestion, it shall prepare a draft of the meaning of the initiative and submit it to the vote of the people and the Cantons. If it rejects the initiative, it shall submit it to the vote of the People; the People shall decide whether the initiative should be followed. If the People approve the initiative, the Federal Parliament shall formulate a corresponding draft. (5) An initiative in the form of a formulated draft shall be submitted to the vote of the People and the Cantons. The Federal Parliament shall recommend its approval or its rejection. If it recommends its rejection, it may submit its own counter-draft. (6) The People and the Cantons shall vote simultaneously on the initiative and the counterdraft.

The voters may approve both drafts. They may indicate which draft they prefer, should both be approved; should one of the drafts obtain a majority of the People’s votes and the other the majority of the votes of the Cantons, neither of them shall come into force.

The period of time allowed for the collection of signatures begins as soon as the Swiss federal chancellery (Bundeskanzlei) publishes the proposed new constitutional text in the Official Gazette of the Confederation (Bundesblatt).

Signatures can be collected anywhere, including public places. The signatures are checked by the local government office (Gemeindekanzlei) and given a certificate of eligibility. The initiative committee then passes them on to the Swiss federal chancellery (Bundeskanzlei). Once 100,000 signatures have been collected, the initiative is declared to formally exist. It then goes to the Parliament to be checked for validity. Unity of subject matter is required, which means that an initiative must not include several different proposals. The purpose of this is to ensure that the clear will of the people can be expressed: without a single subject, the electorate might accept something with which they do not agree because the overall merit of the proposal outweighs the demerits of one or more parts of the proposed constitutional change. Unity of subject matter is required only for constitutional change, whether that change is made via Citizens’ Initiative or Government proposals. It is not required for international treaties, such as EMU, which are subject to statutory referendums.

The fact that Parliament and not a constitutional court decides on the validity of initiatives is a matter of dispute in Switzerland. The initiative committee can decide to withdraw the initiative: as a rule, a clause to this effect must be included in the initiative’s text.

A formally successful initiative­one which has secured the minimum 100,000 signatures­must be put to referendum within 39 months after the date on which the signatures are submitted.

The procedures to be followed when there is a counter-proposal have existed only since 1987. Before this, Parliament routinely used the counter-proposal as a tactic to divide and rule by splitting votes between the initiative and the counterproposal.

Since the introduction of the new procedures, direct counter-proposals have become rare.

b. Compulsory Referendum

Article 140 (Compulsory referendum): (1) The following shall be submitted to the vote of the People and the Cantons: a. Revisions of the Federal Constitution; b. The entry into organizations for collective security or into supranational communities; c. Federal Statutes declared urgent which have no constitutional basis and whose validity exceeds one year; such Federal Statutes must be submitted to the vote within one year after their adoption by the Federal Parliament. (2) The following shall be submitted to the vote of the People: a. Popular initiatives for total revision of the Federal Constitution; b. Popular initiatives for partial revision of the Federal Constitution in the form of a general suggestion which were rejected by the Federal Parliament; c. The question whether a total revision of the Constitution should be carried out if both Chambers disagree.

When an issue is presented to both the people (national level) and the "Stände" (cantons) for decision in a referendum, both an absolute majority of the valid votes cast and a majority of the cantons must be in favor. When a referendum is put only to the people, an absolute majority of the valid votes cast decides the issue; in this case, the cantons do not all carry the same weight. For historical reasons, six out of the total of 26 Swiss cantons (Obwalden, Nidwalden, Basel-Stadt (the city of Basle), Basel-Land (the area surrounding Basle), Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell Innerrhoden) carry only "half-weight."

c. Optional Referendum

Article 141 (Optional Referendum): (1) The following are submitted to the vote of the People at the request of 50,000 citizens entitled to vote, or of eight Cantons: a. Federal Statutes; b. Federal Statutes declared urgent with a validity exceeding one year; c. Federal decrees to the extent the Constitution or statute foresees this; d. International treaties which: 1. are of unlimited duration and may not be terminated; 2. provide for entry into an international organization; 3. involve a multilateral unification of law. (2) The Federal Parliament may submit further international treaties to optional referendum.

Article 142 (Required Majorities): (1) Proposals submitted to the vote of the People shall be accepted if the majority of those voting approve them. (2) Proposals submitted to the vote of the People and the Cantons shall be accepted if the majority of those voting and the majority of the Cantons approve them. (3) The result of a popular vote in a Canton determines the vote of that Canton. (4) The Cantons of Obwald, Nidwald, Basle-City, Basle-Land, Appenzell Outer Rhodes and Appenzell Inner Rhodes have each one half of a cantonal vote. The 50,000 signatures must be collected, verified as to voter eligibility by the communities, and delivered to the Swiss federal chancellery (Bundeskanzlei) within 100 days of the publication of the text of the law in the Official Gazette of the Confederation (Bundesblatt).

II. Regional and Local Level

Direct democracy in Switzerland originated at the local and cantonal levels. Until 1848, except for a brief period, the national level in Switzerland existed only as a loose confederation of states. There is thus a rich variety of forms of local and regional democracy, to which it is not possible to do justice in such a limited space.

Today, about 2350 communities have a community assembly, in which citizens decide publicly on community issues. In the 500 larger communities which have no community assembly, the assembly is replaced by the referendum and by the local community parliament.

In all cantons except the two that still have citizens’ assemblies­Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus (Landsgemeindekantone) ­there are both mandatory and optional referendums as well as the initiative. Many cantons also have an optional, some even a mandatory, referendum on budget matters.

a. Political and Social Agents

Although in Switzerland the signature quota is not very high in relation to the number of registered voters (2.1%), this does not mean that just anyone can launch an initiative. The current estimated cost per signature is two Swiss francs for printing, secretarial work, advertising, etc., even if no paid signature collectors are employed. Thus, a referendum initiative costs at least 100,000 Swiss francs for signature collection alone, in addition to the cost of the subsequent referendum campaign.

As a result, referendums are usually launched by existing organizations or parties­reflecting, as in any democracy, the existing relationships of power in society. This applies somewhat less in the case of the citizens’ initiative, which can
be launched even by relatively small groups. In such cases, the initiative, which can take several years from its inception to the eventual referendum, often leads to the formation of new political affiliations, which are then more capable of launching referendums in the future. In fact, the term "capable of launching referendums" (referendumsfähig) has in Switzerland become a synonym for "to be taken seriously politically."

The filtering function of the signature quota should not be judged negatively. A direct democracy without filters would burden citizens with a plethora of proposals, leading to public annoyance and the demise of the very instruments of direct democracy.

b. Outcomes and Experiences

The success or otherwise of direct democracy cannot be measured only by concrete political outcomes. Direct democracy offers the greatest possible participation by the general public in the process of decision making in modern societies which are organized into states. This participation should be seen as a human right, and the recognition of the human right to political co-determination does not depend on whether the results of referendums satisfy one’s own personal interests; such a judgment would reflect a fundamentally anti-democratic attitude. The outcomes of direct democracy must be judged against this background.

In these terms, Switzerland does not differ fundamentally from other affluent countries with indirect parliamentary systems. Reforms happen more quickly in some countries than in others, but the resulting legislation is very similar. This is not surprising, since the same kinds of power relationships exist in societies with direct democracy as exist in other affluent industrialized countries which have purely parliamentary systems.

For example, if one compares Switzerland with the predominantly two-party, first-past-the-post systems in Great Britain and France, one can see that the existence of citizens’ participatory rights exerted pressure for compromise at an earlier stage, but that it has been increasingly recognized even in bi-polar systems that elections are predominantly won on the centre ground. Even though the mechanisms differ, the trend is towards convergence over the longer term.

There are presumably differences in the attitude towards the state and towards taxation, as well as in the level of political awareness, though no studies have yet been carried out on these issues. It is a greater advantage for a person to be politically aware and informed about events and issues under direct democracy, since he can then play a constructive part in referendums. Tax avoidance and negative attitudes towards taxation are probably less prevalent under direct democracy, since people can share in decisions on public spending and approve any tax increases. There is empirical evidence that this connection exists at the local and regional levels. Although Switzerland is not exempt from political alienation and apathy, it may be assumed that these are less common than in purely representative systems.

III. Trends

The Swiss people hold direct democracy is held in high regard. This probably explains why politicians seldom attack the instruments of direct democracy, even though not all Swiss politicians enjoy the limitations placed on their power by direct democracy, any more than do politicians elsewhere.

In recent years, especially before the referendums on European integration (EEA), the media gave more space to academics critical of direct democracy, primarily from neo-liberal circles (cf. note 3). However, support for direct democracy also came from the same quarter (note 4). It is unlikely that such attacks will result in any reduction of direct democracy in Switzerland.

On the other hand, greater political and economic integration tends to reduce political freedom of movement in individual countries. Decisions about new regulations and standards are increasingly being made at the transnational or international level, whether in the United Nations or in the EU.

On March 3, 2002, a majority of 54.6% voted in a national referendum in favor of entering the UN. Because a majority in the cantons was also required, ultimately one canton swung the vote in favor of accession. Switzerland’s full membership of the UN has an especially high level of legitimacy because it is the first country in which the people themselves voted in favor of entry.

The question of possible accession to the EU is a much more difficult issue for Swiss citizens. They fear a severe restriction of their direct democracy, because accession would mean that areas in which the EU has competence would automatically be removed from direct-democratic control (note 5). On the other hand, many people stress the fact that Switzerland has the opportunity to contribute reform proposals to the work of the EU Convention on a possible European constitution. They believe that the growing interest in direct democracy in many EU countries enhances the chance that rights of initiative and referendum will eventually be introduced at the EU level, which could compensate for the loss of citizen influence at the lower level.

A new citizens’ right, known as the "General Citizens’ Initiative" or "Popular Motion," was approved by Swiss citizens in a referendum on February 9, 2003, although it was strongly criticised in the weeks before the referendum. The most disputed part of this package of constitutional amendments to increase citizens’ rights was the so-called "General Initiative," which would make it possible, for the first time, for citizens’ initiatives to trigger not only constitutional amendments but also legislative change. But the 100,000 signatures required for the initiative would secure only the right to present a general demand: parliament would be responsible for translating the general proposal into a specific constitutional or legislative text. If parliament were unfaithful to the original intention, the Supreme Court could be asked to intervene.

This combination of citizens’ demand, parliamentary decree and a possible referral to the Supreme Court is designed to ensure that initiatives enter the legislative process in the most constructive way­and also that they do not conflict with international commitments.

During much of the referendum campaign, it went unnoticed that this process, which was being proposed as an innovation at the federal level, was already in regular use in seven cantons. Few of those who opposed checked whether their objections were actually borne out in practice at the cantonal level. While those on the right complained that the new citizens’ right was too complicated, those on the left claimed that it wouldn’t be used because it wasn’t attractive enough: it required as many signatures as a detailed constitutional initiative.

Cantonal experience with the general/unitary citizens’ initiative has been extremely good: according to Robert Heuss, director of the cantonal chancellor’s office in Basle, the only plausible explanation for the frequent use of the unitary initiative lies in its "citizen-friendliness." Its introduction at the federal level was approved by a large majority of 70% of the general vote, and all the cantons also voted in its favour. On the other hand, it was approved by the lowest turnout for a national referendum in 30 years: only 28% of the electorate turned out to vote.

Parliament has already implemented most of the constitutional changes agreed by the citizens’ rights reform referendum, but the new General Citizens’ Initiative tool will only be available after the detailed legislation has been drafted and approved. The government is expected to present its proposals to parliament during the next year. In a recent report, the relevant parliamentary committee referred to "a number of tricky procedural problems" which might well lead to some "intense debates." The prediction is that the new citizens’ initiative will not come into force until 2006.

Main author: Paul Ruppen, with additional remarks by Hans-Urs Wili, Rolf Büchi, Bruno Vanoni, and Bruno Kaufmann

Constitutional Requirements for Legislation

Title 6: Revision of the Federal Constitution and Temporal Provisions

Chapter 1: Revision

Article 192 (Principle): (1) The Federal Constitution may be subjected to a total or a partial revision at any time. (2) Where the Federal Constitution and implementing legislation do not provide otherwise, the revision shall follow the legislative process.

Article 193 (Total Revision): (1) A total revision of the Federal Constitution may be proposed by the People or by one of the Chambers, or may be decreed by the Federal Parliament. (2) If the initiative emanates from the People or if the Chambers disagree, the People shall decide whether a total revision shall be undertaken. (3) Should the People accept a total revision, both Chambers shall be newly elected. (4) The mandatory provisions of international law may not be violated.

Article 194 (Partial Revision): (1) A partial revision of the Federal Constitution may be requested by the People or decreed by the Federal Parliament. (2) A partial revision must respect the principle of the unity of subject matter; it may not violate the mandatory provisions of international law. (3) A popular initiative for partial revision must, moreover, respect the principle of the unity of form.

Article 195 (Entry into Force): The Constitution revised in total or in part shall enter into force as soon as it is accepted by the People and the Cantons.


• Population: 7,136,000

• Area: 41,284 km2

• Capital: Berne (Bern)

• Official languages: German (63%), French (20%), Italian (8%), Romansch

• Religion: Roman Catholic (46%), Protestant (40%)

• Political System: Parliamentary Federation (since 1848)

• Constitution: January I, 2000 (referendum: 59% yes)

• Membership: UN, EU non-active candidate.

• GNP/Capita: $28,100

• Human Development Rank: 10

• I&R practice: more than 500 federation-wide referendums since 1848, many thousands at the cantonal level,

hundreds of thousands at the local level. On March 3, 2002, Switzerland became the first country in the world

in which the citizens decided to join the United Nations (55% yes).

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