The political system in Switzerland utilises direct democracy more than most systems.

Many countries have have elements of direct democracy within their political system. Indeed, in Britain, there has been a growth of direct democracy as initiatives like E-Petitions and the Recall of MPs Act (2015) have been developed. In addition, Britain has increasingly seen the use of referenda to make, or to legitimise, significant constitutional and political issues. However, there are some countries that utilise direct democracy far more routinely and a notable example of this is Switzerland, which holds nearly 50% of all referendums globally. So how does Switzerland utilise direct democracy and what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of this.

How is the Swiss Political System set up?

The Federal Council is the Executive of the Swiss Federal Government.

Switzerland is a Federal Republic made up of 26 Cantons (regions). The current constitution has been in operation since the 1st January 2000. The Swiss model sees three levels of governance: Federal, Canton and Local. Each Canton maintains its own constitution and sovereignty is split between the Federal Government and the Cantons. At a Federal Level there is a Federal Council which is the equivalent of the Cabinet in the UK. There is also a Federal Assembly, a bicameral Parliament that is elected by proportional representation. Finally, there is a Federal Court, serving as the judicial arbiter of the Constitution. This set-up is similar to many other Federal systems, such as the United States or Germany. However, what makes the Swiss System rather unique are the provisions within Title 4 of the Constitution which gives significant power over the Constitution to ordinary citizens.

What powers are given to ordinary citizens over the Swiss Constitution?

Powers given to ordinary citizens over the Swiss Constitution include:

– If 100,000 citizens sign a petition calling for a total revision of the Constitution, then this will be put to a popular referendum.

– If 100,000 citizens sign a petition calling for a revision of a particular element of the Constitution, then this will be put to a popular referendum.

– If 100,000 citizens sign a petition calling for a new law (an initiative) it will be put to a referendum.

– If 50,000 citizens sign a petition calling for referendum, the following will be subject to one:

  • Any Federal Law.
  • Any Federal Decree.
  • Any International Treaty.
Switzerland could not join the EU without a referendum.

In addition, under the constitution, certain governmental decisions have to be put to a popular referendum:

  • Any amendment to the constitution
  • Accession to collective security or supranational communities (for example, Switzerland is not a member of NATO nor the EU, and they would not be able to come so without a referendum).
  • Any emergency Federal Law.

As such, it is clear that significant power is put into the hands of Swiss citizens.

What examples are there of these powers being put to use?

Referendums regularly take place in Switzerland. Some recent examples include:

2023: A referendum on the Federal Act on Climate Protection Targets, Innovation and Strengthening Energy Security was a referendum on a Federal Law to reduce Swiss reliance on fossil fuels with an aim of becoming carbon neutral by 2050. The Act was agreed by 59.07% of voters.

2022: A referendum on the issue of banning testing of produces on animals and the import of goods that had been tested on animals. The ban was rejected by 79.14% of voters.

2021: A referendum on the issue of banning full facial coverings in public spaces. This measure was passed after the agreement of 51.19% of voters.

Why are these referendums sometimes problematic?

Whilst many of the issues considered are political in nature, many are extremely contentious social issues. For example, the referendum in 2021 on face coverings mean that they cannot even be wrong for religious reasons. This means that it is unlawful, for example, for a woman to wear a Burqha or Hijab in Switzerland. The referendum was proposed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party. Statistics suggest that the numbers of people who wear a face-covering in Switzerland are very minimal. However, the protection of the rights of this minority of people were overlooked by what might be seen as tyranny of the majority – most of whom were not personally affected by the issue in question.

In addition, referendum votes can often put the Swiss Government at odds with other states internationally. For example, in 2010 a referendum was held calling for the deportation of all foreign nationals who commit serious crimes. However, this put the Swiss Government at odds with foreign powers and its international obligations, including membership of the European Court of Human Rights.

Minarets, like this in Zurich, can no longer be constructed.

In another case in 2009 a referendum was held on preventing the building of minarets on Mosques. The measure passed with the support of 57.51% of voters. The Swiss Government opposed the ban. It was concerned that the ban would unfairly penalise a religious minority and damage its diplomatic relationships with other states. Following the ban, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution condemning the move whilst a number of states, including Turkey and Iran, criticised the ban. This is an example of a case when citizens may have voted for a measure on a measure with a narrow focus that does not take into account the wider complexities of issues.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of the Swiss system?

There are notable examples and disadvantages of this system of encouraging regular referenda. Some of the advantages include:

  • They prevent an over powerful government – The fact that any federal legislation can be challenged by the populace means that the power of the government and Parliament is limited.
  • They force careful consideration of legislation – The fact that the population can challenge legislation means that Parliament are more likely to carefully consider legislation and its impact.
  • They can encourage participation – Regular referendums created a chance for wide participation. This can help perform and educative function and create habits that last for a significant period of time.

Some of the disadvantages include:

  • They have the potential to polarize – Many of the issues considered are of a distinctly social, rather than political or constitutional, in nature. These issues can be incredibly divisive both domestically and internationally. Controversial issues like the face-covering ban or the ban on Minarets have divided communities and had a long-term negative impact.
  • They create an illusion of legitimacy – Whilst all eligible voters can participate in Swiss referendums the weighting of those who vote will be heavily towards the middle-class and many voters and many may suffer with voting fatigue.
  • It can lead to an abandonment of rights protection – Referendums force a binary choice in which the winning side is simply that which records the most votes. As such, minorities are not well-protected in such a system.
  • It strengthens single issue groups over political parties – Political parties need to establish a wide base for their votes. However, a system based on referendums can strengthen single-issue groups who have a narrow and short-term view of the issue at hand.

Article Summary

The Swiss political model is one in which direct democracy is heavily entrenched, particularly due to its use of referendums and initiatives. This gives citizens a large say over the pollical and social direction of the country, but this can lead to division when the Federal Government has a different stance on key issues to the population at large.

Key Terms

Federal System – A system of government in which power is split between central and regional governments.

Federal Law – A law passed by the central government which impacts all parts of the state.

Tyranny of the Majority – The ability of the majority in a state to make decisions entirely in their interest and forsaking the interests of minority groups.

European Court of Human Rights – The international court of the Council of Europe which is responsible for checking member states are complying with the European Convention of Human Rights.

Referendums – A vote on a specific policy issue that is usually narrowed to a binary question.

Initiatives – An attempt by citizens to create a law without going through elected representatives.

Specification Links:
Edexcel: Paper 1 – 1.1 (Democracy and Participation)
AQA:Paper 1 – (Democracy and Participation)
WJEC: Paper 2 – 2.2.1 (Participation through elections and voting)

One response to “How does Direct Democracy work in Switzerland?”

  1. The stronger argument is that direct democracy is simply mob rule however it is dressed up.

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