In this panorama, eight analysts from around Europe look at how referendums are used or misused, and how they shape public debate. This series explores the role of referendums throughout Europe: how they drive change, whether progressive or reactionary, and foster common understandings crucial for functioning democracies.

Switzerland has now been a “full democracy” for 50 years. On 7 February 1971, 65.7 per cent of male citizens and a majority of the cantons voted in favour of giving women political rights at the federal level. As we celebrate 50 years of women’s political rights in the confederation, there is still no better illustration of Swiss direct democracy. The 1971 referendum highlights an oft-overlooked aspect of the Swiss system: the constitution plays a central role in political life, in addition to its tangible function in the legal system[1].

Unlike in other systems, the 27 constitutions in Switzerland (one at the federal level and one for each of the 26 cantons) outline the state’s duties and the rights of the people; they form the bedrock of politics.

A change to any part of the constitution requires a double majority of the people and cantons, as occurred in 1971. Within this framework, a proposal for a constitutional amendment or a parliamentary motion is the only scenario under which a popular vote is triggered “from above”.

Far more typical of direct democracy is the citizens’ initiative; 100,000 citizens with the right to vote may, within 18 months of the publication of their initiative, demand a partial amendment of the constitution. The popular initiative is a tool that can be employed by citizens to amend the constitution. Proposals for a partial amendment of the constitution must collect the signatures of 100 000 eligible citizens within 18 months. No subject is off-limits: from banning nuclear power, stricter gun control, or abolishing the Swiss army, to a universal basic income, animal rights, or a green economy. There have also been many initiatives aimed at curbing immigration, as well as targeting minorities, such as the successful proposal to ban the construction of minarets on mosques.

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Changing the constitution is not the only way that citizens can influence federal political life. Another “bottom-up” tool is the ability to oppose laws passed by parliament; 50 000 citizens may, within 100 days of the publication of an act of parliament, demand that it be put to popular vote.

Introduced in 1874 in order to protect minorities, the optional referendum aims to “act as a check on the attribution of new powers to Confederation”.[2] Until the turn of the 20th century, right-wing and far-right parties frequently used this mechanism, as did the Social Democratic Party until it entered government in 1942.

Today, referendums are principally used by non-parliamentary forces to put pressure on the government. By convention, all parties represented in parliament should also have at least one seat on the seven-member council that comprises the federal government. The Swiss Green Party – the fourth largest political party since the 2019 federal elections – and the smaller Green Liberals are notable exceptions.

The year-round campaigning required for this direct democracy means that the logic of Swiss politics is quite different to that of its European neighbours.

Swiss political parties campaign for a federal election every four years. They also campaign four times a year, with one or more referendums to fight (for example, June 2021 will see two popular initiatives seeking to ban pesticides and a referendum on the CO2 law). The year-round campaigning required for this direct democracy, along with the canton system and the federation’s 27 constitutions, means that the logic of Swiss politics is quite different to that of its European neighbours.

We have 27 constitutions, one for each canton and another for the Confederation; we don’t have an Austrian- or French-style presidency; we have something similar to German-style Länder but with direct democracy; and our representative democracy works on the “militia principle”.

Another fundamental distinction, one which threatens the credibility of the Swiss political system, is the lack of regulation and transparency regarding money in politics. With so many referendum campaigns and little state funding for politics, disparities are growing between campaigns that benefit business and financial interests, and those launched to protect the common good, typically on environmental issues. Indeed, Switzerland has been frequently criticised by the Group of States against Corruption, the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption body. An initiative on transparency in political funding will be put to the people and cantons shortly. At stake will be the sustainability and credibility of a financially opaque system.

Comparing Switzerland with EU member states – or the EU itself – is always tricky. From de Gaulle in 1949 to the Convention on the Future of the European Union in 2003, the idea of a European referendum is regularly floated and just as regularly rejected.[3] It is possible to imagine ways to prevent referendums becoming “traps” for the EU, as the European Constitution referendums held in 2005 in France and the Netherlands proved to be.[4] The real question, however, is whether the creation of Swiss citizenship through direct democracy, notably through the inclusion of women as full citizens, can serve as a model for the strengthening of European citizenship by the same means.

[1] Andreas Auer, Giorgio Malinverni and Michel Hottelier (2000). Droit constitutionnel suisse, volume 1, Berne, Staempfli Éditions SA, 2000, p. 455.

[2] Andreas Auer (2007). “La démocratie directe comme piège et comme chance pour l’Union européenne”, in Andreas Auer, Alexandre Flückiger, & Michel Hottelier (eds). Les droits de l’homme et la constitution : Études en l’honneur du professeur Giorgio Malinverni. Genève: Schulthess Médias Juridiques SA., p. 57.

[3] Simon Hug (2002). Voices of Europe: Citizens, Referendums, and European Integration, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.

[4] Andreas Auer, ibid, p. 253.

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