As you think Switzerland snow-capped mountains, a great diversity of landscapes and climates, comes into mind. But the most important thing for which Switzerland is perhaps best known is its system of democracy known as “direct” democracy. The fundamental principle of direct democracy is that all citizens take part in decision-making and there’s a strong respect for minorities.


Switzerland’s Federal Constitution was completely changed in 1874. The importance of the cantons was lessened in favour of the country’s central administration. People were given full voting rights and referendums at a federal level were introduced. The revision of the constitution had to be voted on too, of course, and was approved with 63% of the vote.

The instruments of direct democracy

There are three instruments of direct democracy, all types of referendum: mandatory, popular initiative and optional. A vote must be held on any amendment to the constitution resulting in a mandatory referendum. A double majority, meaning the consent of a majority of the people and of the cantons is required to amend the country’s constitution.

Citizens can launch a popular initiative to demand a change to the constitution. Any Swiss citizen who is eligible to vote can sign a popular initiative and a group of at least seven citizens (the initiative committee) can launch their own popular initiative. Before a vote is held on a popular initiative, the initiative committee must collect 100,000 valid signatures in favour of the proposal within a period of 18 months.

The Federal Council and Parliament will recommend whether the proposal should be accepted or rejected. For the proposal to be accepted a double majority is needed. If it is accepted, new legislation or an amendment to existing legislation is normally required to implement the new constitutional provision.

Popular initiatives were introduced at federal level in 1891. Two hundred popular initiatives have been voted on since then, but only 22 have been accepted. In 2016, a popular initiative to give everyone in the country a basic income made it to the referendum stage, but was rejected by 76.9% of voters. A popular initiative proposing six weeks of holiday a year for workers was also rejected at the polls.

Power To The People

While parliament passes new legislation and amendments to existing legislation, citizens can call for a referendum on new laws and against certain international treaties. This right to request an optional referendum is an important element in Swiss direct democracy.

For such a referendum to be held, either eight cantons must request it (this is a cantonal referendum) or 50,000 signatures from eligible voters must be collected within 100 days. The new law comes into force if a majority of those voting say yes (a simple majority). If the majority vote no, the current law continues to apply. This type of referendum was introduced in 1874. Since then, 180 optional referendums have been held, 78 of which have been unsuccessful.

Democracy gives people more satisfaction, even if they don’t exercise their rights. Direct democracy has a curious effect on voter turnout – it seems the more of a voice people have, the less often they turn out to vote, a Professor from the Institute of Political Science at Zurich University.


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