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The direct-democratic institutions of Switzerland

Institutions define the rules of the game. We should keep in mind that the direct- democratic institutions come in different varieties, with different logics attached (see Budge and Geissel in this volume). One variant is the populist, unmediated form of direct democracy, which best corresponds to the practice in the member states of the US. When the populist and progressive reformers of the late nineteenth century introduced direct-democratic procedures in the US, they did so, above all, to restrict the power of political parties and their political machines, which were in control of the state parliaments at the time (Cronin 1989: 50-7; Bowler and Donovan 1998; Smith and Tolbert 2001: 740, 2004: 112ff.). In the US, the popular initiative, still today, is primarily used by social movements and interest groups to circumvent the state parliaments controlled by the parties. This is possible because the popular initiatives are submitted to the popular vote without the intervention of the state governments and their parliaments. By contrast, the Swiss variety of direct democracy is much more organized and more tightly controlled by the political elites. Both government and parliament have an important role to play in the preparation of the proposals submitted to the voters.

Broadly speaking, we can classify Swiss direct-democratic institutions according to two criteria:1

  • • The source of a proposition: elite or citizens.
  • • The initiation of the vote: required by the constitution or demanded by the citizens.

Combining the two criteria allows us to classify the three basic direct- democratic institutions at the federal level - the popular initiative, the compulsory and the optional referendum (see Table 2.1).2 According to the source of the

Table 2.1 Classification of direct-democratic institutions

Source of proposition

Voted required by




Compulsory referendum


Optional referendum

Popular initiative

proposition, we can distinguish initiatives from referendums: initiatives are propositions ‘from below’, formulated by organizations representing groups of citizens, while referendums concern propositions ‘from above’, that is, legislative acts proposed by the government and adopted by parliament. Accordingly, initiatives and referendums follow entirely different logics. The initiative has an agenda-setting function. It launches a public debate on a given issue and puts the issue on the political system’s agenda. An initiative qualifies for a vote if it is signed by 100,000 citizens (roughly 2 per cent of the current number of citizens) within a period of 18 months. The text of an initiative, which is formulated by the group of citizens who launch it, has to be thematically focused on a single issue, and it may not conflict with international law. Otherwise, there are hardly any requirements to be fulfilled. At the federal level, the popular initiative is only possible for constitutional amendments. In the cantons, however, there is also the legislative initiative that allows a group of citizens to propose a specific piece of legislation. In contrast to the practice in the US, the government and the parliament discuss the text of the initiative before it is submitted to the popular vote, and usually provide it with a voting recommendation that almost always recommends its rejection. Government and parliament also have the option of formulating a direct counter-proposal, which will be submitted to the vote together with the initiative. They also have the option of formulating indirect counter-proposals to initiatives proposing a constitutional change by introducing normal legislation that makes some concessions to the initiative’s proposals.

The referendum, by contrast, concerns a legislative act originating from the government and intervenes only after the members of the political system have taken their decision on the piece of legislation. It comes in two basic versions, which can be distinguished on the basis of our second classification criterion: referendums are required either by the Constitution (in case of Constitutional amendments) or by a group of citizens (in case of regular legislation). Constitutional amendments are subject to compulsory referendum, while regular legislation is subject to optional referendum. Constitutional amendments are quite frequent in Switzerland, where the Constitution has been, on average, amended more than twice a year since the beginning of the 1980s. Such amendments are adopted only if they obtain a double majority - a majority of the people and a majority of the Swiss cantons, that is, the country’s member states. Regular legislation, once adopted by parliament, passes into law by default, if a referendum is not required by a group of citizens within three months after its adoption by parliament.

However, if a group of at least 50,000 citizens sign a petition for a referendum, the legislative act has to be submitted to a popular vote. Legislative acts voted upon in an optional referendum require only a simple popular majority to pass into law.

The referendum has the property of a popular veto that may prevent legislation from becoming effective. This general characteristic of the Swiss referendum has, according to the well known thesis of Leonhard Neidhart (1970), fundamentally shaped political decision making in Switzerland. Neidhart’s thesis refers, above all, to the optional referendum, but, analogously, it may also be applied to its compulsory variety. Given the availability of the referendum, it is always possible that a party or an interest group that does not agree with the result of the legislative process launches an optional referendum against a law adopted by parliament, that is, that an organization decides to collect the required signatures to impose a popular vote and to put in danger the result of the legislative process. As a result, the threat of the referendum hovers, like the sword of Damocles, over the entire legislative process (see also Geissel in this volume). To prevent some dissatisfied group from sabotaging a legislative project by launching a referendum against it, all organizations capable of launching a referendum have, according to Neidhart’s reasoning, ended up being integrated into the political process - either in the context of extended pre-parliamentary procedures (which closely resemble ‘corporatist decision-making’), or in the context of the grand coalition that has governed Switzerland since 1959. In short, according to this reasoning, as a consequence of the direct-democratic opening, the Swiss system of government has been transformed from a ‘plebiscitary’ into a ‘negotiation democracy’.

Even if Neidhart’s thesis exaggerates the importance of the referendum for the extension of the negotiating structures in Switzerland - there is, indeed, a series of additional ‘institutionalized mechanisms of accommodation’ that serve to impose extended negotiating structures (federalism, a two-chamber parliamentary system, a proportional electoral system, a multi-party system, to mention but the most important ones) (Germann 1994). The latent functions of the referendum have nevertheless contributed to the fact that Switzerland constitutes the paradigmatic case of a consensus democracy. Incidentally, Lijphart (1999), who introduced the distinction between majoritarian and consensus democracies, does not at all take into account the referendum in the construction of his influential typology.

Since the creation of the Swiss Confederation in 1848, direct-democratic procedures have been gradually extended. The Constitution of 1848 introduced the initiative for its total revision as well as the compulsory referendum for all other constitutional amendments. In 1874, the optional referendum was introduced, and in 1891 the popular initiative. In the course of the twentieth century, further elements were added: in 1921, the optional referendum was extended to international treaties, and in 1977 the scope of the treaties covered by the referendum was once more enlarged. Since 1949, there has been a referendum for extraordinary decrees, and in 2003, in the context of the latest total revision of the Constitution, the general popular initiative was added to the inventory of direct-democratic procedures. These are the procedures as far as the federal level is concerned. At the cantonal and local levels, the panoply of direct-democratic

Number of popular votes - total and by instrument Source

Figure 2.1 Number of popular votes - total and by instrument Source: Kriesi and Trechsel 2008

instruments is even more elaborate, especially in German-speaking Switzerland. Thus, to give but one example, the yearly budget of the City of Berne, the Swiss capital, has to be approved by the citizens in a popular vote.

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