Switzerland's Political Systems
Switzerland's Direct Democracy
Definition of Direct Democracy
Direct Democracy can be defined as a form or system of democracy
giving citizens an extraodinary amount of participation in the
legislation process and granting them a
maximum of political self-determination.
Origins of Switzerland's Direct Democracy
In Switzerland, Direct Democracy has a long tradition:
The origins of Direct Democracy can be traced back to the late
the middle ages: archaic forms (assemblies of the electorate discussing
and deciding major political issues) have been practised
in part of the country since the founding of the
Old Swiss Confederacy
The origins of Switzerland's modern system of Direct Democracy
with formalized opinion polls and frequent
lie in the experimental phase of democracy in the 19th century
when Switzerland was surrounded by monarchies on the European continent
that showed little to none enthusiasm for democracy.
> History of Switzerland's Federal Constitution (1848) and Direct Democracy
Basic Facts & Features of Switzerland's Direct Democracy
- The Swiss constitution defines in some detail all areas subject
to federal legislation. Anything not explicitly mentioned is left
to the legislation of the cantons (federal states).
Therefore it is necessary to update the constitution from time
to time to take account of changes in society and technology
that demand for standardised solutions throughout the country.
The Swiss constitution may be changed only if an overall majority
of the electorate agrees in a referendum and if the electorate
of a majority of the cantons agrees, too. The latter is sometimes
just a little more difficult because it means that the rather
conservative electorate of smaller rural cantons must be convinced
Nevertheless, minor changes to the Swiss constitution are quite
frequent without affecting the basic ideas nor the stability of
Switzerland's Political System.
To the contrary: Direct Democracy is the key to Switzerland's
famous political stability.
- All federal laws are subject to a three to
four step process:
1) A first draft is prepared by experts in the federal
2) This draft is presented to a large number of people in a formalized
kind of opinion poll: Cantonal governments, political parties as
well as many non-governmental organisations and associations of
the civil society may comment on the draft and propose changes.
3) The result is presented to dedicated parliamentary commissions
of both chambers of the federal parliament, discussed in detail
behind closed doors and finally debated in public sessions of
both chambers of parliament. Members of parliament do take into
account the results of step 2, because if the fail to do so,
step 4 will be inevitable.
4) The electorate has a veto-right on laws: If anybody is able to
find 50,000 citizens signing a form demanding for a referendum
within 3 months, a referendum must be held. Laws do only need
to find a majority of the national electorate to pass a referendum,
not a majority of cantons. Referendums on more than a dozen
laws per year are not unusual in Switzerland.
- Frequent referendums on minor changes to the federal
or cantonal constitutions, new or changed laws, budgets etc,
- referendums on constitutional changes are mandatory
- referendums on laws are "facultative"
(only if 50,000 citizens, i.e. roughly 1.2% of the electorate,
demand for it)
Learn more about
Referendums in Switzerland
- Corresponding rules apply for
referendums on cantonal and communal level.
While referendums concerning budgets are not possible on federal
level they are common on communal level. It depends on the 26 cantonal
constitutions whether they are mandatory, facultative or possible
The number of citizens
that may demand for a cantonal or communal referendum depends on
the size of the corresponding electorate, as a rule of thumb,
about 1% are usual.
- Popular Initiative: 100,000 citizens (roughly 2.5%
of the electorate) may demand for a change of the constitution
by signing a form. The federal parliament is obliged to
discuss the initiative, it may decide to recommend or to reject
the initiative or it may propose an alternative. Whatever they
choose to do, all citizens will finally decide in a referendum
whether to accept the initiative, the alternate proposal or stay
Learn more about Switzerland's Political System of Direct Democracy: