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Democracy Toolbox Every three months, a revolution

Demonstration für die Abschaffung der Schweizer Armee 1989 auf dem Berner Bundesplatz.

Many young people attended a public event outside parliament in the Swiss capital, Bern in October 1989. A month later Swiss voters decided on a controversial initiative aimed at scrapping the armed forces. The 36% approval rate dealt a blow to the establishment 


The people’s initiative is a powerful tool in the hands of Swiss voters enabling them to effect change from below against the will of parliament and government. Most initiatives are defeated at the polls. Yet they often have a real influence on politics.

On November 26, 1989, Swiss politicians got a shock. The people were voting on a proposal to abolish the army. 

In the end, the proposal from a citizens’ group was turned down. There was consternation and indignation, however, about the amount of support the initiative proposal received in spite of the radical nature of the proposal: 36% of voters came out in favour of getting rid of the Swiss army altogether.

It seems to be paradoxical. A 64% rejection for an initiative means a drubbing for the promoters of the proposal, you could argue.

But not in this case. To the military and political elites, it felt like a drubbing for them that over a third of the voters wanted to get rid of the army.

The result had consequences, too: after that the army, which had been regarded as a “sacred cow” throughout the Cold-War era, was treated with much less consideration.

#Dear Democracy

This text is part of #DearDemocracy, a platform on direct democracy issues, by The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of

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And when the same pacifist group organised another initiative in the mid-1990s to ban the export of military products, the government and parliament reacted quickly: they toughened the legislation on arms sales, so as to take the wind out of the abolitionists’ sails.

This strategy worked: the initiative was voted down – just over 20% were in favour this time.

Radical instrument

With the people’s initiative, 100,000 citizens can propose a change to the constitution. Since 1891, when the idea of the initiative as a way of amending the constitution was introduced, over 400 such initiatives have been launched.

A large number of these never reached the people for a vote, because the required number of signatures were not gathered, or the initiative was withdrawn before voting day. Of the 209 initiatives that voters actually voted on, upwards of 90% failed to pass.

+ A short history of Swiss votes

Yet as the initiatives on abolishing the army and banning arms sales show, proposals that go down to defeat can still have an effect.

Parliament may propose an alternative to the initiative, and the voters then have to choose between the two. Or it may make an indirect counter-proposal by amending relevant legislation. Or the effect may simply be that an issue gets discussed and is brought to national attention.


The Swiss farmers’ lobby launched a food security initiative to enshrine a statement in the constitution that the government would support the supply of home-grown products. This triggered a counter-proposal that did not go so far and just said in principle that the government should protect the basis of agricultural production and foster a market-oriented farming sector effective in its use of resources.

In September 2017, however, the voters actually went for the original initiative. Now, whether the constitutional amendment will have any real effect is somewhat doubtful. But the farmers with their initiative at least achieved the result that the politicians had to talk up the issue of food-supply sovereignty for several years.

Other lobby groups that launch initiatives may follow the same strategy. For example, the healthcare initiative from the leading nurses’ association, which calls for promotion of suitable training and remuneration for healthcare workers. Or the cyclists’ initiative by the lobby Pro Velo, which wants more cycle paths throughout the country.

Democracy Toolbox

Switzerland is an indirect democracy. But its direct democracy mechanisms are stronger than those of any other jurisdiction. This is shown by 620 nationwide votes – a world record.

Lukas Leuzinger analyses the most important tools, mechanisms and processes of direct democracy in Switzerland.

Leuzinger studied political science at the University of Zurich. He is a journalist and a co-operator of the political blog Napoleon's Nightmare.

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The people’s initiative is a radical tool in comparison with the options for constitutional action available in most Western democracies. It is a means of effecting change from below.

There are few limits to what it can be about. Initiatives often call for very basic changes in existing legislation, so that every three months there can be a chance of a minor revolution.

Against the will of government

Initiatives by nature go against the will of the majority in government and parliament and can thus be a thorough nuisance for them.

The government ministries must always be prepared for the people to say yes to some constitutional amendment that will upset their best-laid plans. They therefore often seek to meet the demands of initiatives and head them off at the polls with an alternative solution that is not quite as radical.

Legal expert Gabriela Rohner has examined all the people’s initiatives from 1891 to 2010 and shown that these have more often than not failed to win acceptance, but have often had some lasting effect.

Over half the initiatives actually voted on led to a change in legislation, either directly by being accepted by the voters or – more frequently – indirectly through a counter-proposal.

If we take all the legislative changes into consideration which were not actually triggered by a people’s initiative but were at least encouraged by one, the success rate is higher still.

With or without support of lobbies

The name ‘people’s initiative’ implies that the tool is wielded by ordinary citizens who are not political office-holders.

Every so often there are campaigns which manage to get a proposal put to a vote – and even accepted by the voters – without the support of politicians or powerful lobbies.

They just succeed by having a popular topic and putting in a lot of hard work. One example was the initiative curtailing the statute of limitations, where a citizen group got acceptance for tougher legislative provisions on sexual offences involving children.

In most cases initiatives are launched by established organisations, pressure groups, or political parties themselves. In recent times there has been repeated criticism to the effect that initiatives are being misused by parties to campaign on political issues.

Criticism from the start

There are also voices being heard to the effect that too many initiatives are being launched.

According to this point of view, the bar needs to be raised, such as by increasing the number of signatures required (currently it’s at least 100,000 to be collected within 18 months).

Criticism of the people’s initiative is as old as the people’s initiative itself.

That politicians are not keen on the idea of political decisions being made without them is not perhaps very surprising.

The people’s initiative curtails the influence of office-holders and those who lobby them. On the other hand, it provides an extra channel whereby new proposals and interests that might otherwise not get a hearing can be brought into the political process.

The people’s initiative not only helps new ideas get through the resistance of established forces, but it is also an important mechanism of political integration.

Direct democracy What’s a people’s or citizens’ initiative?

Swiss citizens can either propose legislation of their own, or work to defeat legislation already approved by parliament.

Translated from German by Terrence MacNamee,

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