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The run on direct democracy

All the citizens of canton Glarus have a vote at the Landsgemeinde, witnessed this year by the Austrian vice chancellor Keystone

Switzerland has been experiencing a wave of political tourism of late, with foreign politicians, particularly from Germany and Austria, showing an interest in its direct democracy. So, is the Swiss model becoming another Swiss export?

German-speaking neighbours have been to Switzerland twice this year. Back in March a delegation from the German state of Baden-Württemberg came to follow the federal elections first-hand.

Then in May the Austrian vice chancellor, Michael Spindelegger, travelled with Swiss Foreign Minister Didier Burkhalter to the Landsgemeinde, or citizens’ assembly, which meets once a year in the square of the town of Glarus to vote on issues with a show of hands. In June, canton Aargau joined Baden-Württemberg in organising a democracy conference in Aarau.

During Sunday’s national vote the minister president of Rheinland-Pfalz, Kurt Beck, plans to be on hand, and will follow it with a working visit to the Aarau Centre for Democracy Studies.

“It’s not just our EU neighbours who are interested in the Swiss model of democracy, but also countries like Uruguay,” Uwe Serdült, a political scientist with the Aarau Centre, told “A delegation of Latin American countries will visit us soon in connection with a trip organised by Presence Switzerland.”

According to a new study by the Centre, up until 1920 Switzerland was the only country in Europe to practise direct democracy. Within western Europe today, national popular votes arising from a collection of signatures are still only possible in Liechtenstein, Italy and San Marino.

Elsewhere they take place in the United States, Canada and Australia, and from the 1990s onwards, in 14 post-Communist European countries, for example, Latvia, Lithuania and Hungary, as well as Uruguay, Columbia and Venezuela.

“It’s no coincidence that Uruguay is described as ‘the Switzerland of Latin America’,” said study co-author Serdült.


Serdült sees one of the reasons for foreign interest in Switzerland’s direct democracy as “a certain frustration with representative democracy”. Many citizens don’t feel they are being represented by the elected politicians in parliament; they want a say, and to be able to participate directly.

“Democracies everywhere are in crisis. Democracy is a continual learning process – at the moment, however, it’s regressive instead of progressive,” the Social Democratic parliament member Andreas Gross told

For years a “true disempowerment of democracy” has been taking place, he argued. Existing democracies have all been becoming more authoritarian and power has been transferred to the executive branch. Meanwhile the national state has been losing more and more autonomy, without democracy being established transnationally.

People are more and more convinced that just being able to elect isn’t enough, said Gross.

Serdült believes that the EU crisis also plays a role. Members of other European countries regard non-EU-member Switzerland with a furtive sort of awe. “There’s hardly a TV talk show in Germany that doesn’t mention Switzerland and how it ‘does well’ with its direct democracy. We ask ourselves if it couldn’t be copied.”

Gross takes a different view. “Switzerland isn’t admired – above all it’s

misunderstood. Switzerland is regarded as exotic, and it’s not at all well-known.”

Lack of a constitutional court

Critics of direct democracy highlight the danger that some referendums, such as Switzerland’s recent deportation initiative, can scarcely be implemented because they would violate constitutionally guaranteed basic or human rights.

“That’s not a danger of direct democracy in and of itself, but rather a weakness in the way it has been set up in Switzerland,” said Gross.

The recent trend in Switzerland toward “focusing on the player rather than on the ball” demonstrates the weakness that direct democracy is not constitutionally protected  from “the tyranny of the many”. That is not the fault of direct democracy either, however, according to Gross.

Does Switzerland need a supreme legal body that evaluates the constitutional conformity of initiatives – a constitutional court?

“I’m convinced that such a court is needed by a democracy,” the Slovenian Constitutional Court judge Ciril Ribicic told recently. In Slovenia as well, the people turn to referendums and initiatives.

Gross concurs: “I’ve been saying for years that a constitutional court is needed, that democracy needs to be improved. For 100 years – with the exception of, for example, women’s voting rights – it hasn’t developed or become more refined. In Switzerland there’s a very big need for reform.

Civic groups most successful

The Aarau Centre study also analysed the effective use of  democratic instruments. The result: civil groups – particularly environmental organisations and unions, but also organisations representing business interests – are most successful.

“And they’re the ones that make the greatest use of direct democracy, in Switzerland as well,” said Serdült.

In the beginning, direct democracy was used by opposition parties as an agent in their struggle for power. “That has long been true in Switzerland,” he says. “The longer a direct democracy has existed, the more it has been adopted by society.” This trend can be seen internationally.

“Democracy tourists” can learn from us, but they don’t want to adopt the Swiss model on a one-to-one basis, added Serdült.

“The visitors are all professional politicians. They also see direct democracy as a risk. They say ‘yes’ to more political participation by the people, but not to the binding extent it’s used in Switzerland. For us, the vote at the polls is decisive. In Germany the ‘popular polls’ are not binding.”

Switzerland is a supporter of the talks between members of the Syrian opposition meeting in Berlin to discuss how Syria would be ruled after the fall of the Assad regime. Serdült however was not prepared to answer the question of whether the ‘new Syria’ could profit from the Swiss direct democracy model.

“We’re always very cautious when it comes to handing over direct democracy ‘part and parcel’. Democratic processes like the one in Syria last for generations,” he said.

The term “direct democracy” refers to a form of government in which the power comes directly from the people.

The commoner alternative is representative democracy, in which the people delegate the power to their elected representatives.

The most important instruments of direct democracy in Switzerland are the people’s initiative and the facultative referendum.

Switzerland’s system of direct democracy is sometimes referred to as half direct, because it incorporates both direct democracy as well as  political representation.

The people’s initiative allows citizens to propose an amendment to the constitution. In order for this to take place, the initiators must collect 100,000 valid signatures within 18 months and present them to the Federal Chancellery.

Next, the proposal is considered by parliament, which can accept a proposal as presented, reject it, or present an alternative proposal. In all cases a nationwide vote takes place.

A people’s initiative needs a majority of the popular vote as well as the backing of a majority of cantons to be adopted.

The (facultative) referendum is a popular vote called to challenge a piece of legislation already approved by parliament. If a group opposed to the new law manages to collect at least 50,000 signatures within 100 days of the official publication of the proposed legislation, it is again put to a nationwide vote.

If the parliament proposes changes to the constitution, an obligatory referendum is required.

A facultative referendum needs only be passed by the majority of the people, whereas an obligatory referendum must be passed by the majority of the people and the cantons.

The European people’s initiative is a form of direct democracy introduced by the European Union through the Treaty of Lisbon. It came into effect on April 1, 2012.

It is a process similar to that of the people’s initiative in many German states and the referendum in Austria.

Through the people’s initiative, EU citizens can move the European Commission to consider a particular theme; a vote of the people is however not intended.

(Translated from German by Jeannie Wurz)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR