Direct democracy lies at the heart of the Swiss system. For many it is an opportunity to influence or change the statute books and ensures that the Swiss people have the final say on many major issues.
A people's initiative provides members of the public with an opportunity to influence political decision-making at the highest level. Introduced in 1891, this right is, however, limited to changes to the constitution.
It takes at least 100,000 valid signatures to force a nationwide vote on a proposal. The signatures have to be collected within 18 months of the initiative being launched.
The government and parliament both take a vote on the initiatives, but the final decision lies with the electorate.
Another instrument of direct democracy is the referendum. Current laws and general regulations can be challenged by collecting at least 50,000 valid signatures within 100 days or by at least eight cantons calling for a vote.
There are two types of referenda: the compulsory and the optional.
The possibility of an optional referendum can have a restraining influence on the legislative process in parliament. The threat of a referendum by lobbies and pressure groups which feel that their views are not being taken into account sufficiently is considered a legitimate means of influencing political debate.
Major treaties between Switzerland and other countries or organisations are subject to a compulsory referendum.
The referendum system has often been criticised for being cumbersome, with critics saying that it actually slows down the legislative process.
by Urs Geiser
In compliance with the JTI standards