People’s rights put strain on political system

Signatures are currently being collected for more than 40 issues Christian Flierl

Emotions are running high after campaigners failed to hand in the required number of signatures to put parliament’s approval of controversial tax deals to a nationwide vote.

This content was published on November 12, 2012 minutes

Opponents have accused the authorities of dragging their feet and have called on the supreme court.

The case shows how complex it can be to assure direct democratic rights, including the correct use of initiatives and referendums. Both political instruments have helped minorities in parliament and the government to get their voices heard.

In the past it has mainly been groups on the political left which resorted to the extra-parliamentary procedure, but in recent years the rightwing has begun to make frequent use of it too.

Last June both the conservative Campaign for an Independent and Neutral Switzerland – a group with close ties to the rightwing Swiss People’s Party – as well as the leftwing Young Socialists – the youth chapter of the Social Democratic Party – mounted a challenge against three tax treaties with Germany, Britain and Austria.

But by the end of September, not enough validated signatures had been handed in to the Federal Chancellery. However, a few days after the deadline had expired, the campaigners submitted several thousand additional signatures.

They claim the total number of signatures collected exceeds the required minimum of 50,000 to be collected within 100 days.

The rightwingers particularly point the finger at local authorities, who allegedly delayed the validation of the signatures or sent the lists to Bern by second-class mail, which is cheaper but also slower than the regular delivery.

Doggedly refusing the negative verdict by the government, the campaigners have called on the supreme court to rule on the case, hoping voters will still get a say on the tax deals.


Politicians across party lines, alongside some media, joined the chorus of indignation and condemned the local authorities for undermining the people's democratic rights.

Wolf Linder, retired head of Bern University’s institute of political science, as well as René Rhinow, former senator and law professor at Basel University, both have some understanding for the frustration of the referendum campaigners.

However, Rhinow says it is too simple to lay the blame on slow local authorities. He says the campaigners must give the administrations in communes a certain amount of time to do their work.

The communes also enjoy a degree of autonomy, in which the federal authorities would not want to interfere.

Linder argues it is difficult to prove that communes wilfully delayed the validation process. He sees little chance for the campaigners to succeed with their appeal at the supreme court.

“Apart from technical problems it is also an issue of assuring legal certainty,” he says, doubting whether new regulations for the communes would change the fundamental issue.

“Mistakes happen and the only lesson for campaigners is to make sure they collect more than the minimum number of signatures required.”


The administration in Switzerland’s largest city of Zurich were kept on their toes by the tax referendum campaign. But although they had the biggest share of signatures to check, the local Zurich authorities forwarded the papers to Bern before the deadline ran out.

Andreas Bichsel, senior official at the city’s civil registry, says the task of validating signatures is taken very seriously. “We are aware of its political importance for direct democracy.”

Bichsel says their work is done under the watchful eyes of the media and referendum committees.

By the beginning of October his administrative unit had checked a total of about 140,000 signatures this year for 33 nationwide and cantonal initiatives and referendums.


Managing several validation procedures simultaneously requires a high degree of planning. Bichsel’s unit is made up of eight people whose job goes beyond verifying names on referendum lists.

On average between 100 and 150 signatures are validated an hour. The figure depends on the individual efficacy of the civil servants, but a crucial factor is the quality of the lists submitted.

Bichsel can draw on specially trained extra staff from other administrative units if needed to cope with a flood of signatures handed in at the last minute.

He says there are limits even for the relatively well-staffed administration in Zurich. Local authorities in small communes come up against capacity problems much faster.

“No commune can afford to hire extra people who can be called up at short notice for this kind of work only,” he explains.

Initiative, referendum

Public votes on a particular issue are a central feature of Switzerland’s political system.

They take place at a federal, cantonal and to some extent local level. The results are binding.

Currently, signatures are being collected for more than 40 different issues at a federal level.

As a rule, votes take place three to four times a year.

The direct democratic rights were introduced as part of the Swiss constitution in 1848, and extended in 1891.

The collected signatures are first checked by the local authorities before the Federal Chancellery formally confirms the exact number.

It takes at least 50,000 signatures gathered in 100 days to challenge a parliamentary decision to nationwide ballot. At least 100,000 signatures within 18 months are needed to force a vote on a constitutional amendment.

A date for a vote is set by the cabinet, once parliament has discussed the issue at stake.

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