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Direct democracy paradox Politics: when the losers come out on top

Demonstrators with a toy tank in the streets of Zurich

The pacifist Switzerland without an Army group has built a reputation for its spectacular campaign events over the past 30 years. The picture shows a toy tank used for a protest against arms exports nearly ten years ago.


Radical political ideas can help bring about changes, even when they are roundly rejected at the ballot box in Switzerland’s system of direct democracy.

The abolition of the Swiss army was shot down by two-thirds of voters in 1989, two years ago the electorate overwhelmingly (77%) said no to a guaranteed basic income, and an overhaul of the financial system - voted on in June this year - was rejected by approximately the same number. 

+ At a glance: The history of Switzerland’s nationwide votes

 While a clear defeat (in mathematical terms) at the ballot box may seem a waste of time, material and personal resources some political observers see the initiative to scrap the Swiss army as the “most successful people’s initiative in Swiss history ever”.

There are good reasons to agree with this conclusion.

Josef Lang, a politician and historian, is quick to list at least four main achievements of the pacifist initiative: It brought about a radical change in public perception of the Swiss militia army, debunking its importance during the Cold War. It helped pave the way for a scientific re-evaluation of the Switzerland’s role during the Second World War. 

Civil service, reforms

Successes and flops

Over nearly 130 years, Swiss voters – men only until 1971 – had a broad variety of subjects to decide on.

For instance: Banning religious forms of animal slaughtering, the construction of minarets, free masonry; or outlawing the production of a high-volume alcoholic drink (absinthe).

 We can add to the list an extension of statutory annual holidays, making Swiss National Day an official day off, abolishing daylight-saving time, Swiss membership in the United Nations or female suffrage - to name but a few.

Of the 211 initiatives voted to this date, only 22 have won approval.

Another 116 initiatives failed in the early stages as campaigners failed to collect the required number of signatures.

Arguably the biggest ballot box flop was an initiative to replace VAT by a tax on energy consumption. It had the support of only 8% of voters in 2012.

end of infobox

Lang, himself an early member of the pacifist Switzerland without an Army groupexternal link, says it helped pave the way for the approval of a civil service as an alternative option to mandatory military service winning the approval of nearly 83% of voters in 1992.

Last, but not least, he argues the reform of the militia army, and a drastic reduction in the number of soldiers over the following decades, are also the result of the 1989 ballot box decision.

In fact, the result came as a shock for the political elite and large parts of society which was often stuck in the mindset of the Cold War era: Given the 69% turnout – massive in Swiss terms -, it is fair to say that the Swiss voted with their feet for change.

It came after a spectacular campaign with numerous heated public debates across the country as well as a mass demonstration in the form of a music festival outside the Swiss parliament building.

“We took the campaign to the streets and successfully appealed to large parts of society,” says Lang.

What’s more: The pacifist group is still a political force to be reckoned with more than 35 years after its foundation.

Lang is one of several activists who made their way into Swiss politics, be it at a national, cantonal or local level. The former member of the Swiss parliament for the Green Party adds that many other activists in the pacifist movement went on to work for NGOs, as they had a reputation of experienced and versatile organisers and hands-on-campaigners.

Role model

The second example of a success story was the initiative two years ago to introduce an unconditional basic income (UBI).

Woman lying in a heap of 5 centime coins

The campaigners for a Unconditional Basic Income were inspired by the pacifist Switzerland without an Army group for their stunts. 


For Daniel Häni, an entrepreneur in Basel and one of the co-initiators, the 76.9% rejection at the ballot box was not really a defeat.

“Because democracy is not just about winning and losing. It is about debate and ideas, my own and those of others,” Häni says.

The 1989 pacifist movement served as a model for him, he says. It showed how it is possible to bring about a fundamental change in society.

Häni also refers to a surveyexternal link conducted a day after the 2016 vote. It found that more than two out of three respondents believe there will be another vote on the same issue at some point. “This goes to show that the idea of a culture change remains on the table.”

Pilot projects

In fact, numerous trials are planned or are already underway in several countries to introduce an unconditional basic income, if only on a small scale and for a limited time. The Swiss town of Rheinau is just one example, and there are moves afoot in other countries to organise public votes on similar proposals.

There is still plenty of interest in a basic income, according to Häni, who is regularly invited to discussions about the issue in neighbouring Germany and Austria. His co-initiator of the UBI initiative, Enno Schmidt, has recently completed a tour of Europe, Asia and North America.

Häni reckons the UBI could even become a topic for the 2020 presidential campaign in the US, if Facebook founder and philanthropist Mark Zuckerberg decides to enter the race as a self-declared supporter of basic income.

“Our initiative has been a stimulus to the worldwide debate,” he says. According to the Basic Income Earth Networkexternal link, some forms of basic income are under consideration in 26 countries.

International network

The promoters of the sovereign money initiative, a proposed radical reform of the Swiss financial system, are also part of an international network of likeminded people.

Maurizio Degiacomi, a former member of the campaign team, says the result of the vote this past June was not at all seen as a demoralising defeat. On the contrary, he argues it was successful in raising awareness around the world.

“Both renowned international media and specialist blogs reported on the initiative and brought the idea behind it to the public’s attention,” he says.

As for the impact in Switzerland, the Association Monetary Modernisationexternal link (MoMo) will continue to push for a reform of the financial sector but it is not year clear how.

The group behind the initiative have sat down to examine the vote result, review their tactics, as well as the achievements and shortcomings of the campaign and explore new avenues.

Degiacomi, director of the MoMo association, says the team of volunteers and the committee – people from all walks of life - needed some time to recover after the vote. After all it was a long campaign and had to fight it without much financial backing.

The example of the sovereign money initiative, like other novel ideas, shows that radical proposals are rarely approved under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy in a first attempt. It may simply take more time to win over voters.

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.

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