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Subtle democratic rights fail to spark interest

Citizens can force nationwide votes by collecting enough signatures Keystone

A mere six years ago a new tool was added to the democratic options available to Swiss voters; parliament and political parties now want to do away with it.

Voters will have the final say on the fate of the so-called general people’s initiative in a nationwide ballot at the end of next month.

Approved by voters with an overwhelming majority in 2003, it has never been put to use because it is seen as incompatible with the rules of the current parliamentary system. Public interest in it also appears to be rather limited.

It takes a lesson in the Swiss political system to understand the issue at stake on September 27. Even experts have described the story of the general people’s initiative as “bizarre”.

Under the traditional people’s initiative Swiss voters are invited to decide on proposals which by definition would alter the constitution. But proposals submitted to a nationwide vote under the general people’s initiative could merely change the law. It would be up to parliament to decide whether the change would be constitutional or simply legal.

Since many proposals contained in initiatives are relatively minor, the idea behind the new instrument was to unclutter the constitution. But what appears quite clear on paper has consequences for direct democracy and the decision-making process of parliament.

In 2008 parliament moved to scrap the new voting rights. But the electorate still has to endorse this decision before it can take effect.


“The intentions behind the general people’s initiative were commendable, aimed at reforming democratic rights,” Georg Lutz, political scientist at Lausanne University. “But it would have turned into a bureaucratic monster.”

Andreas Gross, a Social Democratic member of parliament and political scientist, was always against the introduction of the new type of initiative.

The need to collect at least 100,000 signatures for a general people’s initiative is too high, he believes, since campaigners have no subsequent say in the implementation of their proposal. The number of signatures required for a general popular initiative to be put to a popular vote is the same as for the traditional initiative.

Furthermore, the procedure is too complex.

“Parliament has been honest enough to admit it made a mistake,” Gross said.

He pointed out that turnout in the 2003 was only 28 per cent – one of the lowest in the history of nationwide votes: “People did not really understand the issue at stake.”



People’s initiative

This content was published on The people’s initiative allows every citizen to propose a modification of the constitution. To be valid it must be signed by at least 100,000 people within a period of 18 months. Parliament can directly accept the initiative. It can also refuse it or put forward a counter-proposal. In all cases a nationwide vote takes place.

Read more: People’s initiative


An opinion poll by the gfs berne polling and research institute published on Friday appears to suggest the situation has not changed in the last six years.

Fifty days ahead of the vote, some 41 per cent of those questioned in a nationwide survey said they were undecided. “This is a new record number,” says Claude Longchamp, whose institute has been conducting such polls for ten years.

He pointed out that there has been hardly any public discussion so far. Even so, two out of five respondents said they wanted to keep the new voting rights.

“There is a striking difference between the discussions in parliament and the public mood,” Longchamp said.

He expects turnout to be below average on September 27. However, it is likely to be boosted by the fact that voters are also being asked to decide on an issue which has grabbed much greater public interest: a temporary increase in value added tax to shore up the state disability insurance scheme.


Ruedi Lustenberger, a Christian Democratic parliamentarian, remains convinced that the general people’s initiative is a suitable instrument to “extend and fine-tune democratic rights”.

The administration, notably former Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, had no interest in the issue and caused further complications for the implementation of the new right. Eventually parliament gave in, according to Lustenberger.

“It is an example of how parliament was coaxed and misled. Truly not a highlight of Swiss politics and democracy,” he said.

Lustenberger, one of the leading promoters of the general people’s initiative in 2003, was the only member in the House of Representatives who voted to keep the right several years on and against the recommendation of his own political party.

But he is not prepared to launch a public campaign.

“I’m a realist. I don’t stand a chance of winning enough support,” he says with a smile.

Urs Geiser with input by Andreas Keiser,

The people’s initiative is part of Switzerland’s system of direct democracy and was introduced in 1891.

At least 100,000 valid signatures are needed to force a nationwide vote, demanding a constitutional amendment.

Its variation, the so called general people’s initiative, left it up to parliament to decide whether a proposal would lead to a change in the constitution or downgraded to a simple legal amendment.

The general initiative was approved by parliament and endorsed in a nationwide ballot in 2003.

However, it has never been used over the past six years.

Direct democracy also gives voters the right to challenge a parliamentary decision by collecting at least 50,000 valid signatures and forcing what is called a referendum.

Voters will decide on abolishing the general people’s initiative and on a temporary tax hike to shore up the disability insurance scheme on September 27.

An opinion poll by the gfs berne polling a research institute on behalf of the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation shows a slim majority coming out in favour of the 0.4% tax increase.

A record 41% of those interviewed said they were undecided or had no opinion about the general people’s initiative.

But 40% want to maintain the new voting right as a democratic instrument, while only 19% came out in favour of abolishing it, according to a survey conducted in mid-August among 1,223 citizens across Switzerland.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR