The people decide

swissinfo/Ch. Flierl

In Switzerland, the people have the last word on fundamental policy issues.

This content was published on May 9, 2007

The Swiss call this element of their political system "direct democracy". It allows the people to shape legislation and constitutional changes directly through initiatives and referendums.

It differs from representative democracy, in which the people delegate this power to elected representatives. Because the Swiss political system has recourse to both direct democracy and parliaments, it is referred to as a semi-direct democracy.

Swiss citizens vote several times a year on policy issues at the federal, cantonal, and communal levels. Elections are by secret ballot and are organised by the communes, which automatically register all citizens of voting age within their jurisdiction.

Ballots and information on proposed laws are sent to voters by mail. The mailings include the government position and a summary of the arguments for and against the proposals.

A large majority of Swiss submit their hand-marked ballots by mail. First tests with voting by internet or mobile phone have been conducted on a local level.

Initiative and referendum

The two main instruments of direct democracy are the people's initiative (introduced in 1891) and the optional referendum (introduced in 1874).

An initiative involves voting on a change to the constitution. It can be forced if 100,000 signatures of citizens, validated by the community, are gathered within 18 months. The proposed changes can relate to individual items in the constitution or even the constitution as a whole.

Before a people's initiative is put to a popular vote, parliament will issue a recommendation to accept or decline it.

Sometimes it decides upon an alternative, which is then put before the people at the same time as the initiative. This multistage process means that usually several years pass between the submission of a people's initiative and the voting on it.

Most people's initiatives fail at the ballot box. Of the initiatives that were submitted to a popular vote between 1891 and 2007, only about ten per cent passed. But often the submission of initiatives spurs important political debates and prompts changes.

The referendum gives citizens the right to vote on legislation after it has been passed by parliament. There are two types of referendums, optional and obligatory.

An optional referendum forces a popular vote on any law passed by parliament. It requires 50,000 signatures, validated by the communes and gathered within 100 days. It can also be initiated at the request of eight cantons - which has happened only once since 1874.

The optional referendum has wide-ranging consequences for the Swiss political system.

Because parliament is always conscious that its decisions can be put to the test of a popular vote by any interest group capable of initiating a referendum, its views are taken into account in the legislating process. When the government is preparing new laws, it opens a consultation procedure to find out what the cantons, the political parties, and interested groups think of the proposal.

Some decisions - for instance, all constitutional changes and all international treaties making Switzerland a part of supranational institutions – are automatically put to a popular vote. This is known as an obligatory referendum. In such cases, not only a majority of votes, but also a majority of cantons, is required to enact the change.

Open-air voting

Direct democracy is applied at all three levels of government – federal, cantonal and communal. In some cantons and communes there are additional instruments through which the people submit a law.

In more than 80 per cent of Switzerland's more than 2,600 communes the citizens are summoned once a year to a town meeting, which acts as the local legislative branch and takes legally binding decisions on finances, taxes, and other legislation.

In two cantons, Appenzell Inner Rhodes (10,500 voters) and Glarus (25,000 voters), citizens gather once a year at the Landsgemeinde, an open-air assembly asserting the people's rights at the cantonal level. The Landsgemeinde is the highest political authority in these two cantons.


Swiss citizens at home and abroad have the right to vote from age 18. The canton of Glarus in 2007 lowered the threshold to 16 years. In several French-speaking cantons foreign residents have the right to vote in communal and sometimes cantonal matters. Since the mid-1950s on average every second Swiss citizen has taken part in elections.

In the first 120 years of Switzerland's existence as a federal state, from 1848, only a minority of citizens enjoyed political rights, with women and other groups excluded.

Women began to have political rights (voting and being elected) on the cantonal and communal levels only in the 1960s.

Switzerland was one of the last countries in Europe to introduce political rights for women at the national level, when women's suffrage was approved by the all-male Swiss electorate in 1971.

Direct democracy

Under Switzerland's system of direct democracy, apart from decisions taken in parliament, voters can amend the constitution and challenge new laws using people's initiatives and referendums.

Both can be initiated at the federal, cantonal and communal levels.

By collecting 100,000 signatures, voters can force a national vote on amending or adding to the constitution.

Between 1891 and May 2007 Swiss voters have only adopted 15 people's initiatives.

The referendum is seen as a brake lever in the hands of the people. Laws, which have been passed by parliament, can be challenged by the public in a referendum. For a referendum to take place, 50,000 signatures must be gathered within 100 days of the publication of a decree.

Women have only had the vote on a national level since 1971.

Foreigners have the right to vote in numerous cantons and communes.

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