The power of the people

Semi-direct democracy in Switzerland

The power of the people

When taking important decisions, the Swiss people always have the last word. This type of democracy is known as semi-direct democracy, which incorporates mechanisms from direct democracy and representative government.

In many other democratic countries, voting is restricted to once every 4 years for local or presidential elections. This is not the case for Switzerland, where citizens are called to vote at least four times a year, as every reform made under the constitution has to be approved first by a majority of people and cantons. 

This method of governance is known as ‘direct democracy’. Contrary to most countries where representative democracies are present, in Switzerland the people decide on policy initiatives directly. 

Swiss citizens are allowed to voice their opinions on a myriad of topics found in the constitution through three different instruments: mandatory and optional referendums and popular initiatives.

In the former, resolutions of both upper and lower chambers need to be approved by the people to pass through. An optional referendum gives citizens the opportunity to demand any bill to be taken to a national vote. However, in order for this request to be valid, 50,000 signatures need to be gathered within 100 days of publication of the new legislation to dispute it. Lastly, with a minimum of 100,000 signatures, citizens can request a modification of a specific article that will then go through a rather long process until it can be approved. 

It should be pointed out that most of the popular initiatives do not reach the minimum required signatures, but this doesn’t mean that this method is completely useless: these initiatives usually open a public debate that would otherwise never have come to light. Furthermore, supporting popular initiatives is mainly used by political and social trends who do not hold enough support in the parliament.

One of the most remarkable initiatives in the political history of Switzerland was the popular sentiment to join the UN, which later led to a referendum that was approved in 2002.

Moreover, the instruments described above are not restricted to a federal scale. They are also employed in cantonal and local legislative processes to modify laws specific to each canton. 

Further reading

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