A short History of Direct Democracy

The Swiss model of direct democracy often functions as an example of how to involve citizens and organisations in decision-making procedures. The historical development of this system and its manner of functioning are often unknown.


Every system has its advantages and disadvantages, although one thing is sure: the democratic system is the best, whether the presidential systems in France or America, the parliamentary systems with proportional representation (Denmark), a district system (United Kingdom), a federation (Germany), or a unitary state (The Netherlands).

Direct democracy

The system of the Swiss Confederation (Confoederatio Helvetica) does, however, occupy a special place among such democracies.

Only a good insight into the history and the emergence of direct democracy puts its functioning into the right perspective.

A single or double veto by the People (Referendum) and/or the Council of States (Ständerat) means the end of a (constitutional) law or treaty, even if the government and the National Council have agreed to it.

The system of direct democracy derives from certain geographical locations and conditions, from the powerful dynasties seeking to control the trade routes and Alpine passes in medieval times,  and from a good dose of pragmatism belonging to the medieval communities in the mountain areas. The Dutch water- and dam management communes know a similar historical development.

History until 1815

1 August 1291 still has a mythical sound and is even the country’s official date of birth. Three “Orte” – namely Schwytz, Uri and Unterwalden – allied and confirmed their alliance with an oath (Eid).  Hence the name “Eidgenossen.” The label canton dates from the sixteenth century. These alliances and oaths were common practice across Europe.

What makes this alliance so special is the continuity and gradually further expansion with other “Orte” (Glarus and Appenzeller) and cities (Bern, Lucerne, Basel, Schaffhausen, Zurich, Freiburg, Solothurn, Zug) until 1513.

Whether the “Orte” joined the cities (allies from 1351 onward) or vice versa is irrelevant. The fact is that the “Eidgenossenschaft” of thirteen cantons existed in 1513 as a loose federation with often different (economic) interests and religions (from 1525).

In the “Orte” (farming communities without urban structures), decisions were taken by general meetings of (male) citizens during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

The lord (Habsburg, for example) had little to say. It was a kind of communal system intended to represent local interests.

For example, the “Landsgemeinde in the canton of Grisons was an independent commune under this system in the fourteenth century, probably under the influence of the Italian city-states.

Citizens of Glarus on the Zaunplatz in Glarus (Bild Archive/Museum of Glarus)

Any ideological concept was lacking. The focus was mainly on (legal) conflict resolution and common interests (for example, maintaining roads and livestock safety). Large landowners were absent in these areas, and most farmers owned small businesses.

In urban communities, aristocratic oligarchies and administrative structures developed over the centuries. The elites of the guilds and wealthy citizens ruled by consensus and majorities. It was not a democracy in the modern sense, however, and ordinary citizens had little direct influence.

The “Tagsatzung” (the meeting of representatives of the cantons beginning in 1417) aimed at reaching a consensus between cantons and their common interests, in particular the administration of the occupied areas (Untertanengebiete) of Aargau (1415), Thurgau (1460), Veltin (1512) and other shared political issues.

That was the situation until the 18th century, the period of the Enlightenment, the American Constitution and independence, the establishment of salons and societies in the cities, and the French Revolution and subsequent occupation/interference (1798-1813).

After 1815

The call for direct democracy was growing in the cities after 1815. Romanticism (and the press) reinforced the prestige of the direct democracy of the Landsgemeinde and the sovereign communes in the mountain areas.

Direct democracy became a topical issue before and after the French era (1798-1813). Direct democracy increasingly strengthened its ideological foundation in various cities (Basel, Zurich, Freiburg, Bern, Solothurn).

The call for direct plebiscites was growing, intending to maintain internal peace in riots (1830 and 1848), industrialization and fast-growing cities, and religious conflicts between cantons (Sonderbundskrieg 1847).


Geneva, September 2022, Direct Democracy at work


The Constitution of 12 September 1848, the basis of present-day Switzerland, only included the obligatory referendum (obligatorisches Referendum). However, the optional referendum (Fakultatives Referendum) already existed in several cantons.

More and more cantons followed this example (Aargau, Solothurn, Graubünden, Thurgau, Zurich and in 1869, even Bern) because it worked well. The construction of railways, conflicting interests between railway barons and landowners, and unrest in cities accelerated this process.

There have always been opponents to the referendum with the same arguments as nowadays: the people have insufficient insight, it undermines representative parliamentary democracy, and the elite knows what is good for the country.

The Referendums

The referendums and their conditions were accepted in 1874 (Fakultatives Referendum) and 1891 (Volksinitiatieve)

After all these centuries of development and discussion, the country could and would not function without direct democracy.

The crucial advantages are preventing the development of clientele systems of politicians, bureaucrats and journalists and their networks, opportunism and the delusions of the day.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Democracy can never be put into perspective, neither at the local, regional, or national levels nor at the European level.

(Source: O. Meuwly, Une histoire de la démocratie directe en Suisse, Neuchâtel, 2018).