Constitution and Democracy


A short History of Direct Democracy

The Swiss model of direct democracy often functions as an example of involving citizens and organisations in decision-making procedures. However, the historical development and functioning in the specific context of this country are often unknown.

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

The system in the Swiss Confederation (Confoederatio Helvetica) does, however, occupy a special place among these democracies, and only a good insight into the history and the emergence of direct democracy puts its functioning in the right perspective.

The direct democracy, meaning direct consultation by referendums of the People (das Volk) about (constitutional) law or international treaties. A single or double veto by the People and/or the Council of States (Ständerat) means the end of a (constitutional) law or treaty, even if the government and the National Council (the Commons) agreed.

The historical aspects are briefly discussed. The aim is to demonstrate that direct democracy is a centuries-old bottom-up concept. The geographical location and natural conditions, the multicultural and multilinguistic population, the powerful dynasties that wanted to control the trade routes and Alpine passes in medieval times and a good dose of pragmatism from the (farmer) communities in the mountain areas in medieval times underlie the development. The Dutch communes of water- and dam management know a similar historical development.

In this perspective, 1 August 1291 still has a mythical sound and is even the official birthday of the country. Three Orte Schwytz, Uri and Unterwalden allied and confirmed this with an oath, hence the name Eidgenossen. The name 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) in 1501. It is not relevant whether the Orte joined the cities (allies from 1351 onward) or the other way around. The fact is that the Eidgenossenschaft of thirteen cantons already existed in 1501 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 in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The lord (Habsburg for example) had little to say, although formally the ties were maintained. It was, in fact, a kind of communal system, intended to represent its interests as well as possible.

The Landsgemeinde, for example in the canton of Grisons, was an independent commune and knew this system already in the fourteenth century, probably under the influence of the Italian city-states. An ideological concept was lacking. It was mainly focused on (legal) conflict resolution and common interests (maintaining roads, livestock safety for example). In these areas, large landowners were absent, most farmers owned small businesses.

In the urban communities, aristocratic oligarchies and administrative structures developed over the centuries. The elites (the guilds) ruled by consensus and majorities, for example in religion around 1530, but other citizens had, in fact, little direct influence. However, armed violence was avoided and only used if necessary, also because it was expensive  (and most Swiss soldiers preferred foreign military service, also for the elites a lucrative trade).

The creation of the Tagsatzung, the meeting of representatives of the cantons (from 1417) also meant an institution aimed at a consensus between cantons and their common interests (the administration of the occupied areas or Untertanengebiete, for example).

That was the situation until the 18th century, the period of the Enlightenment, the American and French Revolutions and the establishment of salons and societies in the cities. Within cities, the call for democracy was growing. Romanticism (and the press) reinforced the prestige of the direct democratic Landsgemeinde and the sovereign communes in the mountain areas.

In all urban areas and cantons, democracy before and after the French era (1798-1813) was a topical subject and direct democracy, direct consultation of (male) citizens, occupied a prominent place in the discussions, only in the cantons though, because the federation is from 1848.

Direct democracy gained more and more ideological foundation and also in traditional oligarchic cities (Zurich, Freiburg, Bern, Solothurn) the call for direct plebiscites was growing, also to preserve internal peace in times of riots (1830 and 1848), industrialization and fast-growing cities and religious conflicts between cantons (Sonderbundoorlog 1847).

The Constitution of 12 September 1848, the basis of present-day Switzerland, did only include the obligatory referendum (obligatorisches Referendum) but the optional referendum (Fakultatives Referendum) already existed in several cantons. More and more cantons followed this example because it worked pretty well (Aargau, Solothurn, Graubünden, Thurgau, Zurich and in 1869 even Bern). The construction of railways and conflicting interests between railway barons and landowners and unrest in cities accelerated this process.

There have always been opponents of the referendum with the same arguments as nowadays: the people have insufficient insight, it undermines representative parliamentary democracy, the elite knows what is good for the country, the abuse by ‘populists’ (is not every politician a populist ?). The referendums and their conditions were accepted in 1874 (Fakultatives Referendum) and 1891 (Volksinitiatieve), of course after a referendum.

After these centuries of development and discussion, the country could not and will not do without direct democracy. The most important advantages are the prevention of the development of clientele systems of politicians, bureaucrats and journalists and their networks, opportunism and the delusion of the day. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Democracy can never be put into perspective, neither at local, regional, national, nor at European level. (Source: O. Meuwly, Une histoire de la démocratie directe en Suisse, Neuchâtel, 2018).