Direkte Demokratie, Glarus. Photo/Foto: Wikipedia.

The Referendum

There is another player besides Switzerland’s parliament and government: the citizens. Referendums can always confront the (federal, cantonal and municipal) decision-makers with other points of view.

The Constitution covers three types of federal referendums. (The cantons and municipalities have their referendums).

Mandatory referendum

A mandatory referendum (das obligatorische Referendum) has to take place if the Constitution says so, for example, in cases of changes to the Consitution or membership in international organizations or the European Union (rejected in 1992 by 50.3%, and once more in 2001 by 77% of the voters. Today,  probably by around  80-85% of voters).

Optional referendum

The second referendum is the optional referendum (das fakultative Referendum). Citizens must collect at least 50 000 signatures within 100 days to request a referendum on federal law or other decisions.  Citizens can express their views on various subjects every three months. The issues vary from cowbells to taxes.

People’s Initiative

The People’s Initiative (die Volksinitiatieve) is another referendum about constitutional changes. At least 100 000 citizens must support an Initiative. At least eight cantons can also request a referendum (Kantonsreferendum). This has not happened long, but the idea is gaining momentum.

The constitution will adopt the text of this initiative when a majority of voters are in favour. The government can also initiate a counter-initiative to give the citizens an alternative. The Swiss Constitution is the only one that contains citizens’ daily concerns. It is worth the effort to read this Constitution in detail.


An absolute majority is decisive, and federal decision-makers must respect the outcome of such referendums.

It is a double yes in the people’s initiative and mandatory referendum, an absolute majority in the country and a majority of votes per canton. In other words, there can be a majority nationally, but by counting the votes per canton, a majority of the cantons can be against it. This happens regularly. The rural cantons with few inhabitants have the same voting weight as the urban, densely populated cantons.

The absolute majority in the optional referendum is decisive.


Not all referendums are equally interesting or mobilize a great number of voters. That is not the point, however. A referendum is crucial because politicians can never forsake their duties or act in bad faith. Someone is always watching them.

The system has its disadvantages, like every system. It slows down procedures and decision-making, and it is an effective way of blocking change. On the other hand, it is the fundament of consensus and protects the country from any (opportunistic) delusions of the day by the establishment. It is also an obstacle to the emergence of oligarchies and their networks.

The establishment must always consider all the arguments of organizations and citizens. The presence of citizens at all levels (municipal, cantonal and federal) for all political decisions is one of the pillars of Swiss democracy, the rule of law, (social) cohesion and prosperity. It also confirms a modern, open, self-confident democracy and society. The government is there for the citizens and not the other way around!

Direct democracy can only function with independent media and civil society. This is (still) the case in Switzerland.

(Source: A. Vatter, Das Parlament in der Schweiz, Basel, 2018).