Constitution and Democracy

Direkte Demokratie, Glarus. Photo/Foto: Wikipedia.

The Referendum

There is another player besides the parliament and government in Switzerland: the citizens. Referendums can always confront the (federal, cantonal and municipal) decision makers with other points of view. The Constitution knows three types of federal referendums (also cantons and municipalities have their referendums which are not being dealt with yet). A compulsory referendum (das obligatorische Referendum) is compulsory if the Constitution says so, for example in cases of accession to international organizations or the European Union (rejected in 1992 by 50.3%, and once more in 2001 by 77% of the voters, today probably around by 80-85% of voters).

The second referendum is the optional referendum (das fakultative Referendum). Citizens must collect at least 50 000 signatures to request a referendum on a federal law or other decision.  Citizens can express their views on a wide variety of subjects every three months. The issues vary from cowbells to taxes. The people’s Initiative (die Volksinitiatieve) is another referendum about changes in the Constitution. At least 100 000 citizens must support an Initiative by their signature. At least eight cantons can request a referendum as well (Kantonsreferendum). This did not happen for a long time, but this referendum gains momentum. The absolute majority is decisive and the federal decsions makers have to respect the outcome.

Not all referendums are equally fascinating or mobilizing many voters. That is not the point, however. What makes a referendum crucial is the fact that politicians can never forsake or even 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 it protects the country from the (opportunistic) delusion of the day by the establishment. It is also an obstacle to the emergence of oligarchies and their networks.

The establishment is always forced to take all arguments of organizations and citizens into account. The presence of citizens at all levels (municipal, cantonal and federal) in all political decisions is not only one of the pillars of Swiss democracy, the rule of law, (social) cohesion and prosperity, it also shows a modern, open and self-confident democracy and society. The government is there for the citizens and not the other way around. It is evident that direct democracy can only function with independent quality media and a civil society. That is the case in Switzerland. (Source: A. Vatter, Das Parlament in der Schweiz, Basel, 2018).