Constitution and Democracy

Direkte Demokratie, Glarus. Photo/Foto: Wikipedia.

The Referendum

Besides the (political) establishment, there is another player, however: the citizens. Direct democracy through referendums always hangs over the federal decision makers. The Constitution has three types of federal referendums (also cantons and municipalities have referendums). 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 voters, today probably around 80-85%). In the optional referendum (das fakultative Referendum) must citizens collect at least 50,000 signatures to request a referendum on law or decision. The absolute majority of votes applies. In some exceptional cases, at least eight cantons can request a referendum.  Citizens can express their views on a wide variety of national subjects every three months. The issues vary from cowbells to taxes. A people’s Initiative (die Volksinitiatieve) is a referendum to demand or reject amendments to the Constitution. At least 100 000 citizens must support an Initiative in writing.

Not all subjects are equally fascinating or mobilize many voters. That is not the point, however. What makes a referendum that crucial is the fact that politicians can never forsake or even act in bad faith. The system also has its disadvantages, like any system. It slows down procedures and decision-making and 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 (political) 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 properly with independent quality media and a civil society. That is the case in Switzerland. (Source: A. Vatter, Das Parlament in der Schweiz, Basel, 2018).