Constitution and Democracy

Direkte Demokratie, Glarus. Photo/Foto: Wikipedia.

The Referendum

There is another player besides the parliament and government in Switzerland: namely 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 own 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 a wide variety of subjects every three months. The issues vary from cowbells to taxes.

People’s Initiative

The people’s Initiative (die Volksinitiatieve) is another referendum about changes in the Constitution. At least 100 000 citizens must support an Initiative by people.

At least eight cantons can also request a referendum (Kantonsreferendum). This has not happened for a long time, but the idea is gaining momentum.


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

Not all referendums are equally interesting or mobilize a great number of voters. That is not the point, however. What makes a referendum crucial is the fact that politicians can never forsake their duties 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 any (opportunistic) delusions 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 the arguments of organizations and citizens into account.

The presence of citizens at all levels (municipal, cantonal and federal) for all political decisions is one of the pillars of Swiss democracy, together with the rule of law, (social) cohesion and prosperity.

It also testifies to 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 an independent media and civil society. This is the case in Switzerland. (Source: A. Vatter, Das Parlament in der Schweiz, Basel, 2018).