Constitution 1874 (Referendum). National Museum Zurich. Photo/Foto: TES.

A beneficial Democracy

The Constitution of 1848 is still the political fundament of modern Switzerland. The Constitution, partly based on the American model of 1787, establishes the confederal status of the country, the cantons and communes, and the role of the citizens. The last major revision of the Constitution took place in 2000.

The Referendum

One of the most striking provisions of the Constitution is the referendum, introduced by the constitutional amendment of 1874, followed by the popular Initiative  (Volksinitiative) in 1891. The referendum and the Volksinitiative were introduced to allow citizens to control politics at the federal level.

The establishment dared to introduce the referendum and initiative because the establishment trusted and respected the citizens. The composition, working method, government election, and the referendum and initiative are safety measures to prevent backroom politics.

Politicians must always look for the broadest possible consensus at all levels. The citizen is the sovereign: No is No, and Yes is Yes.

There are two types of referendums: the optional referendum and the mandatory referendum.

The Constitution clearly defines the mandatory referendum (international treaties, any change of the Constitution, for example). The ‘double yes’ is required for a positive result: the majority vo yes-votes in the country and the Senate.

An optional referendum takes place when 50,000 citizens request it within 100 days of the publication of new legislation. The majority of votes in the country are decisive.

Both referendums have the power of a veto. The strength of the referendum is the public discussion, the involvement of the citizens and organisations, and the legitimacy of the legislation and decisions. The citizens know that they always have the last say.

People’s Initiative

The citizens also have the opportunity to request an amendment or modification of the Constitution (Volksinitiative). They can submit a request to amend the Constitution with the support of at least 100,000 citizens. This request may contain broad outlines or a detailed proposal. Sometimes there is even a counter-proposal by the government so that citizens can choose between two versions.

The ‘double yes’ is required for a positive result: the majority vo yes-votes in the country and the Senate.


For a mature and well-functioning democracy, the referendum and the People’s initiative effectively reconcile citizens and politics. The citizens can never blame politicians for bad policy because the citizens are the politicians.