Period III newsletter

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, establishes the confederal status of the country, the cantons and communes, and the role played by the citizens. The last major revision of the Constitution took place in 1999. One of the most striking provisions of the Constitution is the referendum, which was introduced by the constitutional amendment of 1874, followed by the popular Initiative in 1891. The referendum and the Initiative were launched to give citizens an additional opportunity to control politics at the federal level.

Switzerland dared to introduce a referendum in 1874 as a sign that it trusts and respects its citizens. The composition, working method and election of the government and the referendum and Initiative are already safety measures to prevent a clientèle system and backroom politics. Politics will therefore always first have to look for the broadest possible consensus at the grassroots level. The citizen is the sovereign: No is No and Yes is Yes.

There are two types of referendums, the optional referendum, and the compulsory referendum. The Constitution clearly defines the obligatory referendum. An optional referendum takes place when 50,000 citizens request it within 100 days of the publication of new legislation. The referendum has the power of a veto. The strength of a referendum is the political discussion that takes place, the involvement of the citizens and organisations and ultimately the consensus it invokes. The citizens know that they always have the last say.

Besides, citizens have the opportunity to request an amendment or modification of the Constitution. 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 so that citizens can choose between two versions. Here too, politics is bound by the outcome. For a mature and well-functioning democracy, the referendum is an effective method of reconciling citizens and politics. The citizens can never blame politicians for bad policy because in that case, they have failed themselves.