Bern, Bundeshaus. Foto/Photo: TES.

The Swiss Direct Democracy

One of the most striking features of the political system of Switzerland is the absence of dominant politicians. Few Swiss citizens know the name of their head of state or federal president.

That is not surprising. They are appointed for one year and always belong to the government of seven ministers. The head of state is the primus/prima inter pares. The Prime or First minister does not exist. All members of the government are equal.

As laid down in the Constitution, a government of seven ministers is already unique and has remained unchanged since 1848.

The composition of the government is also exceptional. The four largest parties to the left and the right share the ministerial posts. New parties are not automatically given a place in the government after one or two successful elections but must prove themselves over a longer period.

Direct democracy gives citizens the final say through the (mandatory or optional) referendum and popular initiative. Another aspect is the militia system (Milizsystem/Le système de milice) type of political commitment, whereby members of parliament are part-time politicians.  Although this system is under pressure, it shows the commitment of the citizens.

It is a  system that guarantees a high degree of stability, legitimacy, continuity and involvement by the citizens. Thus, the citizens are de facto politicians and always have the last say.

The most important features of this system are federalism, the decentralised state organisation, direct democracy, the multicultural society, the electoral system, the formation of long-term coalitions and the participation of citizens, organisations and social partners.

Switzerland, as we know it today, was founded in 1848. The canton of Jura came into being in 1979. The twenty-six cantons are sovereign republics unless the Constitution transfers powers to the Federal level. The political life in the cantons and around 2 200 municipalities are often much more relevant concerning daily life issues.

The importance of direct democracy goes beyond the day of voting. Direct democracy influences the whole political process, lengthy consultation procedures and compromises; it tamps down the madness of daily politics and the ambitions of individual politicians and their (patronage) networks. Above all, it provides legitimacy. The people are the sovereign rather than the political parties and politicians.

The cantons and their different languages, cultures, religions and economic models thrive under this system. Nevertheless, this system also has its weaknesses. It functions slowly and is complicated. It is difficult for other countries/organisations to imagine that citizens and their cantons can dispute European agreements and treaties.

There is always an alternative in the Swiss democratic model. The dogma of no-alternative (Alternativlosigkeit) does not exist. The advantages of the Swiss democratic federal bottom-up system far outweigh the disadvantages.

In a referendum on the abolition of the referendum, a vast majority of citizens will vote in favour of the referendum. No politician, minister or political party is willing, able or constitutionally entitled to ignore a decision by referendum.

(Source and further information: W. Lindner, S. Mueller, Schweizerische Demokratie. Institutionen, Prozesse, Perspektieven, 4. Aulage, Bern 2017)