Switzerland: Flagship of participatory democracy and a model for the world

"The Swiss are the champions of the ballot box world," is how Olivier Pauchard, a specialist in federal politics, describes Swiss citizens, "who go to the ballot box more often than in any other country in the world." This political practice is realised through referendums and compulsory popular initiatives, the two main instruments of direct democracy that largely determine the policies of the executive. Referendums are usually held on four Sundays a year (March, June, September and November), with federal, cantonal and communal issues being put to the vote on each Sunday.

More than a third of all national referendums in the world have taken place in Switzerland, which political analysts say represents the "gold standard of direct democracy". The content of the vote can range from issues that have a major impact on society, politics and the economy to seemingly less decisive matters such as time translation, art purchases, cow and goat horns.

Projection of the individual

Popular initiative means that every citizen has the opportunity to put any issue, no matter how significant, extravagant or revolutionary, to a popular vote, and if its text is approved by the competent authorities and accepted by the sovereign people, it will come into force.

In 2015, mountain farmer Amin Kapaul almost single-handedly launched a popular initiative to leave the horns of cows and goats intact (today, only 10 per cent of Swiss cows retain their horns). Investing a significant portion of his fortune and pension fund, he collected the 100,000 signatures needed to put the proposal to a vote. Despite this feat, the "no" vote passed by a slim margin of 54%, so most cows will not have horns.

Unlike countries with representative democracies, in Switzerland citizens have the last vote when the constitution is amended. They can also challenge any law passed by parliament by collecting 50,000 signatures of people eligible to vote, which must be submitted to the Federal Chancellery within 100 days of the publication of the challenged law.

A bit of history

Many Swiss citizens have a wealth of experience with public institutions. Olivier Muley, in his book A Political History of Direct Democracy in Switzerland, describes the slow evolution of the system of direct democracy in Switzerland as we know it. "It did not fall suddenly on the heads of the Swiss, it is the fruit of a numerous and complex history", this system, he says, "is linked to a very Swiss context in which federalism, a culture of dialogue and a sense of consensus stand out"; the education factor is therefore crucial and deeply rooted in the country. D. Altman describes the Swiss as mature, clear-thinking and experienced in public institutions.

The referendum as we know it today was borrowed from the French Revolution (1792), where it did not flourish. A few years later, however, in a neighbouring small country, this right of citizens was incorporated into the constitutions, first of the cantons and then of all public and communal authorities. The referendum was incorporated into the Federal Constitution in 1874 as a check on parliamentary laws, and six years later the right to popular constitutional initiatives was added.

However, according to some scholars and from a more romantic point of view, the true origin of direct democracy lies in the Landsgemeinde (people's assembly), which has survived since medieval times. In some small communities in the cantons of Apenzell and Glarus, this form of citizen participation still exists today: thousands of voters gather in the open air once a year to discuss issues and cast their votes. They still raise their hands and thus determine whether there is a majority. In the event of a clear tie, the votes are counted.

Swiss Parliament

Nationwide ballots

The record number of 700 nationwide votes held in Switzerland since 1848 illustrates the intensity of the population's use of these democratic tools for governing the country and communities, noting that the number of issues put to the vote has increased significantly since the 1970s. Of the approximately 700 recorded votes, 455 are popular (or citizen) initiatives and about 240 referendums. This includes a large number of projects that failed because they did not receive majority support, such as the referendum to reduce the number of bells ringing at all hours, car-free Sundays, or the rejection of a popular initiative to establish a universal basic income without work. Numerous attempts that failed because the necessary signatures could not be gathered are not counted.

It is now possible to vote weeks before polling day, so over 90 per cent of all votes are cast by post or online, speeding up citizen participation and counting, so the ballot boxes remain open and half-empty on polling day.

Criticism of the vote

According to experts, the most common criticisms of the system are the slowness, high cost and large number of ballots, which leads to fatigue and apathy among a large part of the population.

In Switzerland, a red booklet summarising the initiatives is sent out with every vote, but polls show that few people read it and there is little open discussion of the issues. Thus, some voters are insufficiently informed and vote on important issues on the basis of emotion, without sufficient knowledge of economics or other issues to make a decision.

On the other hand, David Altman, professor of political science at the Pontifical University of Chile, says that the dark side of this system "manifests itself when some groups use it to impose their own agenda, often leaving minorities defenceless", so the Greens, "believing that there is an excess of democracy in Switzerland, propose to limit direct democracy a little, just a little, arguing that initiatives affecting fundamental rights cannot be submitted to popular debate."

Direct democracy

Although the right to political participation is enshrined in Article 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: 'Everyone has the right to take part in the government of his country, directly or through freely chosen representatives', the public in many countries still complain about the disconnect between politicians and institutions on the one hand and the people on the other, and the need for direct citizen participation in decision-making.

As part of the global trend towards direct democracy, D. Altman notes that Switzerland has again and again served as a role model and its experience is used as a benchmark in countries that are increasingly adopting these instruments.

If this were to be implemented in Spain, "it would have to be done in the light of the mistakes others have made." As the Swiss-Spanish lawyer Daniel Ordaz, author of several books on direct democracy in Spain, points out. "You can't take the Swiss constitution, strike out the words 'Zurich' and write 'Albacete'; the Swiss have dozens and dozens of years of tradition of direct democracy, while we started in 1978 with representative democracy."

"There is a kind of lack of self-esteem that leads many Europeans (as in the case of Spain) to believe that this system cannot be for them. The truth is that direct democracy is a potential solution to most of the world's problems and could well be 'exported' to the whole of Europe," says a political activist for direct democracy, a member of the Swiss Social Democratic Party. He supports the idea that all Western democracies should involve society more in decision-making: "Permanent mechanisms for democratic control and mandatory citizen participation should be introduced; so that civil society can put forward popular initiatives that parliament is obliged to process and put to a popular vote, and at the same time that citizens can demand a popular vote on decrees or laws passed by parliament with which part of civil society disagrees."


Switzerland is an excellent example of participatory democracy because people there actively participate in the political process through referendums and popular initiatives. This system, which is considered the gold standard of direct democracy, gives the population the opportunity to directly influence important decisions, from changing the constitution to solving everyday problems. This unique political practice originated in Switzerland because of its history and cultural characteristics and continues to evolve to this day.

The Swiss model continues to inspire other countries seeking to increase citizen participation in government. Starana is a good example of how direct democracy can be a useful tool to solve many social and political problems. As Daniel Ordaz, an experienced lawyer, argues, it is important to consider specific conditions and learn from mistakes in order to successfully adapt such systems in other countries. Ultimately, direct democracy represents a significant step towards a more engaged and responsible civil society.


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