Swiss political system may be best known for its extensive use of referenda. However, others may argue that its most striking feature is the ability to avoid political polarization. In this respect it may be unique among the western nations.

That being said, it is hard to learn much about how it works. First, a big part of the system is informal and thus only discoverable by observing it personally or by asking the locals. Second, it's strongly decentralized. Different rules apply in different cantons and municipalities which makes the topic confusing to study. Third, Swiss aren't especially interested in promoting their own system abroad. A lot of the resources therefore exist only in local languages.

In this article I'll try to put together what I've learned by living in the country, speaking to local people, following local press and studying the resources.

Still, a disclaimer is due: I am not Swiss. I have lived here only for five years. Neither am I a political scientists or a sociologist. If you are Swiss, or simply know better than me, let me know about any inaccuracies in the article.

On the more technical side of things: There's a lot of material to cover, and the result may be rather overwhelming. It would be a small book rather than a long article. Therefore, I am going to split this essay into three or four installments which I will publish one at a time.

Semi-direct Democracy

When modern Switzerland was established in 1848, it was a pretty standard representative democracy, mostly based on the American model.

It's a federal state. Federal elections are held every four years. People are represented by political parties. There are two chambers of the parliament. Parliament elects members of the government, who then together run the country. The thriving ecosystem of various voluntary associations resembles the America that Alexis de Toqueville has written about.

However, Switzerland is special in that various elements of direct democracy were introduced in the course of history.

There are obligatory referenda: Any change in constitution, adjustment of taxes or joining any international organization must be approved by the people and the cantons. There are legislative referenda: Any law enacted by the parliament may be challenged and rejected in a referendum. Finally, there are so called "popular initiatives" which can propose a referendum on any topic. If the initiative manages to collect specified amount of signatures within specified amount of time the referendum is organized and the initiative may eventually get enacted. All of these referenda exist not only on the federal, but also on the cantonal and the municipal level. All of them are binding and neither of them needs a quorum.

To understand the scope of the thing, consider that a 37-year-old from the city of Zurich who turned 18 in year 2000, has, in past 20 years, had the opportunity to take part in 548 referenda, 181 of them being on the federal, 176 on the cantonal and 191 on the municipal level. With the average turnout of 45% it means that they have voted in approximately 246 referenda.

Due to their large number, individual referenda are not organized separately. Instead, they are voted on in batches, typically four times a year.

To get a flavor of how it feels like, here's the batch from the city of Zurich in February 2020:

  • popular Initiative "Affordable Housing": A sensitive issue especially in big cities like Zurich or Geneva, where rents are some of the most expensive in the world. The initiative proposes to build at least 10% of affordable, non-profit or cooperative flats, as well as a pre-emptive right for cantons and municipalities to buy land. It also proposes that infrastructure upgrades should be done without reducing the number of available flats. The referendum is held at the federal level. 46.5% in favor. Rejected.

  • Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation: Switzerland has previously prohibited discrimination on grounds of race, religion, age or political affiliation. This proposal adds sexual orientation to the list. Federal referendum. 63.52% of in favor. Enacted.

  • Law on passenger transport in taxis and limousines: A law that introduces the same rules for Uber and similar services and for the traditional taxi services. At the same time, it moves the enforcement of these rules from municipalities to the canton. The law was issued by the government of the canton of Zurich and challenged by a public initiative. (Not the least argument being that the law gives too much power to the canton at the expense of the municipalities.) Cantonal referendum. 52.84% of in favor. Approved.

  • Rosengarten tunnel and tram project: A plan by the canton to put 1.1 billion francs into rebuilding the busiest street in Zurich and moving the traffic underground. The plan was challenged by a public initiative. Cantonal referendum. 36.32% of in favor. Rejected.

  • People 's initiative "Reduce the tax burden for lower and middle income people": An attempt to reduce income inequality. The proposal adjusts the cantonal taxes by raising the threshold for non-taxable income, as well as by increasing the tax burden in the highest income brackets. Cantonal referendum. 42.04% in favor. Rejected.

  • popular Initiative "Lower Taxes for Everyone": A proposal to reduce cantonal taxes for the highest income groups. The aim is to prevent the relocation of the wealthy people to tax havens such as the cantons of Zug or Schwyz. Cantonal referendum. 29.63% in favor. Rejected.

  • Partial replacement of the tram depot in Hard district by new communal flats. The city proposes to take a loan of 203 million francs. Municipal referendum. 70.9% in favor. Adopted.

The canton publishes a handbook for each ballot, which explains, in quite a lot of detail, including graphs, maps and tables, what each referendum is about. Take the Rosengarten tunnel project. The guide devotes eight pages to explain the project, including topics such as the impact on the traffic situation in the canton, the impact on the environment, or a detailed explanation of the financing of the project. It states that both the cantonal government and parliament recommend voting in favor of the proposal. It is followed by the opinion of the minority in the cantonal parliament, arguing that the costs are too high, that the financial contribution from the federal government is uncertain, and that the project doesn't really address the existing problem. They recommend to vote against. The next page contains the opinion of the parliament of the city of Zurich. They argue, in rather strong terms, against the project. Finally, there's the opinion of the referendum commission, which is, as one would expect, against the tunnel.

If even the election guide is not enough, you can have a look at the websites advocating for the yes and no vote, respectively. While the website against is relatively minimalist, the in favor side has a long list of supporters. In addition to almost all political parties, there's a long list of supportive associations: The Automobile Club, the Association for the Promotion of Public Transport, the Employers' Association, the Association of Construction Companies of Canton Schaffhausen, the Association of Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, the Property Owners' Association, Swiss Travel Club, Zurich Chamber of Commerce and the like. Many of these organizations have also published their own assessment of the project.

As can be seen, the voters aren't exposed to a simple, black and white choice. Instead, they are drawn into a complex network of different preferences: Your party is in favor, but the deputies of your municipality are against. You are a member of the automobile club and the club is in favor. But your neighbors are against. Voting necessarily means understanding that things are never clear-cut.

Mandatory Referenda

Any change to the constitution must be approved by the voters in a referendum. There's no way around it. If you want to change the constitution, you need the majority of voters and the majority of cantons to vote for it. Period. (To clarify: Canton is considered to be in favor if the majority of voters in the canton are in favor.)

While this may seem as a reasonable rule on its own, it is in fact an important piece that complements the overall system. The results of popular initiatives are, for example, written into the constitution, meaning that they can't be overturned, except by a different referendum. (On the other hand, it gives the Swiss Constitution a rather special character. It begins with the thundering: "In the name of Almighty God! We, the Swiss people and cantons, mindful of our responsibility to the Creation" etc., but then it ends with guidelines for the protection of swamps and rules for building holiday homes.)

Similarly, Switzerland has no constitutional court. The right to interpret the constitution is granted only to the people. They may do so by running a referendum that makes the wording of the constitution more clear.

In short, the system is crafted in such a way that there are no loopholes. No way to disrespect the popular opinion.

In addition to the changes in constitution, referendum is also required to to join international organizations. This way, Switzerland decided not to enter the European Economic Area in 1992, to join Schengen area in 2005, not to join UN in 1986 and, again, to join UN in 2002. (And yes: Palace of Nations, the headquarters of UN, is located in Geneva and was located there for a long time even before Switzerland has become a member.)

Legislative Referenda

Legislative referenda get the least publicity but they may be the most important of all. Unlike constitutional referenda and public initiatives that tend to focus on big topics the legislative referendum can challenge and reject any law, no matter how trivial, passed by the parliament.

This keeps the parliament and the government in check on day-to-day basis. To quote Wikipedia:

The possibility for the citizens to challenge any law influences the whole political system. It encourages parties to form coalition governments, to minimize the risk that an important party tries to block the action of the government by systematically launching referendums. It gives legitimacy to political decisions. It forces the authorities to listen to all sectors of the population, to minimize the risk that they reject new laws in referendums. Before presenting a new bill to the parliament, the federal government usually makes a wide consultation to ensure that no significant group is frontally opposed to it, and willing to launch a referendum.

In short, legislative referenda are probably the single most important force that driving Switzerland away from the political polarization and towards the rule by consensus.

Popular Initiatives

Popular initiative is a way to partially change the constitution in arbitrary way.

As has already been said, if any proposal collects hundred thousand signatures in a year and a half, it is voted upon in a referendum. The result of the vote is binding and there is no quorum. If just 1% of the population takes part and 0.51% votes in favor of the proposal, it will be enacted and implemented.

Also, there are no restrictions on the topic of the popular initiative. In some countries that have similar instrument in their constitution the topics are restricted. It may not be possible to hold referenda about basic human rights or maybe about taxes. Not so in Switzerland.

To understand what a popular initiative means, let's have a look at a little sample. What follows are all the popular initiatives on the federal level that were voted on in the 2015-2019 election period:

  • "Stop urban spread." The Young Greens' initiative against suburbanization and for stricter zoning. 36.3% in favor. Rejected.

  • "Swiss law instead of foreign law." Proposal for the Swiss constitution to take precedence over international treaties. Referendum initiated by the Swiss People's Party. 33.7% in favor. Rejected.

  • "For cows with horns." The initiative initiated by farmer Armin Capaul. It proposes to subsidize the farmers who do not cut the cows' horns. 45.3% in favor. Rejected.

  • "For food independence." A complex proposal to support farmers. It includes a ban on genetically modified organisms. 31.6% in favor. Rejected.

  • "Fair-food initiative." The Greens' attempt to introduce restrictions that would promote fair, environmentally friendly agriculture and prevent food waste. 38.7% in favor. Rejected.

  • "For full-reserve banking." The initiative proposes that the Swiss National Bank should be the only source of money. Other banks would have to have cash reserves sufficient to pay out all the deposits. Initiative of the association "For the Modernization of Currency". 24.3% in favor. Rejected.

  • "Against radio and television fees." Publicist Olivier Kessler's proposal to abolish fees for state-owned media. 28.4% in favor. Rejected.

  • "For phasing out nuclear energy." An initiative launched by the Green Party. It proposes to decommission all the Swiss nuclear power plants by 2029. 45.8% in favor. Rejected.

  • "For strong social insurance" An initiative of the largest Swiss trade union. It demands to increase payments to the social insurance by 10%. 40.6% in favor. Rejected.

  • "For green economy." The initiative calls for the Swiss economy to function in a sustainable way. The government should set goals and report on how they are achieved at each session of the parliament. If the progress lags behind, additional measures should be taken. 36.6% in favor. Rejected.

  • "For universal basic income." An initiative was initiated by several individuals. It proposes an unconditional regular income for all. The amount of income and the method of financing should be determined by law. 23.1% in favor. Rejected.

  • The so-called "Dairy Cow" initiative. It suggests that the entirety of the fuel tax income should be spent on road maintenance. 29.2% in favor. Rejected.

  • "Pro Public Service." The constitution should explicitly stipulate that state and semi-state organizations (post office, railways, telephone) are not run for financial gain. It also limits the salaries of the employees in these organizations. 32.4% in favor. Rejected.

  • "Stop food speculation!" Young Socialists' initiative. It proposes to ban certain financial instruments in the area of ​​agricultural products. It orders the Federal Government to combat such practices also at the international level. 40.1% in favor. Rejected.

  • "For enforcing the expulsion of criminal aliens." Initiative of the Swiss People's Party. The party was dissatisfied with the government's implementation of the successful referendum on the expulsion of criminal aliens held in 2010. 41.1% in favor. Rejected.

  • "Against fines for marriage." The initiative of Christian Democrats, who did not like that in some cases unmarried couples paid less taxes than married couples. 49.2% in favor. Rejected.

Small cantonal or municipal popular initiatives are probably not that interesting for a reader from abroad, but still, let's mention a few of them. In recent years, the voters in the canton of Zurich have voted on: Definition of marriage as a union of a man and a woman. For the expansion of the Stadelhofen railway station. For the replacement of hunting associations by professional nature conservationists. For the harmonization of school curricula in German-speaking cantons. For one, instead of the two, compulsory foreign languages ​​in schools. For the law to support for the film and gaming industry. For economic organizations to take part in funding kindergartens. For the abolition of the commission reviewing the claims of rejected asylum seekers. For effective control of minimum wages. All of those initiatives were rejected.

It is also worth looking at the history of popular initiatives.

When modern Switzerland was founded in 1848 there was a clause in the constitution that the people could change the constitution. It was generally interpreted to mean that the constitution could only be replaced in its entirety. The instrument of the popular initiative was not established until 1891.

When we look at the list of all the popular initiatives, we notice that the instrument of popular initiative was little used at the beginning. The number of popular initiatives soars only in the seventies. The graph shows the number of all popular initiatives in blue and the number of successful ones in red.

The reason is that only by then did the instrument get working really smoothly.

In the beginning, for example, the custom of "putting the initiatives into the drawer" has become established. The new initiatives were simply left in the vacuum, without a referendum, until they were forgotten, or until the initiative had lost all of its political relevance. One particular initiative was literally forgotten and canceled only after spending 43 years in a drawer.

After this system was heavily criticized in the press, the government eventually gave up on it.

The next trick was to make a government counter-proposal for a popular initiative and thus divide its supporters. If, say, 60% of the people were in favor of the initiative, the two proposals (the original proposal and the government's counter-proposal) divided them into two groups of 30% each, so that neither proposal passed.

This problem was solved in 1987 by the introducing so-called "double yes" which makes it is possible to vote for both the initiative and the official counterproposal. An additional question has also been introduced which asks which of the proposals one would favor if both proposals were successful.

Next, there is the problem of the validity of the referendum.

The Swiss constitution does not limit the subject of the popular initiative in any way. The only requirement it makes is that it has a coherent content. In practice, this means that the voter should never be forced to say yes or no to a question that mixes two unrelated matters. (Example: Do you want Putin to be able to run for a president for two more election periods and adjust the state pension in line with the inflation?)

So, for example, the popular initiative which called for a reduction in military spending and the use of the money for social purposes, was canceled. The government's argument was that the financing of the army and the financing of social affairs are two independent issues that cannot be conflated in one referendum.

The argument sounds reasonable. But then one notices that some of the constitutional changes initiated by parliament are cheerfully mixing changes in various parts of the constitution. The system is unbalanced in this respect and the problem has not been solved yet.

Next, there is the problem of the consistency of the proposal with international treaties.

The first historical case had to do with a contract with Germany about the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in Rheinau on the border of the two states. According to the contract, the concession could not be canceled unilaterally. When the government, in 1954, allowed the popular initiative for the abolition of the power plant, it opened up the question of what happens if a referendum contradicts Switzerland's international commitments.

Back in the day, Switzerland avoided embarrassment because the initiative against the Rheinau power plant has not been successful. In recent years, however, there have been couple of successful initiatives that contradict international treaties.

One of them was the initiative for the automatic expulsion of criminal aliens in 2010. As the result of the referendum was never properly put into practice, in 2018 the original author of the initiative (Swiss People's Party) comes up with a different initiative proposing that the Swiss constitution - and therefore the results of the popular initiatives - should always take precedence to the international law - with the exception of those international treaties that were approved in a referendum.

Should a referendum pass, Switzerland could at any time revoke its existing international obligations and would be considered an unreliable partner abroad. Which, of course, could be a serious problem for Switzerland's export-oriented economy.

However, the referendum did not pass and so the problem is still unresolved. We can only guess how it will turn out. Maybe, one day, all international treaties will be voted on to gain unquestionable legitimacy. However, even this will not solve the problem of already existing international treaties and retroactive changes through popular initiatives.

To explore another serious and hard-to-fix flaw in the Swiss political system, let's have a look at the initiative "Against Mass Immigration".

First, some background.

Immigration is a serious issue in Switzerland. In that it differs from certain countries, including my native Slovakia, where immigration is negligible, but it is nevertheless used as a bogeyman to score political points. In Switzerland, a quarter of the country's population does not have Swiss citizenship. In city cantons such as Zurich or Geneva, the proportion of foreigners is even higher. There's even a lot of third generation immigrants who still don't hold Swiss passport.

The problem began after the second world war, when Switzerland, spared by the war, became an attractive country to immigrate to. People started moving in and that caused political tensions, as witnessed by no less than seven referenda against immigration between years 1968 and 2000. As Max Frisch once pointedly noted: "We asked for workforce and people came instead."

The number of non-citizens is nowadays so high that it's not only the xenophobes who lose their sleep. Traditional conservatives are worried as well: Is it possible to preserve the existing communal and political culture with that many foreigners? And so are liberals: Can a country where quarter of population doesn't have the right to vote be still called a democracy?

After all the anti-immigration referenda failed during the second half of the 20th century (support varied from 29.5% to 46.3%), initiative "Against Mass Immigration" finally succeeds in 2014 with 50.33% of the vote in favor. It asks for introducing quotas for foreigners, such that they "align with Switzerland's economic interests and favor Swiss citizens."

The government announces that it will act quickly and pass the necessary legislation before the end of the year. One week after the referendum, Swiss Minister of Justice calls Croatian Minister of Foreign Affairs and informs her that Switzerland won't sign the draft agreement, which gives Croatia (then a new EU member state) free access to the Swiss labor market.

The European Commission responds that one can’t cherry-pick from the freedoms enshrined in the treaty and that restricting freedom of movement will jeopardize Swiss access to the single European market. Brussels promptly suspends talks on cooperation in the sphere of education (Erasmus+ project with the budget of € 14.7 billion for the next six years) and science (Horizon 2020, € 80 billion budget for the same period). It also suspends talks on integrating the Swiss electricity market into the European market.

Universities report estimated losses on research grants in order of hundred millions euros. The government itself estimates that exclusion from Horizon 2020 will jeopardize 8,000 jobs. Higher electricity prices are expected. The student union is protesting because students suddenly do not know if they will be able to start the planned student exchanges. Credit Suisse is lowering its estimate of Swiss economic growth (from 1.9% to 1.6%) and expects that about 80,000 fewer jobs will be created.

The government finds itself between a rock and a hard place. After three years, just a few months before the deadline for implementing the referendum expires, it abandons the idea of ​​immigration quotas and introduces few half-hearted bureaucratic obstacles to employing EU citizens.

The country suddenly finds itself in an uncomfortable situation where the law is, strictly speaking, in a conflict with the constitution. (Recall that the results of referenda are written into the constitution.) At the same time, Switzerland does not have a constitutional court, which would reject the offending laws. Only the people are supposed to interpret the constitution through a referendum.

To appreciate how dangerous that is, consider that the Swiss system of direct democracy is based on the people modifying the constitution and government subsequently implementing those changes in law. If government starts to disregard the constitution, the system collapses. People may vote for whatever they want and it would have no effect. They can, in theory, challenge unconstitutional laws in legislative referenda, but interpreting hundreds of pages of legalese is probably too much to ask from an ordinary citizen. At the same time, there's no legal instrument to either challenge a standing law after it’s in place for 100 days or to introduce a new law by means of a referendum.

To be fair, a new form of initiative, so called “general popular initiative” was introduced by the government in 2003 that allowed for changing federal law. The instrument was approved in a referendum (70.3% in favor) but later it turned out that a lot of voters had no idea what it was about. In fact, it turned out that even government haven’t had a good idea. When they tried to implement it they found out that there are so many pitfalls and complications that it’s not feasible. In 2008 they proposed that the new instrument is removed from the constitution and the people approved the removal in a referendum (67.9% in favor).

In any case, the story continues with People's party, the initiator of the anti-immigration referendum shouting treason, but then announcing that they will not challenge the decision in another referendum. Instead, they opt to challenge the outcome indirectly, with an initiative asking for Swiss law - and thus the outcome of the anti-mass immigration initiative - to take precedence over international treaties - and thus over the Treaty on Free Movement with the EU. The initiative is rejected in a referendum.

In 2018, signature collection begins for a new referendum. The proposal instructs the government to negotiate the removal of free movement clauses from the treaties with the European Union and, if that does not happen, establishes automatic termination of said treaties. The referendum was scheduled for May 2020, but postponed due to the coronavirus epidemic. That being said, the surveys show that the referendum will most likely fail and the problem of discrepancy between the constitution and the law will persist.

To conclude, it is worth noting how the discussion is becoming more and more nuanced over the years. In the 19th century, it was disputed whether a partial change in the constitution through a popular initiative was permissible at all. Then we see the government openly sabotaging the legal instrument. Today, 130 years after it was introduced, the Swiss are finally dealing with the actual messy problems that the usage of popular initiatives entails.

Dangerous Referenda

A common argument against referenda is that they are dangerous. Let's recall how Lukashenko entrenched himself in the power: The referendum in 1995 gave him the power to dissolve the parliament. In 1996, again in a referendum, Belarusians decided that the presidential decrees would have force of law. Finally, the referendum in 2004 extended the presidential term indefinitely.

Or, for that matter, recall the Brexit referendum and the political chaos it plunged the UK into.

Given this danger and the fact - quite noticeable in the previous sample - that 90% of the popular initiatives tend to be rejected, one has to ask whether Switzerland gains any benefits from using the instrument at all.

But contemplating it, one may wonder whether the fact that out of all 210 popular initiatives that were voted on since 1891 only 22 were successful isn't besides the point. Perhaps it doesn't matter how many initiatives are being rejected. Perhaps the only thing that matters is that there's a safeguard when a conflict of interest between the people and their elected representatives arises. In such a situation a popular initiative may adjust the political system in such a way as to align the interests of the representatives with the interests of the people anew.

But as we look at the successful popular initiatives, we see almost no cases of such initiatives. At least at first glance, it is not clear why the topic of swamp protection or the topic of the construction of holiday homes should lead to a conflict of this kind.

However, two historical initiatives are an exception to the rule.

Back in 1917 Switzerland used to use majority system in the parliamentary elections. This led to a situation where the Liberal Democrats got only 40.8% of the vote, but 54.5% of the seats in parliament. The absolute majority allowed them to pass the laws, regardless of the will of the 59.2% who voted for other parties.

Needless to say, Liberal Democrats torpedoed every attempt to replace the majority voting system by a proportional one. If the instrument of popular initiatives was not available, it would be a dead end. The voters would have to wait until Liberal Democrats lose some of their voter support. But even then, thanks to the majority system, an absolute majority in parliament could be won by another party, who would again find it difficult to abolish the system that brought it to power.

General dissatisfaction with the state of affairs led to the launch of the popular initiative "For a proportional system of elections to the National Council" in 1918 which succeeded with 66.8% votes in favor.

In 1919, elections were finally held using the new, proportional system and Liberal Democrats lost the absolute majority.

The second exception happened in the period after World War II. During the war, a state of emergency was declared, in which a large number of otherwise decentralized powers were transferred to the federal government. After the war, the government refused to relinquish those powers. In 1949, however, the popular initiative "For a Return to Direct Democracy" (50.7% in favor) returned matters to pre-war state.

But however important those two exceptions may be, do they justify the existence of popular initiatives? To justify a powerful and dangerous instrument like that, one would expect to gain at least some day-to-day advantage rather than something that happens twice in a century.

Well, it turns out that referenda, in fact, serve an important day-to-day purpose: They act as a sword hanging over the parliament and the government.

Consider the legislative referendum. It can be used to block any law passed by parliament. The consequence, which, while obvious, does not occur immediately, is that the parliament simply does not pass laws that are apparently going to be challenged and rejected in a referendum.

Often, even a threat of referendum is enough to cause a change in the law or even let it be dropped altogether.

What's more, both the government and the parliament are very well aware of the possibility of a referendum and so they proactively make sure that no significant group of the population has a reason to block the new law.

Additionally, a zero quorum for a referendum means that even small minorities must be taken into account: If the law discriminates against, say, the hearing impaired, the rest of the nation may well ignore the referendum, but the deaf and deaf-mute will still be able to force its abolition.

The popular initiatives complement the system: Legislative referenda can be used only to reject new laws. Popular initiatives can be used to challenge old and dysfunctional ones.

And now it's becoming clear why almost all popular initiatives are rejected. If the initiative had a obvious chance of being approved, the parliament would introduce the necessary legislation on its own. From this point of view the small number of successful initiatives is not a sign of a system malfunction, but rather a proof that the system is functioning the way it is expected to.

In some cases in happens, that initiative has a chance to pass, but the government or parliament considers it harmful or disadvantageous. In these cases, they can come up with a so-called counter-proposal. The counter-proposal is typically a compromise. If the initiative asks for 100, the counter-proposal offers 50. Voters can then choose between rejecting the initiative altogether, accepting it, or accepting the counter-proposal.

In 2014, for example, the Evangelical Party of canton Zurich initiates a popular initiative for reducing the size of classes in schools. The initiative proposes a cap of 20 students per class. The cantonal parliament offers a counter-proposal in which it promises to create 100 new teaching jobs and distribute those teachers preferentially into municipalities that suffer the most from the problems with large class sizes. In the end, voters opted for the government counter-proposal.

The efficiency of the system of counter-proposals is witnessed not only by them being accepted on quite regular basis, but also by the fact that 73 federal popular initiatives were, in the course of history, withdrawn by their initiators in favor of the government counter-proposals.

There are yet more functions of popular initiatives.

To understand the next one, consider the process that each initiative goes through: The Federal Council will first check the referendum and translate it into all official languages. Then, the signatures are collected. The limit for collecting a sufficient number of signatures is one year and a half. The signature sheets are then handed over to the Federal Council. The government has a year and a half to discuss the proposal. If it decides to file a counter-proposal, this period is extended by another year and a half. Consultations with experts and all the stakeholders are held within this time. The government prepares a detailed report and passes it to the parliament. Parliament has another year and a half to discuss it. In the case of a counter-proposal, the period can be prolonged to three and a half years. Finally, the government sets a date for the referendum, which must happen within the next ten months.

The whole initiative, from the draft proposal to the vote, can therefore take up to nine years. In practice, this period usually ranges from two to six years.

The process seems highly inefficient at a first glance, but when one listens to what Swiss political scientists have to say on the matter, it becomes clear that this sluggishness is not a bug, but rather a feature. Some even distinguish between a real referendum (in Switzerland) and a plebiscite (everywhere else). One important difference is that the long duration of the process, which spans across election periods, prevents the referendum from being used for tactical purposes. Another difference is that it provides ample time for in-depth public debate.

And there's a lot of debate. It is not just the consultations organized by the government and parliament. The referenda are discussed in the media, both in serious newspapers and in tabloids, which are handed out for free at tram stops. They are discussed among colleagues at work during the lunch. They are discussed within the family during the dinner. At night they are discussed in pubs and bars. Associations, companies, political parties, government, parliament, all kinds of organizations and individuals all recommend voting either in favor or against. Public discussions are organized. Every simpleton feels obligated to express himself on the subject.

When election day comes, one may get an election handbook that presents both sides of the argument, but at that moment, one's head is already filled of various arguments, both in favor and against. One has become, at least to some extent, an expert on the subject. (And if you think about it, the 548 referenda in Zurich in past 20 years mean that the educational aspect of the system may be surprisingly large.)

To put the above in different words, a popular initiative can also be understood as a call for a public debate on a certain topic. The fact that it is followed by a binding vote ensures that people actually do care about the debate. True, the vast majority of popular initiatives are rejected, but at that point there has been a public discourse and people are at least aware of the matter. With referenda on matters such as universal basic income or full reserve banking, one would expect widening of the Overton window. However, I wasn't able to find a study comparing the size of the window in Switzerland and elsewhere.

One can also think of the public debate as a safety measure. Particular initiative may be dangerous, if approved, but when people go to ballots they are already well aware of the danger.

Another safety measure is that Swiss referenda are, in their essence, not polarizing. In referendum you are never asked to decide between two extremes, between, say, pro-life and pro-choice, but rather between the initiative proposal and the status quo. Voting against is always a safe and neutral option. It doesn't necessarily mean that you are not sympathetic to the spirit of the initiative. You may just think it's going too far, or maybe you like some aspects of it but don't like some other.

Consider the 2013 vote on the law granting special powers to the government in case of epidemic. Some people were against the proposal because they though it makes the federal government too powerful. At the same time they've kept quiet about it because they haven't wanted to be seen as part of the anti-vaxxer crowd which was dominating the debate. Luckily, voting against was a neutral choice they could take advantage of. It haven't meant that vaccination programmes would be relaxed. It just meant that status quo would be preserved.

Referenda as Tools: The Jurassic Question

The history of the Jurassic question begins after the Napoleonic Wars, in 1815, when the Jura region, traditionally part of the Principality-Bishopric of Basel, was annexed to the canton of Bern.

Jura, however, unlike Bern, is French-speaking and to make the situation worse, while the southern part of Jura is predominantly Protestant, same as Bern, the northern part of it is Catholic.

So, starting in 1826, several separatist movements emerge in Jura, fueled mainly by religious frictions, the question of the separation of church and state, and later, to some extent, the nationalism based on the language.

Modern Jurassic separatism dates back to 1947, when the Bern cantonal parliament refused to grant the position of construction minister to Jurassic politician Georges Moeckli on the grounds that he doesn't speak Bernese dialect good enough. That has opened the old wounds.

The following events are chaotic. The emergence of different opposition movements, mutual insults, demonstrations, public burning of a civil defense handbook, demolition of a statue of an unknown soldier, occupation of Swiss embassies abroad, bombs, paving stones and, unfortunately, several casualties.

In short, the whole range of events that accompany separatist movements around the world.

However, unlike in Northern Ireland, where the violence spiraled out of control at approximately the same time, Switzerland has succeeded - not least through the extensive use of the instruments of direct democracy - to keep the situation under control and eventually, if at the typical Swiss sluggish pace, to resolve it.

We can't go into details here, but let's at least look at a short timeline:

  • 1968: Establishment of two commissions (one bilateral and one impartial) to propose a plan to address the Jurassic question.
  • March 1970: The plan is approved in a referendum. The following referendums are proceeding according to the approved plan.
  • June 1974: Referendum on whether to create a new canton Jura. Approved.
  • March 1975: Districts that voted against the new canton in a previous referendum decide about their fate. The southern, Protestant part of the Jura decides to remain in the canton of Bern.
  • Autumn 1975: Municipalities at the border between the two cantons decide in referenda whether to join Bern or Jura.
  • September 1978: In a federal referendum, the Swiss constitution is amended to list the new canton (82.3% of the vote in favor).

Note the architectural beauty of the process. How the referendum is cleverly used to relieve the tension. Step by step, in cold blood, room for manoeuvre is taken from those who benefit from inciting conflict.

Firstly, the referendum on the process of resolving the issue was separated from the referendum on the issue itself. The fact that the process was approved in advance in a referendum gave legitimacy to the following referendums on specific issues and, the other way round, deprived the subsequent attempts to challenge the results of legitimacy.

Secondly, the fact that the process proposed by the preparatory commission had to be subsequently approved in a referendum created pressure in the commission to find a compromise solution. If they leaned too far to one side, there was a risk that the process would be rejected in the referendum and that the entire work of the commission would end up in the trash, along with the political careers of everyone involved.

Thirdly, note how, in the sequence of referendums, it were only those territorial units that voted against the winning solution, that got an additional vote. That prevented unending oscillation between Bern and Jura. The number of disputed areas kept constantly decreasing with each subsequent step of the process.

Finally, the ongoing process siphoned the moderates, who would otherwise have no option but to join radicals, towards peaceful campaigning for the oncoming referenda.

The events do not end with the creation of the new canton in 1979 though.

In the referenda above, the municipality of Laufen decided to remain in the canton of Bern, creating a Bern enclave between the cantons of Jura, Solothurn and Basel-Country. The events continued as follows:

  • November 1977: popular initiative "Do you want to start the process of connecting Laufen to the neighboring canton?" succeeds with 65% of the votes for.
  • January 1980: Referendum precludes Laufen joining the canton of Basel-City.
  • March 1980: In yet another referendum, Laufen decides to start negotiations with the canton of Basel-Country (64.65% in favor).
  • September 1983: Unsuccessful referendum on joining the canton of Basel-Country. 56.68% vote against. Laufen remains in the canton of Bern. (A parallel referendum in the canton of Basel-Country approves the adoption of Laufen by a majority of 73% of the votes.)
  • 1985: A scandal with discovery of the secret fund to finance Bernese loyalists in Laufen. The Bern Parliament rejects the complaint of the citizens of Lausanne. They bring the case before the Federal Court. The court orders a new referendum.
  • November 1989: Laufen decides to join the canton of Basel-Country (51.72% in favor).
  • September 1991: Canton of Basel-Country votes to accept Laufen. The decision is less warm than in 1983, but the referendum still passes (59.3% in favor).
  • September 1993: Federal referendum approves the annexation of Laufen to the canton of Basel-Country (75.2% in favor).

But the question of the so-called Bernese Jura (Protestant parts of Jura that have not joined the new canton) is still not resolved to the general satisfaction. Separatist haven't yet given up.

In February 2012 the governments of the cantons of Bern and Jura agree to deliver a solution to the problem. In November 2013, two referenda are held, one in Jura, the other in Bernese Jura. The referenda pose the question of whether to begin the process of creating a new canton that would include both areas. Should the referendum pass, a commission would be set up to propose a detailed process, which would then be voted upon in a referendum. The preliminary idea was that every municipality in the Bernese Jura would vote on whether to stay in the canton of Bern or join the canton of Jura.

Although the referendum succeeds in the canton of Jura (64.2% in favor), it fails in Berenese Jura (28.15% in favor). Thus, the question of the Great Jura is definitely off the table. Any further inciting of the Jurassic question loses political legitimacy.

The last painful spot is the town of Moutier, the only district in Bernese Jura which voted for the creation of the Great Jura (55% in favor).

Shortly after the previous referendum, the city of Moutier decides to hold a municipal referendum on joining the canton of Jura.

  • January 2016: The canton of Bern approves the referendum.
  • June 2017: The referendum accepts the joining of the canton of Jura (51.72% of the vote in favor).
  • November 2018: The prefecture of Bernese Jura, complains about the irregularities in the referendum and declares the result invalid.
  • October 2019: After the Bernese court confirmed the abolition of the referendum, the city council decides not to pursue the matter in front of the federal court, but rather to hold a new referendum in 2020.

And so, if everything goes well, the Jurassic question will be definitively resolved soon, after more than two centuries of conflict.

Next part


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38 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 5:33 PM

While I'm not an expert, I did study political science and am Swiss. I think this post paints an accurate picture of important parts of the Swiss political system. Also, I think (and admire) how it explains very nicely the basic workings of a naturally fairly complicated system.

If people are interested in reading more about Swiss Democracy and its underlying political/institutional culture (which, as pointed out in the post, is pretty informal and shaped by its historic context), I can recommend this book:

It talks about "consensus democracy", Swiss federalism, political power-sharing, the scope and limits of citizen's participation in-direct democracy, and treats Swiss history of being a multicultural, heterogeneous society.

[slight edit to improve framing]

Very good post, highly educational, exactly what I love to see on LessWrong.

Regarding the content of the post, I wonder if one helpful attribute of the system is that it makes the proposals concrete. You're not arguing against "basic income"; you're arguing against "the current proposal of basic income."

In this particular case the exact implementation of UBI was left to the government. Here's how the initiative proposed to change the constitution:

Art. 110a (new) Unconditional basic income:

  1. The Confederation ensures the introduction of an unconditional basic income.
  2. Basic income is intended to enable the entire population to have a decent existence and to participate in public life.
  3. The law regulates in particular the financing and the amount of the basic income.

though together with the other system, you can vote on a vague addition to the constitution knowing that you'll be able to cancel the law that comes out of it if it's bad. so I'd say it still in some sense leaves room for the consideration of a specific proposal, even if yet unknown.

> Very good post, highly educational, exactly what I love to see on LessWrong.

Likewise — I don't have anything substantial to add except that I'm grateful to the author. Very insightful.


I generally a fan of posts that just do lots of object-level exploration of the world – it feels like an underserved market on LessWrong. And in this case, I think the topic is fairly important. I'm found myself pleasantly surprised how fast the Swiss Political System went from not-even-being-on-my-radar, to seeming potentially like a really important case study.

The topic of "how to avoid political polarization" seems important. As of now, I'm not sure the Swiss system is all that informative (it's just one country, it's not clear which variables feed into the lack of polarization, and the system seems somewhat costly). But I think it's useful to wade through at least a few case studies.

I think of "how to do good large scale coordination" as one of the major questions LW has come to focus on in the past few years, and this seems like an important contribution to that, grounding out some of the more theoretical posts on game theory.

Self-review: Looking at the essay year and a half later I am still reasonably happy about it.

In the meantime I've seen Swiss people recommending it as an introductory text for people asking about Swiss political system, so I am, of course, honored, but it also gives me some confidence in not being totally off.

If I had to write the essay again, I would probably give less prominence to direct democracy and more to the concordance and decentralization, which are less eye-catchy but in a way more interesting/important.

Also, I would probably pay some attention to the question of how the system - given how unique it is - even managed to evolve. Maybe also do some investigation into whether the uniqueness of the political system has something to do with the surprising long-term ability of Swiss economy to reinvent itself and become a leader in areas as varied as mercenary troops, cheese, silk, machinery, banking and pharmaceuticals.

I am grateful for this post. I'm very interested in mechanism design in general, and the design of political systems specifically, so this post has been very valuable both in introducing me to some of the ideas of the Swiss political system, and in showing what their consequences are in practice. 

I thought a lot about the things I learned about Switzerland from this post. I also brought it up a lot in discussion, and often pointed people to this post to learn about the Swiss political system.

Two things that came up when I discussed the Swiss political system with people were:

  1. "Alright, but the Swiss could do that because they didn't need to worry about any outside threat. They didn't have to deal with the same difficulties other countries had to deal with."
  2. "Alright, that's all well and good, but this system hasn't led Switzerland to help in the holocaust, lots of residents aren't given citizenship... maybe the system isn't so great after all?"

My expectation is that Switzerland also had to deal with difficulties, and if it really had less difficulties than other nations, then it was at least in part because of their political system, and not what allowed them to have it. I also expect that point number 2 is more due to culture than political system. I'd be interested to see an exploration of that or even just hear what the author thinks.

  1. "Alright, but the Swiss could do that because they didn't need to worry about any outside threat. They didn't have to deal with the same difficulties other countries had to deal with."

That's not historically true. Switzerland, being a country positioned in the middle of big European powers (France, Austria, HRE/Germany, Italy) has gone through all the shit that the rest of Europe did.

That being said, the things often played out differently than elsewhere. It's not clear how much of that is pure luck and how much is attributable to other factors, such as peculiarities of the local political system.

Consider, for example the very beginnings. The core of the weird political entity that will one day become Switzerland was formed around the access route to the Gotthard pass. There are different mountain passes in Alps, but only one did escape the rule by aristocrats and got to be rules be local communities instead. The reason may have to do with that fact that Gotthard pass did not exist until 1220's when the first bridge was built in Schollenen Gorge. (Devil was involved in the feat, they say.) That meant that until then, canton Uri was an economic backwater - and literally so, being only reachable by ship - and tightly controlling it wasn't really worth the effort. The communities were to a large extent left to self-govern themselves. At the same time, aristocracy was particularly weak in XIII. century which allowed the new entity based on treaties between communities to form and gather strength instead of being immediately crushed by a superior power.

Or take the 30 year war. In some parts of HRE as much as 70% of the population died. The future Switzerland seemed very much on the same trajectory. There was a deep split between Protestants and Catholics and the forces were balanced out so that fighting could go on for a long time. But it did not. It may be partly attributable to the fact that great powers haven't invaded the region, treating it as a source of mercenaries instead. But even then, it's strange that the Swiss haven't started cutting each other throats all by themselves. One may point to the fact that catholic and protestant cantons were jointly ruling over subjugated territories which required some minimal amount of cooperation. Or simply that centuries of being bound by many mutual treaties and undergoing small-scale internal clashes has resulted in enough political skill to escape the temptation to wage a full-scale war. Or maybe that cantons, not being ruled by a single person, managed to escape the worst excesses of personal ambitions. Hard to say.

The current political system formed in 1948. It was so radical for its time that great powers would gladly crush it. But in 1848 all of them were busy keeping fighting the revolutions at home. Swiss went through their civil war and the establishment of the new system so quickly that once the great powers took notice, it was already done. The speed of the process was result of the victorious radical forces turning out to be rather moderate after they've won, they did almost no cleansing of the conservatives etc. The defeated conservatives, in their turn, being willing to continue the fight within the framework of the new institutions. In 1891 they've even permanently joined the government. Again, it's not easy to say why it happened that way.

In 1918, the political situation was tumultous. Bavarian Soviet Republic was established etc. In Switzerland, there was a general strike and it didn't look good. Army was mobilized. Paramilitary units started forming. But then the leaders of the strike backed down. The government made moderate concessions. The fight continued by political means until 40 years later, social democrats have become integral part of the government.

During WWII, Germany was definitely planning to invade Switzerland. But Switzerland was cooperative, allowing transport to pass between Germany and Italy. In case of attack, on the other hand, the Swiss army planned to retreat to the area around the Gotthard pass and hold on there as long as possible, which would stop that traffic and tie valuable resources in a difficult war in the mountains. All in all, there was little to gain from attacking Switzerland as long as Axis powers were fighting wars elsewhere.

It's hard to find a common pattern in all of that, but in any case, it's not like there have been less difficulties in Switzerland than elsewhere.

  1. "Alright, that's all well and good, but this system hasn't led Switzerland to help in the holocaust, lots of residents aren't given citizenship... maybe the system isn't so great after all?"

That's the price of rule by consensus. Your preferences may be to give citizenship to all the residents. But there's also a lot of people who would like not to let any foreigners in in the first place. What you get in the end is a compromise solution: A lot of immigrants are allowed in, but gaining citizenship is made deliberately difficult.

As for the holocaust note that Switzerland managed to keep their Jewish population safe. There are very few countries in Europe that can make a similar claim. And all that while being surrounded by Axis powers on all sides.

All in all, to me it sound like a question of sacrificing ideological purity in favor of achieving practical results.

Thanks! These are good answers and some interesting history.

As for the holocaust note that Switzerland managed to keep their Jewish population safe. There are very few countries in Europe that can make a similar claim. 

That's a really good point I somehow haven't thought on. Some more info from Wikipedia (Emphasis mine):

As a neutral state bordering Germany, Switzerland was relatively easy to reach for refugees from the Nazis. Switzerland's refugee laws, especially with respect to Jews fleeing Germany, were strict and have caused controversy since the end of World War II. From 1933 until 1944 asylum for refugees could only be granted to those who were under personal threat owing to their political activities only; it did not include those who were under threat due to race, religion or ethnicity.[33] On the basis of this definition, Switzerland granted asylum to only 644 people between 1933 and 1945; of these, 252 cases were admitted during the war.[33] All other refugees were admitted by the individual cantons and were granted different permits, including a "tolerance permit" that allowed them to live in the canton but not to work. Over the course of the war, Switzerland interned 300,000 refugees.[34] Of these, 104,000 were foreign troops interned according to the Rights and Duties of Neutral Powers outlined in the Hague Conventions. The rest were foreign civilians and were either interned or granted tolerance or residence permits by the cantonal authorities. Refugees were not allowed to hold jobs. Of the refugees, 60,000 were civilians escaping persecution by the Nazis. Of these 60,000, 27,000 were Jews.[33] Between 10,000 and 24,000 Jewish civilian refugees were refused entry.[33] These refugees were refused entry on the asserted claim of dwindling supplies. Of those refused entry, a Swiss government representative said, "Our little lifeboat is full". At the beginning of the war, Switzerland had a Jewish population of between 18,000 and 28,000 and a total population of about 4 million.[17][35][36] By the end of the war, there were over 115,000 refuge-seeking people of all categories in Switzerland, representing the maximum number of refugees at any one time.[33]

What a great post! This is really accurate.

Let me add a nuance about the political debate by comparing Germany and Switzerland.

I have moved from Germany to Switzerland (Zurich) 10 years ago. Germany and Switzerland are often considered similar by outsiders, or at least by Germans. To some extent this is true, but from the beginning I was really shocked by how much better the Swiss political system works than the German one (which is already considered sober and highly functional).

The most obvious difference is how much media and news in Switzerland focus on topics instead of people. The typical news headline in Germany is "politician X says that idea Y is bad". Such articles usually go a lot into detail on who else favors or rejects idea Y, but they usually don't discuss the advantages and disadvantages of idea Y. 

In Switzerland, the news are really different. The headlines still say which institutions (like political parties, cantons, governments, associations; muss less often people) favor or disfavor an idea. But it usually also gives their reasoning. Honestly, I had (and still have) the impression that "20 Minuten" (a free tram tabloid in Switzerland) does this much more often than "Der SPIEGEL" (one of the most renowned German political magazines).

In terms of voting, this makes a big difference. In Germany, voters vote for or against politicians. I had enough discussions in my family to know that they vote "for Merkel" or "for Scholz" (candidate for chancellor by social democrats in German elections), and they do this because they think that Merkel is better than Scholz (or just like her better), or vice versa. I think this is typical for most countries. And I think is a really stupid basis for decision, because over decades Germans have consistently been in the lucky situation to decide between two (or more) competent and sane politicians. So political agendas should make the difference, but they play a rather minor role. In Switzerland, the situation is very different. Even at election day, people vote mostly for parties and their programs (and not for people), and even more so in referenda.

This post describes very nicely where this comes from, and I have little to add. The sheer amount of political involvement and in-depth discussion, the institutionalised exposure to the arguments from both sides (the official voting booklets, but also lots of pro- and contra advertisement), the necessity to form an opinion... You have described it much better than I ever could. Having lived in both countries, I have the strong opinion that political decisions in Switzerland are much better than in Germany. I would recommend every other country to adopt the Swiss system if I only had the slightest idea how to do that. Unfortunately, I don't believe that "copy the set of rules" would work, because it leaves out the grown political culture. But at least your post gives me a better understanding of why it works, so thank you for that!

In the referendum examples, e.g. "Law on passenger transport" and "Rosengarten tunnel", it's not clear to me if the rejected/approved mean that the law or project was approved/rejected, or that the challenge against them was approved/rejected. Thanks if you can clarify.

Here "approved" means that official proposal was accepted. "Rejected" means that it was canceled. I.e., there will be no Rosegarten tunnel.

Only partway through, but:

Similarly, Switzerland has no constitutional court. The right to interpret the constitution is granted only to the people. They may do so by running a referendum that makes the wording of the constitution more clear.

Wowzers, that's neat.

the post is very informative and thought-provoking. and although the headline states that the article contains more than you wanted to know about the Swiss political system, I am curious and want to know about it more. which books would you recommend for reading further on the topic? which books did you read to research for the topic?


Thanks for the informative post. Oregon's referendum system has borrowed the information element of Switzerlands - check it out here

Thanks for the article - very informative and exactly the kind of content I enjoy!

In 2017 Australia held a public survey on whether same-sex marriage should be allowed, the results of which were pledged informally to be enacted by the government. Public votes on specific issues are relatively rare in Australia, so the debate around the procedural merits of voting on this particular issue were quite active.

I recall the main arguments against conducting a survey were mostly procedural criticisms, that it is wastefully expensive to hold a postal survey when public polling had revealed consistent majority support for same sex marriage for a number of years already. Wikipedia tells me the survey cost $80m AUD, so I wonder how much this Swiss system costs over the long haul?

The arguments in favour were mostly that it would break political and procedural gridlock over the issue and settle things once and for all with the legitimising stamp of direct democracy.

In the aftermath I found myself thinking 'we should do this more often' - so it's nice to see that somewhere in fact does do it more often!

PS: It's interesting to see the high rejection rate for referendums in Switzerland. The same-sex marriage survey was in fact suggested by the centre-right party who were historically opposed to same-sex marriage, and it's generally accepted that they viewed the direct (voluntary) vote as the best chance to get a 'no' or ambiguous result on this matter and introduce a long-term mandate against legalising same-sex marriage.

The thing about the cost is that it's already paid. Voting happens four times a year in any case and adding one more initiative doesn't change much. There's certainly a cost associated with government and parliament processing the initiative, but again, that's what they are expected to do, it can't be really thought of as an extra cost.

The the high rejection rate for referendums is explained by a few factors, among which:

  • If a referendum appears to be popular, the legislatures will pass it into a law before the referendum vote, and the initiators of the referendum will remove their initiative. Therefore the only initiatives that go into referendum are the ones that are either obviously unpopular among the majority of citizens, or the ones that the majority in the parliament strongly opposes.
  • Because citizens can initiate a referendum, the legislature is compelled into passing laws on the topics that could be brought through a referendum, therefore what is left for initiatives is more divisive topics.

There's yet one more dynamic: Initiative proposes X. Government is, like, this is just crazy. The initiators: Do change the law to include Y (a watered down version of X) and we'll retract the initiative.

Looking at it from that point of view, the referendum can be thought of not as a way for "the people" to decide, but rather a lever, a credible threat, to change the law without having to go via the standard representative system (joining a party, becoming an MP, etc.)

Let's go even further. Assuming the above model, the system can be improved by treating each successful referendum as a system failure. A postmortem should be written a submitted for public discussion:

  • If majority was in favour, why wasn't the law changed before in the first place?
  • Why haven't the counterproposal succeeded?
  • Why haven't the initiants retracted the initiative?
  • What should be done so that a similar failure doesn't happen again?

The latter “credible threat” seems to work similarly in Denmark, where 30% of the parliament can initiate a referendum. I think this only happened once in 174 years, because the 30% parliament minority uses this institution to force a compromise or even a “deal” (I assume that it’s most of the time a secret deal) with the parties in majority, not for “the people” to decide.

Interesting. I've never heard about that. Any tips about where to read some more about that?

Or, for that matter, recall the Brexit referendum and the political chaos it plunged the UK into.

I think there's a need to distinguish between two types of referendums here.

Tensions preexited the referendum. Indeed, the referendum was a bid to solve an explosive political situation. Therefore, the ensuing chaos is less of a surprise and therefore doesn't say much about referendums.

This is often the case in representative democracies where referendums are triggered and formulated by the government rather than the citizenship. In addition, in such crisis-time government-issued referendums, all actors understand that the legitimacy of the issuing government is tied to the result, which pollutes the debate around the actual matter, making it less about the policy and more about the individuals. On top of that, when there's hardly 1 referendum every 10 years, the citizenship use their votes to express old grievances that also have no relation with the matter at hand.

All these flaws don't happen when there are regular, citizenship-issued referendums, which is why I think it's important to make the distinction.

One nice thing about Switzerland is that there is no president, no single leader of the executive branch, but instead a federal council consisting of seven people who decide by majority, and where every member will stand behind the majority decision (there is technically a leader of the council, but he's first amongst equals, and has no special powers). Not having a single president means there's no winner-take-all outcome, which means you don't end up with a two-party system.

I’ve lived in French-speaking Switzerland for 30 years and can now vote and read everything I can about history and politics. This is a great article, thanks very much..

challenge and reject and law

challenge and reject law

fixed. thanks!

To understand the scope of the thing, consider that a 36-year-old from the city of Zurich who turned 18 in year 2000

Nitpick: someone who turned 18 in 2000 would be either 37 or 38 today, in 2020, not 36. (Was this originally written a year or two ago?)

Yes, it's a leftover from the last year. Changed to 37.

Thanks for this very enlightening post, I’m eager to read the follow-ups! Could you elaborate on why legislative referenda avoid polarization? Who has the initiative (of legislative referenda)?

Legislative referendum happens if 50,000 signatures are collected within 100 days.

As for polarization, I want to address that in part III., but the gist of it is that opposition can almost block the normal political process by initiating referenda over and over again.

The governing parties can maybe live with it for some time but eventually it leads to a crisis. And once the crisis hits the solution is usually to give the opposition a seat in the government. But keep in mind that this is a really slow process, measured in decades.

Neat, thanks for the insight! Just wondering, the 0.51% should be 51%, right?

I believe not. The point was that even if a referenda gains a majority of 1% of the population, it is still a successful referenda. Thus 0.51% when turnout is 1% is adequate to change law.

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