Swiss Political System: More than You ever Wanted to Know (I.)

by Martin Sustrik24 min read19th Jul 202027 comments

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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.

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