In 1892 Switzerland’s first popular initiative was presented. Since then, the population has had recourse to the possibility of forcing a vote. Illustration: Marco Heer
In 1892 Switzerland’s first popular initiative was presented. Since then, the population has had recourse to the possibility of forcing a vote. Illustration: Marco Heer

The first popular initiative

There’s a first time for everything. In this series, we take a look at the world of Swiss firsts. Today: Switzerland’s first popular initiative.

Andrej Abplanalp

Andrej Abplanalp

Historian and communications chief of the Swiss National Museum.

The first popular initiative in Switzerland, which at that time was still a very young nation, was launched in May 1892 and presented in September of the same year. Almost 90,000 citizens – in those days, women could neither vote nor sign up to an initiative – demanded a ban on the slaughter of animals without prior stunning. This referred to the kosher butchering of animals. Around 80% of the signatures came from the cantons of Zurich, Aargau and Bern. This is hardly surprising, given that those cantons make up a large proportion of the population. However, the move was more than just a matter of animal rights; it also had anti-Semitic undercurrents.
Switzerland’s first popular initiative collected nearly 90,000 signatures, with a good 83,000 of them assessed as valid.
Switzerland’s first popular initiative collected nearly 90,000 signatures, with a good 83,000 of them assessed as valid.
Switzerland’s first popular initiative collected nearly 90,000 signatures, with a good 83,000 of them assessed as valid. Swiss Federal Archives
But it took some time before the fledgling state’s voters were able to use their initiative. In principle, this type of ‘intervention’ was not envisaged either under Swiss law, or in the ideas of those in power in Parliament. While it was possible for the people to obtain a complete revision of the federal Constitution, some parts of it could not be changed. It was only with the support of the Catholic Conservatives that the ‘Popular Initiative Project’ had any real chance. The conservative groups were insecure in their current position, and were looking for a way to assert themselves in that liberal age. And, as had been demonstrated by a variety of suggestions at cantonal level, popular initiatives were an effective tool. So in 1884, the three Catholic-Conservative National Councillors Joseph Zemp, Johann Joseph Keel and Martino Pedrazzini tabled a motion. It called for the establishment of an initiative for partial revision of the federal Constitution. The liberal Free Democrats, the strongest force in the country, were by now moderately enthusiastic about this idea, but in any case, as a progressive group they couldn’t publicly express opposition to it. And so the logical outcome was the introduction of popular initiatives.
Portrait of Joseph Zemp.
Portrait of Joseph Zemp. Swiss National Museum
And then came the first popular initiative mentioned above. In 1893 the proposal was accepted, with more than 60% of votes in favour. For a long time, it was to remain the only popular initiative that was accepted. There was a long break until the next approval in 1908, when the ban on absinthe was accepted. The ritual slaughter of animals is still prohibited in Switzerland today, and in the 21st century the issue still regularly gives rise to heated debates, now also with anti-Islamic undertones. When the Federal Council sought to relax this particular regulation in 2001, another instrument of populist politics, the referendum, was threatened. In the end, the government decided not to make the amendment.
Collecting signatures for the popular initiative ‘Decriminalisation of abortion’, 1971.
Collecting signatures for the popular initiative ‘Decriminalisation of abortion’, 1971. Swiss National Museum / ASL
Over 480 popular initiatives were tabled between 1893 and today. Many of them were rejected or withdrawn. But most of these initiatives have still had some effect anyway, because the voice of the people could not and cannot be ignored.

The first time…

There’s always a first time. In this series, we will be looking at historic Swiss firsts. The topics covered are very diverse: from the first zebra crossing to the first ever popular initiative. The articles have been produced in cooperation with the Schweizerisches Bundesarchiv (Swiss Federal Archives).

Further posts

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Swiss National Museum

Three museums – the National Museum Zurich, the Castle of Prangins and the Forum of Swiss History Schwyz – as well as the collections centre in Affoltern am Albis – are united under the umbrella of the Swiss National Museum (SNM).