On voting weekends, posters like this one summon voters to the ballot box.
On voting weekends, posters like this one summon voters to the ballot box. Swiss National Museum

Direct democracy in Switzerland

Of all the world’s democracies, Switzerland has the most extensive elements of direct democracy. The historical roots of this political structure lie in the country’s relatively well-developed educational system, and the rural uprisings of the 19th century.

René Roca

René Roca

René Roca has a PhD in history and is a secondary school teacher and Director of the Research Institute for Direct Democracy fidd.ch.

Over the past 200 years, Switzerland’s citizens have developed democracy into a globally unique model of government. Direct democracy is an integral part of our political culture, and a key aspect of the country’s economic success. No other country conducts as many voting processes every year as Switzerland does. On a total of four separate dates each year, the Swiss people have the opportunity to voice their opinions through initiatives and referenda covering a huge array of issues. And this system operates at all political levels – municipal, cantonal and federal. For example, Switzerland was the only country in the world that had two opportunities, in the past year, to vote on a COVID-19 law. What are the roots of this model of democratic success?

Cooperative principle, natural law and education system as a basis

Even before the federal state was founded in 1848, implementing direct democracy enabled Switzerland to build a foundation at municipal and cantonal level which took some very different directions over the course of the 19th century. This always happened “from the bottom up”, that is, building from the municipalities and proceeding through the respective canton to federal level; this is how our established federalist and subsidiary model evolved. The cooperative principle and natural law were key aspects of this process. “Natural law” means that people are concerned about the intrinsic rules for living together – the basic, humanitarian rules that transcend time – about ethical behaviour (question of values), and about the structure of the political and legal order. Natural law was applied in Switzerland with, among other things, the cooperative principle and its three “selves” – self-help, self-determination and self-responsibility. This principle implied an integrating force without which Switzerland as a Willensnation, a nation forged by the will of its people, a nation based on freedom and equality, could not have emerged. This is evidenced by numerous forms of pre-modern democratic institutions, such as the Landsgemeinde with their different forms of arrangement in various cantons, the “Free State of the Three Leagues” in the Canton of Graubünden, and the “Republic of the Seven Tithings” in the Canton of Valais. Such forms have existed in Switzerland since the late Middle Ages, contrasting with the situation in predominantly feudal and absolutist Europe.
The Glarus Landsgemeinde, the cantonal assembly, on a postcard dating from around 1895.
The Glarus Landsgemeinde, the cantonal assembly, on a postcard dating from around 1895. Swiss National Museum
Economic development began late in the Confederation, but it was on a solid, humanitarian footing. This didn’t mean the country’s growth was free of conflicts, but it usually produced good solutions in line with the “bonum commune”. Prior to 1848 Switzerland was primarily rural and agricultural, but from the end of the 18th century up to 1848 the country experienced an initial industrial upturn. However, this only covered certain regions of the country and was based on the export-oriented light industries – cotton spinning and weaving mills, silk weaving and clock-making. At the end of the 19th century this process also began to have an impact on other sectors, and imbued Switzerland with a wealth of innovative spirit. One key reason for this is that Switzerland was far ahead of most European countries when it came to the education system, as the current evaluations of what is known as the Stapfer Enquête demonstrate. In 1799, Helvetic minister Philipp Albert Stapfer (1766-1840) conducted the first empirical survey of Switzerland’s school system. The critical edition of these important sources didn’t appear until 2015. The initial findings of research projects are now available, and they are surprising and very enlightening. In about 1800, for example, Switzerland was a real “bastion of schooling”, where almost every child attended school. The first research findings may explain a lot, including the further political developments in Switzerland.
A fundamental pillar of direct democracy: education for all. “Das Schulexamen” by Albert Anker, 1862.
A fundamental pillar of direct democracy: education for all. “Das Schulexamen” by Albert Anker, 1862. Wikimedia / Kunstmuseum Bern
Recognising the human urge to participate in shaping and improving societal circumstances, educated people of the time initiated major changes not only in the economic sector but also in politics. The educational system that was already in place was significant in that respect. As a result of this “bastion of schooling”, among other factors, in the first half of the 19th century a number of rural grassroots movements in Switzerland succeeded in winning the first direct democratic people’s rights. These rights were pushed through sometimes in the face of very fierce resistance, chiefly from liberal circles. This is shown by a swathe of cantonal examples in which rural grassroots movements, bringing together traditional and progressive liberal concepts, notably became active during the period of Swiss regeneration (1830-1848).

Baselland and its “movement people”

From 1830 onwards, liberal groups pushed ahead with democratic development in Baselland. As a small, liberal elite, they advocated the principle of representation. The sovereignty of the people was to consist merely of the election, limited by a census, of the legislative authority and should not be fleshed out by further rights of the people. An opposition movement made up of factions of the rural population, known as the “movement people”, quickly formed. These were radical-thinking liberals, some of whom moved in a Jacobinic or early Socialist direction and espoused more far-reaching popular rights. In the wake of the separation from Basel-Stadt, the “movement people” soon had their first taste of success. In 1832 Baselland adopted its first independent constitution, enshrining in it the statutory veto, a precursor to today’s optional referendum. This made Baselland the second canton, after St Gallen, to introduce this law of the people. Initial political experiences were good, and the system of direct democracy was subsequently improved little by little.
Carving up territory as a result of the conflict between town and countryside.
Carving up territory as a result of the conflict between town and countryside. Zentralbibliothek Zürich

Lucerne and its “rural democrats”

In 1831, the Canton of Lucerne had adopted a constitution by referendum for the first time. The 1931 constitution was a product primarily of liberal groups and, thanks to its democratic nature, was a great leap forward. However, as in the beginning in Baselland, democracy was representative, which means that except for restricted elections (census), there was no opportunity for the population to have an active role in shaping the political landscape. For the liberals, this was the “ideal system of governance”. The Catholic conservatives, also known as “rural democrats”, had a different idea of sovereignty of the people. They wanted to give the people more say. To achieve this, a rural grassroots movement was formed. After intensive political debate, in 1841 the “rural democrats” pushed for a complete revision of the constitution, a move which ultimately received a large majority in the voting. The first paragraph of the new constitution identified the Canton of Lucerne as a “free democratic state”. In a commentary to the constitution, the founding fathers explained that the introduction of citizens’ rights was crucial, because in a representative democratic state the “will of the people is ceded to those who represent them” and the people themselves are left with “only the shadow of actual sovereignty”. As in St Gallen and Baselland, citizens’ rights included the statutory veto. For Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler (1780-1866), probably Switzerland’s most significant 19th century philosopher, the Lucerne statutory veto was “the most important new institution”. He also called for citizens’ rights for other cantons so that they would be “more orderly and happier”; this subsequently came about. In the Canton of Lucerne, direct democracy was further developed over the next few decades.
Portrait of Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler (1780-1866).
Portrait of Ignaz Paul Vital Troxler (1780-1866). Zentralbibliothek Zürich

A number of political currents were essential in enforcing direct democratic rights

Following the establishment of the modern Federal state in 1848, the liberals took important steps towards driving economic growth in Switzerland, thus making possible the second industrialisation (including railway construction). But, as the example of Alfred Escher shows, they also had a tendency towards aristocratisation, retaining power within the upper echelons of society, and favoured a utilitarian principle that produced social inequality and injustice. In this respect, the liberals often failed to respond adequately to the societal aspect of industrialisation. The “movement people” and the “rural democrats” were among the political losers in 1848 after the Sonderbund War. But like the Liberals, they left their mark on Swiss history before and after 1848. The liberal victors of the Sonderbund War of 1847 had to go through a long learning process before they accepted direct democracy and discarded their attitude of condescension and conceit towards the “people”. Switzerland would not be a federalist state with a system of direct democracy, nor would it have today’s model of economic success, if the liberal, anti-clerical and, to some extent, centralist elements had been able to assert themselves unopposed. Liberal, early socialist and conservative circles were jointly responsible for the development of the democratic system in Switzerland. What do we need today to maintain and improve this system?
Symbolic reminder of the pre-modern democratic institutions in the chamber of the Council of States. “Die Landsgemeinde” mural by Albert Welti and Wilhelm Balmer, 1917.
Symbolic reminder of the pre-modern democratic institutions in the chamber of the Council of States. “Die Landsgemeinde” mural by Albert Welti and Wilhelm Balmer, 1917. Parliamentary services

Significant expansion of political education

Direct democracy in Switzerland is an extremely challenging task, and requires the country’s inhabitants to debate the relevant issues intensively and in a factually sound manner. It is also necessary for people to be well informed about aspects of Switzerland’s institutions, respect the democratic structure of our federalist country, and be able to historically contextualise the proposals on which they are asked to vote. All of this requires good civic knowledge and a broad knowledge of Swiss history; this learning should start in primary school and be continued at secondary level II, with references to current issues. However, active participation in direct democracy isn’t simply about learning individual skills; it requires the whole individual to be willing to participate and to actively help shape society in the interests of the common good.

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