Creation of Direct Democracy in Switzerland

The people are no longer willing to be governed from above; they demand their share in the making of laws and the exercise of power (…) they demand that self-government finally means what it says,

wrote Florian Gengel, editor of the Berne newspaper “Der Bund,” in August 1862.

In Switzerland, the liberal movement succeeded in achieving what it failed to achieve elsewhere: the creation of a nation-state and modern democracy. The half-century between 1798 and 1848 – full of conflict and occasionally descending into chaos – can be seen as a period of foundation. It began with the “Helvetic Republic,” the shortlived attempt to transform the loose federation of states of the old confederation into a unitary state on the French model. Subsequently, the old order was partially restored in two stages (1803 Acts of Mediation; 1815 new federal treaty) and Switzerland was converted back into a conservative league of states.

However, economic and social development proceeded in a contrary direction to that of the Restoration. In 1830/31, there were democratic revolutions in twelve cantons; the old ruling order was replaced by modern, democratic institutions – though for the time being citizens still had no direct participation in law-making. All cantons, with the sole exception of the canton of Fribourg, approved their new constitutions in popular votes. These changes laid the foundations for the Swiss political and constitutional system which still exists today. The Swiss federal state of 1848 was born out of bitter struggles and civil war.

The 1848 federal constitution institutionalised a new state order on the model of the liberal-democratic cantons. It was designed from the start to be open to revision and already included the right of popular initiative for total revision of the constitution, in addition to the obligatory constitutional referendum. It created a framework for the bourgeois-liberal government and its modernising policies. At the same time, it can be seen as a declaration of intent: national democracy, the nation and the Swiss people, the nationstate and the federal state were at that time imagined goals rather than present reality.

Constitutional Referendums 1848, 1872, 1874, 1999

There was dissatisfaction with the new democracy almost from the beginning, but opposition demands for greater participatory rights were at first resisted. It required a second democratic revolution before direct democracy could be added to representative democracy, against the resistance of the ruling liberal elite, and a new quality of democracy brought to the relationship between the rulers and the ruled. This second revolution was carried out by the Democratic Movement of the 1860s.

It defeated the ruling liberal elite and in the canton of Zurich made the decisive breakthrough to Modern Direct Democracy. The new constitution of 1869 in the canton of Zurich brought together a series of participatory rights (the constitutional and legislative initiatives, the obligatory legislative and constitutional referendums, the finance referendum), institutionalizing a degree of modern direct (though exclusively male) democracy which had never existed anywhere else before that time. It served as a model for the change in the political system from indirect to direct democracy in other cantons and in the federation.

The introduction of direct democracy – as with other changes, both before and after – took place first in the cantons and only later (and in a weaker form) in the federation. At the federal level, the facultative referendum was instituted in 1874. In 1891, the popular initiative was introduced. The referendum meant that constitutional development was placed on a different footing – with considerable consequences for the entire political system. From representative government and majoritarian democracy arose Swiss “referendum democracy” – an activating democracy whose basic features continue to this day and which is accepted as legitimate by the citizens.

After 1891 direct democracy was further extended. The introduction (in 1918) of a proportional system for the election of the National Council made it possible for smaller groups to gain representation in parliament. The referendum on international treaties (introduced in 1921, extended in 1977 and 2003) allowed citizens to be involved in decisions on foreign policy. The creation of the so-called “resolutive” referendum in 1949 restricted the ability of the Federal Assembly to protect decisions from exposure to referendum by declaring them to be “emergency measures” (in the 1930s the government had used the emergency clause to systematically avoid referendums). In every case, these innovations were introduced through a national citizens’ initiative – proof that direct democracy can use the initiative right to extend (or also limit) itself.

Popular sovereignty disputed

The Liberals agreed in principle that sovereignty resides in the people, but after 1830 disagreements over how the principle was to be embodied in the institutions of state produced a split between liberal and radical democrats. For the liberal establishment, popular sovereignty was in practice limited to an elective democracy in which the representatives exercised political power on behalf of the people. It rejected a direct participation of the citizens in legislation. This view was reflected in the first democratic cantonal constitutions and in the 1848 federal constitution. Article 1 of the Zurich constitution of 1831 illustrates this:

“Sovereignty resides in the people as a whole. It is exercised in accordance with the constitution by the Great Council as the representative of the people.”

The ruling liberals justified their model of democracy on the grounds of the political immaturity and incompetence of the common citizen. In their view a person without property and education was not capable of making political decisions based on sound reason and an understanding of the common good. They were afraid that incompetent citizens would make the wrong decisions and endanger progress.

For the radical democrats who opposed them, by contrast, popular sovereignty did not mean that citizens should hand over their sovereignty to their elected representatives, but, quite the contrary, that they should have the last word in the legislative process. It was on this fundamental principle that the radical democrats based their opposition and demanded the appropriate extension of popular rights.

For the radical democrats, the model of indirect democracy simply did not live up to its claim to represent reason and the common good in the best possible way, but rather served to create and extend a new order of privilege for the rich and well-educated, which disadvantaged and even excluded large sections of the population. In the radicals’ view, a purely representative system of government primarily served the vested interests of the liberal establishment, and to change this situation required that the citizens be given more political power.

Direct Democracy Revolution

It took quite a long time before early criticism of the existing ruling order finally coalesced, with the Democratic Movement, into a critique of the “system.” The opposition in the constitutional debates of 1830–31 and the popular movements of 1839–41 had demanded the right of veto. The veto can be seen as an institutional precursor of the referendum. It had been institutionalized for the very first time as early as 1831 in the canton of St. Gallen, as a concession to protesting farmers and as a means of blocking more wide-ranging demands for participation by the democrats. As an instrument of democracy, however, the veto was hardly user-friendly and presented no threat to the liberal parliamentary democracy; the democratic opposition was still too weak for that. The situation did not change until the 1860s, when the general public had finally become convinced that a just society was impossible without a move to “pure democracy” i.e. through the addition of direct democracy to the existing indirect, representative form of democracy. It now became possible for the Democratic Movement to secure direct democracy.

The Democratic Movement drew its power from the dissatisfaction of large sections of the population with the existing political, social and economic conditions. It accused the government of furthering the interests of the rich instead of the general good. It complained that powerful financial and commercial interests were having a deleterious effect on politics. It demanded direct democracy as a remedy, not solely in order to have greater control over the government, but in order to create greater social and economic equality:

“The upwardly striving plutocracy can now be held in check only by shifting the centre of gravity of the legislative process further out, to encompass the entire people; for a few hundred cantonal councillors, i.e. representative democracy, are not powerful enough to resist corruption.”

With these words, Karl Bürkli expressed the feelings of the whole Democratic Movement.

As with other political changes both before and after, the change of the political system to “pure democracy” was described and legitimated, not as a break with the past, but as the continuation of an ancient tradition of freedom. It was easier to accept something new that came in the guise of venerable tradition. There was, nonetheless, an awareness of the historic importance of the event, as the following quotation from Friedrich Albert Lange reveals:

“The 18th April 1869 has given the canton of Zurich a constitution which must be considered as one of the most significant phenomena in the field of recent institutions of state. It is, in short, the first consistent attempt to implement the idea of pure popular rule in a form which is appropriate to the modern cultural conditions, and to replace the venerable, but cumbersome, Landsgemeinde”, which is suited only to small-scale situations, by an institution whose cornerstone is the ballot vote in the local municipalities.”

The second democratic revolution – like the first one of 1830-1831 – was largely free of violence. Government and opposition continued to speak to one another. Thousands of citizens came together in “Landsgemeinden” (traditional popular assemblies), putting pressure on those in power by presenting similar lists of demands, and forced through a fundamental change in the system of democracy – clearly expressed in the first article of the new cantonal constitution:

“The power of the state resides in the people as a whole. It is exercised directly by those citizens who are entitled to vote, and indirectly by the authorities and the officials.”

Using modern terminology, it could be described as a victory of those who are victims of modernization against those who stand to gain from modernisation.

Sources of Swiss Direct Democracy

The experience and the ideas of the American and (to an even greater extent) French Revolutions represented vital sources of inspiration for the development of Swiss direct democracy. French revolutionary law contained many of the direct-democratic instruments which would subsequently be adopted in Switzerland and was carefully studied there.

French ideas on direct democracy had a strong influence on the democratisation of Switzerland, even if this was not openly admitted at the time. However, those ideas were never implemented in France itself, where a plebiscitarian tradition developed which serves the interests of those in power. There was one exception: the constitutional referendum, an import from North America, was there to stay. It found its way from France to Switzerland and later spread across Europe, and in recent years there were demands to implement it at the European level in the context of attempts to make a constitution for the European Union. There is a growing conviction that a constitution which has not been explicitly approved by the citizens is simply undemocratic.


Ustertag 22 November 1830

The process of introducing Modern Direct Democracy was also inspired by the experience of pre-modern forms of democracy. The Swiss cantons were bound together by a strongly rooted republican tradition, which set them apart from their monarchical neighbors. There was a living culture of the popular assembly democracy (“Landsgemeindedemokratie”) and the federal referendum which went back to the Middle Ages. When the old confederation collapsed, many saw their “home-made” assembly democracy as a more attractive form of democracy and a more secure guarantee of freedom than French-style indirect democracy. This is clearly evidenced by the short-lived “Landsgemeindefrühling” (the “Assembly Democracy Spring”) of 1798, as also by the fact that it was only the inhabitants of cantons where the popular assembly was practized (Glarus, Schwyz and Nidwalden) who offered fierce resistance when the troops of the French revolutionary army entered the country.

People were familiar with and trusted their own form of popular assembly democracy. Even more importantly, a shift from the traditional popular assembly (“Landsgemeinde”) to a modern representative system meant a loss both of rights of political participation and of material advantages. Both considerations contributed to making popular assembly democracy more attractive.

Social movements repeatedly and consciously hark back to the tradition of assembly democracy and organize their public protests in the form of a “Landsgemeinde”. For example, on 22nd November 1830, the liberals organised a popular assembly in Uster to campaign for “the restoration of lost rights of the People” and on 13th December 1867 the Democratic Movement held popular assemblies in Uster, Bülach, Winterthur and Zurich. The Uster assembly of 1830 is still commemorated every year.

Continuity and Rupture

Modern Direct Democracy can be understood as a mixture of completely new ideas and institutions with an old tradition of participation. What is entirely new is the way in which modern democracy has been thought of since the American and French Revolutions. Democracy and freedom are no longer presented as the historic privilege of a particular group which had its origin in the resistance to an unjust tyranny (William Tell) – but as a natural right of every individual. The ideal of modern democracy – that all people should be free and equal – is irreconcilable with any situation in which some are subject to the will of others. The pre-modern form of democracy, which was seen as a group privilege, did not exclude the possibility of oppressing others, something which was quite common in the old confederation.

What is quite old is the conviction that a citizen’s freedom depends on his or her ability and desire to participate in political decision-making. It is one of the central ideas of republicanism and corresponds to the practice of popular assembly democracy. Unlike the purely parliamentarian democracy, Modern Direct Democracy continues this centuries-old tradition of the pre-modern democracy. It does this with the new instruments of the initiative and the referendum.

Development of Direct Democracy after 1891

Once the popular initiative was introduced, direct democracy became a subject for itself. This may lead to an extension of direct democracy, but also to the limitation of it. Reforms can of course also be initiated by government and parliament. Among the elements which were added after 1891 belong:
a) the introduction and extension of the referendum on international treaties, which gives voters a direct say on foreign policy (1921, 1977, 2003);
b) the “double yes” option with a deciding question where there is an initiative and a counter-proposal (1987, 2003);
c) the introduction of the general popular initiative (2003).

The Swiss federal constitution provides that in the case of accession to “organizations for collective security or supranational communities”, the people will have the final word. So in 1986 Swiss voters rejected accession to the UN, but voted in favor of it sixteen years later in a second referendum. In 1992 they also voted on joining the European Economic Area. This was one of the hottest referendum campaigns ever; it ended with a defeat for the government and majority of parliament: 50,3% of the voters and 18 of the 26 cantons said “No”. The turnout was 78,7 %, the highest since 1947. Without the right of referendum on international treaties, the people would not have been asked and Switzerland might now be a member of the EU.


“There is no realistic alternative to the EEA. To go it alone would be the way into isolation with all its disadvantages. (…) Switzerland would be accused of a lack of solidarity, we would have less and less influence on the economic and political developments in Europe (…).”
Quote: Explanation of the Federal Council, the government and the great majority of the parliament recommended people to vote YES.

In February 2003, at the suggestion of the government and parliament, the referendum on international treaties was extended once more. The rationale was that voters must be able to be involved in deciding on important issues, and that international law and international treaties were raising such issues more and more frequently. The introduction of (in 1921), and the first extension to (in 1977), the referendum on international treaties had come about as a result of the pressure of popular movements and popular initiatives.

National democracies become less important when, as a result of globalization and European integration, political decision-making more and more takes place outside the sphere of democracy. The appropriate response to this challenge would be to extend democracy beyond the national boundaries. For Switzerland, there is the added question as to whether accession to the EU would inevitably bring about the gradual dismantling of direct democracy. The threat could be diminished by introducing direct democracy into the European Union.

Attempts to expand direct democracy at the federal level have repeatedly been rejected. Thus, the finance referendum was rejected in 1956, the legislative initiative in 1961, the right to have a say on motorway building in 1978 and on the granting of licenses for nuclear power stations in 1979, the referendum on armaments in 1987 and the constructive referendum in 2000.

In 2002 parliament decided to introduce a general popular initiative and in 2003 this decision was adopted by obligatory referendum. It soon turned out that it was quite impossible to implement this reform, well meant but not well thought out as it was. Therefore, instead of putting it into practice parliament moved to abolish the new political right and the voters endorsed this decision in an obligatory referendum in 2009.

There have also been attempts to dismantle direct democracy, all of them unsuccessful so far. In 1935, the new right-wing forces, which dreamed of replacing democracy with an authoritarian order, were sent packing. The “March 2000 initiative” which wanted the “speeding up of direct democracy” (by shortening the period of time allowed for processing a citizens’ initiative presented as a detailed proposal) was decisively rejected,
preventing even more radical attempts to weaken direct democracy under the pretext of making it more practical.

Today, more than 130 years later, direct democracy has become more topical and relevant than ever, not only at the local and national levels, but also – and that is something fundamentally new – at the level of the European Union.

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