Basic Income Coming Soon?

Basic Income Coming Soon?

The Swiss vote on introducing an Unconditional Basic Income (UBI) on June 5, 2016. The intention behind this groundbreaking citizens’ initiative is less about proposing a solution to social problems (like fighting against inequality, helping the working poor …), rather it is an invitation to think about and publicly debate some fundamental questions that concern us all globally. This initiative invites us, for example, to think about the different meanings of “work” and their relationship to ‘income”. It challenges us to debate and compare the conditions that force an individual to work for money (labor) or enable it to do what he or she considers meaningful. More generally, it challenges us to think about what it means to be a human being in the 21st century.

But I am sure (…) that no one willingly gives up the name of human. It takes a great deal of culture to make us human, it takes even more culture to make us beasts. (Source: Edward Bond)

However, we can also ask ourselves what kind of social problems guaranteeing a basic income would solve or create. But before entering into these debates in a next blog entry, let me begin with some facts and questions. How is it that the Swiss voters can propose and decide constitutional amendments? How is it possible that they can propose, debate and decide even revolutionary measures? And the introduction of an UBI is revolutionary, perhaps. What happens if the government and parliament disagree? Is there no control, are there no limits to what the voters in Switzerland can decide? Should there be limits? What kind of limits? Who sets them? Who controls them? And then what are the consequences for democracy, that is, people deciding their own affaires by themselves, as equals?

The Citizens’ Initiative

The Swiss citizens have the right to change the constitution. In order to exercise this right they need an instrument. This instrument or procedure is called citizens’ initiative. It allows a few citizens (minimum 7, maximum 27) – the initiative committee – to propose a constitutional amendment. Provided the proposal gets the support of 100’000 eligible voters, it will be decided by popular vote.
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From the beginning, when a citizens’ initiative is launched, to the voting day there will be public debates in favor and against the proposed issue. Government and parliament (both chambers) will also take a position on the issue and recommend a “YES” or “NO” vote, but they cannot stop the initiative process. Only the initiative committee can decide to withdraw their initiative up to the time when the government announces the date for the vote. The withdrawal clause gives citizens the chance of withdrawing their initiative if, for example, they have managed to reach an acceptable compromise with the government and parliament. This creates a manoeuvring space for negotiations and compromise which both citizens and the authorities can take advantage of.

Parliament has the right to submit a direct counter-proposal to the initiative proposal, addressing the same concern but proposing to deal with the matter in a different way. Both proposals are then decided on at the same time. If both proposals are accepted (double “YES”), the decision on whether the initiative proposal or parliament’s counter-proposal should be implemented is made by means of a deciding question.

Approval of an initiative proposal requires not only a “YES” majority nationally but also in a majority of the cantons. This means that every vote cast is counted twice, as a vote of the national constituency and as a vote of a cantonal constituency. The idea behind this double majority rule is to protect the small cantons from being overwhelmed by the big ones.

Citizens’ initiatives in Switzerland 1848 – 2016 (February)

CH archive PCI

In Switzerland direct democracy is exercised on all three political levels – national (federal), regional (cantonal) and local (municipal). In the cantonal and municipal level direct democracy is better equipped and there a many times more citizens’ initiatives and referendums than on the national level.

Legal design of the Swiss Federal Citizens’ Initiative (click to open)

The Citizens’ Initiative for an Unconditional Basic Income

This is a real grassroots initiative. Like any creative process it started with an idea, in this case in the imagination of two people who want to make the world a better place: Enno Schmidt, an artist, and Daniel Häni, an entrepreneur. Enno Schmidt writes about the beginning and what motivated him as follows:

“Direct democracy means, that all people can share their experiences and ideas and contribute to the shaping of our society. That they can experience themselves as participating in the formation of the conditions in which we live. If a sufficiently large number Enno Schmidtof people is convinced that an innovation is reasonable, the proposal is presented to the population. There will be a public debate of the pros and cons on a large scale. You can learn to understand yourself and the other, you can learn to listen, and the quality of thinking improves, because what I think does not remain without consequences. Because, what turns out to be the better idea, is taken seriously. In Switzerland people find this evident. In Germany giving people a say on substantive issues is rejected with the same arguments that are used against an unconditional basic income. It is said that people are too stupid and too dependent. They need guidelines and leadership. But who should make an idea, which brings people closer to self-determination, into a social contract if not these self-determined people themselves?
For me, this was one of the many reasons, why Daniel Häni (…) and I have founded the Initiative Basic Income in Switzerland. For us it is above all a cultural initiative that runs through all areas of life.”

Art 110a UBI
What started as a cultural impulse eventually took the form of a citizens’ initiative: an initiative committee with 8 members was formed, a proposal for an unconditional basic income was formulated and registered in 2012, a campaign to collect a minimum of 100’000 signatures of eligible voters was organized, 126‘000 signatures were collected and then the initiative was submitted to the authorities and validated, from there it passed to the government and to parliament, both giving their opinion and both recommending a “NO” vote, finally the government decided that the popular vote would take place on June 5, 2016.


UBI timeline

1    The idea is born, 2006

2a    Registration of the initiative: 27.03.2012
2b    Begin of signature collection: 11.04.2012

3a    The initiative is submitted: 04.10.2013
3b    The initiative is valid: 07.11.2013

4     Explanation from the Federal Council: 27.08.2014

5a     Parliament’s opinion: 18.12.2015
5b    Government sets the voting date: 27.01.2016

6     Popular vote: 05.06.2016

During all this time, from the very beginning in 2006, accompanying every phase of the initiative process, there have been countless debates and activities about the pros and cons of a guaranteed basic income. The nearer the day of the vote the more intense these debates have become and they are culminating in the present voting campaign, which began on 27 January 2016, when the voting date was published, and will end on 5 June 2016. The many discussions and public debates are arguably more important than the actual result of the vote, and they will continue also after the vote, regardless of the outcome, as part of a bigger, international debate on a universal basic income for which the movement in Switzerland has been an inspiration. Pola renntHowever, it is important to note that the significance of the debates can be explained to a large extent by the fact that the citizens themselves will actually decide the proposal that comes from their fellow citizens. This fact of self-determination gives the debates a different quality compared with top-down popular consultations or merely consultative popular votes. If people can only debate, but not decide, the motivation to participate and take responsibility diminishes or even vanishes.

What will happen after the vote? If the initiative is adopted, a law must be made by Parliament, regulating all the details – the level of the basic income, financing and much more. This will take years and the resulting law will be subject to a citizen-initiated referendum. If voters will call for a referendum, the adoption of the law will be decided by popular vote. In the more likely case that the initiative is rejected, other measures, including a possible second initiative, will be needed to make the UBI progress in one form or another. In any case the realization of a guaranteed basic income is still years away. Nevertheless, it is safe to say that already now the citizens’ initiative for a UBI has been successfull in many ways. The Swiss vote will definitely not be the end of the story.

Could such an initiative happen in another country?

The first and only country I can think of, is Uruguay, which is one of the very few states where direct democracy is well established and regularly used. (In the United States there is no direct democracy on the federal level). In Uruguay like in Switzerland there exists the right to citizens’ initiative for constitutional reform. However, the legal designs of the procedure differ significantly in the two countries. It is doubtful whether a grassroots initiative for an UBI, coming from the margins of society, would be possible in Uruguay as well. In Switzerland 2% of the electorate can initiate a citizens’ initiative, whereas in Uruguay 10% of the electorate are needed. Consider that already the collection of signatures of only 2% of the electorate within 18 months requires a notable amount of organizational resources, not to speak of the substantial resources needed to conduct a national campaign. Obviously the threshold to start a citizens’ initiative is much higher with the requirement to collect the signatures of 10% of the electorate. In practice this means that in Uruguay the use of the citizens’ initiative is feasible only for powerful actors, whereas in Switzerland weak actors can also use it. This is probably the main reason why direct democracy is used much more in Switzerland than in Uruguay.

Legal design of the citizens’ initiative: comparison between Switzerland and Uruguay


The Campaign For a Basic Income

The proponents of a basic income in Switzerland have been promoting their idea for many years with a lot of enthusiasm. In the beginnings they produced the film “Grundeinkommen – ein Kulturimpuls” by Daniel Häni and Enno Schmidt. fb basic income communityMany imaginative events are produced joyfully, with a smile. Above all a lot of work is put into developing the idea of a basic income, thinking it from different perspectives, presenting it in a new light, enriching it with more substance. Many interviews and discussions are made available as videos, which can be seen on the internet. Over time the presence of the initiative for a basic income becomes more and more professional. There is also a website in English dressed up in the latest fashion. The proponents of the initiative participate in a global debate about a basic income and their actions attracted attention worldwide. The newspaper Sonntagsblick called them “grandmasters of the political theater”, giving credit, rightfully, to their creative campaign work.



Grundeinkommen CH
Generation Grundeinkommen
Volksinitiative für ein Bedingungsloses Grundeinkommen
Netzwerk Grundeinkommen
Basic Income Switzerland
Unconditional Basic Income Europe
Basic Income Create-a-Thons
Basic Income Earth Network


Daniel Häni, Philip Kovce. 2015. Was fehlt, wenn alles da ist? Warum das bedingungslose Grundeinkommen die richtigen Fragen stellt. 2015.  Zürich: Orell Füssli Verlag.

Christian Müller, Daniel Straub, Enno Schmidt. 2016. Grundeinkommen von A bis Z. Zürich: Limmat Verlag

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