A Primer on Swiss Plebiscites

Yesterday, Switzerland went to the polls for the fourth and last time this year. The country has a unique political system with an almost unrivalled amount of influence given to voters. Today’s post tries to give you a quick summary of our plebiscites, a pillar of our direct democracy.

Apart from electing a parliament featuring 200 members of the National Council (Nationalräte) and 46 members of the Council of States (Ständeräte) every four years, the Swiss Public votes on crucial issues four times a year. There are three types of questions that can be answered on these voting dates.

1. Mandatory Referendums

Any modification of the constitution and any participation in supranational institutions have to be voted on by the public. Two of the best known mandatory referendums were the vote to join the EWR (declined in 1992) and the vote to join the United Nations (narrowly accepted in 2002). Important to know is that an amendment does not only have to be voted for by the majority of citizens, but also by the majority of cantons (Ständemehr). This is to ensure a form of parity between smaller and larger cantons.

2. Optional Referendums

Any law accepted by the Federal Assembly can be brought to a vote by the public, if 50’000 signatories are found to support the referendum. Yesterday, the country voted on the new national road law (Nationalstrassengesetz), which included price hike for the highway pass (Vignette). The public voted in support of the referendum and against the change of the law, which means that the cost of vignetter remains steady at 40 Francs.

These referendums also includes votes on certain contracts between countries, such as the Schengen pact or the contracts between Switzerland and the European Union (Bilaterale Verträge).

3. Federal Popular Initiatives

An instrument that has gained in popularity in the last couple of years are the popular initiatives. Citizens and political parties may collect 100’000 signatures for one of their causes and the public will be able to vote on its inclusion in the constitution. Many of the more controversial political decisions have been made due to these initiatives. The ban of minarets was a huge topic in international media after its acceptance in a 2009.

Both of the initiatives presented to voters yesterdays were rejected. The first one, the “Family Initiative” wanted to give traditional families, who raise their own children at home, a tax discount. The second one was far more controversial as the initiative by the JUSO (Young Socialists) aspired to have a 1:12 formula for salaries in firms. The highest salary would have been allowed to be only 12 times as large as the lowest.

Other interesting initiatives voted on in the recent past were the initiative against exorbitant salaries (Abzockerinitiative), against second homes (Zweitwohnungsinitiative) and for deportation of deliquent foreigners (Ausschaffungsinitiative). And the future holds more interesting initiatives to come such as one against mass immigration proposed by the far right (Masseneinwanderungsinitiative) and for a minimal wage proposed by the parties on the left (Mindestlohninitiative).

Swiss citizens have the great chance to influence politics on so many levels. It’s a pity that not of all us make use of this extraordinary privilege. If you have more questions about Swiss plebiscites, just leave it in the comments or ask me on Twitter!

Until Wednesday, I remain

sincerely yours,