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The Experience of Switzerland with Instruments of Direct Democracy

Paper Spoken to by David Kilgour, M.P. for Edmonton Southeast at a Panel of the Canadian Study of Parliament Group and Canadian Political Science Association
University of Calgary
June 12, 1994

As Deputy Speaker, I'm obliged to refrain from taking sides on partisan issues. In my presentation, I'll focus on some of the attractions as well as some of the pitfalls of tools of direct democracy with most of the focus being on the Swiss experience.

The experience of Switzerland here is unique over the past century and a half. By the end of 1992, Switzerland had held a total of 398 nation-wide referenda, covering every sphere of government activity. Australia is a distant second with 43 referenda. Every country which uses or considers using instruments of direct democracy, even if only sporadically, can benefit from the Swiss experience.

The most common mechanisms of direct democracy throughout the world are: the initiative, referendum, and recall.


This is used to remove an elected representative or public servant from office. It is usually initiated by a petition. If enough electors support the petition and if the person in question does not resign, an election is held. Fifteen U.S. states provide for recall of elected state officials; 36 provide for the recall of local officials. The required percentage of signatures on a petition varies from 30% to 10% of registered voters at the preceding election. A March 1994 Gallup Poll indicated that three Canadians in four (75%) support the recall of parliamentarians; only 14% opposed it.

Seventy-eight per cent of those asked in Prairie Canada and 81% in B.C. were in favour of recall during 1994.


This allows citizens to propose legislation or constitutional amendments, which are put to a popular vote and must be implemented by the government if passed. The only other country, except Switzerland, to allow voters this right on national questions is Italy, although the initiative also exists in one form or another in 23 U.S. states and in the District of Columbia. It differs from referenda in that the decision to hold a vote originates with the electorate, not government. One of the most famous initiatives was proposition 13 in California whose passage in 1978 slashed property taxes by half and compelled major cuts in public services.

To many reform-minded individuals, direct democracy offers voters essential safety valves to unrepresentative and unresponsive legislative bodies. The advocates of direct democracy say that it provides an antidote to voter feelings of powerlessness, frustration and alienation resulting from the domination of the political process by parties and interest groups run amok. It also provides a mechanism for a people to have a say on proposed legislation, thus allowing direct participation in lawmaking.


Referenda, of course, allow direct involvement of citizens in important political decisions. Political scientists divide interest in and usage of the referendum into two worlds: the first includes Switzerland, California and a few other U.S. states and, increasingly, Italy where direct democracy has become a central element of political life. The potential referendum or initiative is a constant factor that lawmakers must always consider. The second world is one in which referenda are used infrequently on an ad hoc basis. Australia, New Zealand and Ireland fall somewhere in between, having held a large number of nation-wide referenda in the post-war period.

Only in California and in a few other western U.S. states do referenda play an important role in daily political life. Referenda there deal with issues of state and local importance rather than with policy areas such as foreign and military affairs. In national politics, direct democracy is absent in the U.S. A majority of European countries and more than a third of United Nations member states have experimented with the device.

Only the U.S.A. and the Netherlands, among countries that have been democracies since before 1900, have never held a nation-wide referendum.

In Switzerland, all national referenda are uncontrolled. Its Parliament and government are expressly prohibited from calling optional referenda. Direct democracy in Switzerland is not a weapon used by the central authority. On some questions, it is required by the constitution, but in most cases it is introduced by a petition of citizens: the option to call a referendum lies not with the government, but with voters.

In several respects, including the involvement of mobilized interest groups in campaigns, the `nay-sayer' phenomenon, the fragmentation of parties, and the consequence of low participation, the Swiss experience offers lessons relevant to the use of referenda in any country.

Rousseau warned that voters are only truly free on election day. Many political theorists warn against the dangers inherent in representative democracy. One French sociologist writes: "More and more, politics is becoming the concern of a small caste. The distance between the political professionals and the normal people never ceases to widen."

Maximizing participatory democracy, the strongest argument in their favour goes, offers all citizens the opportunity to play an immediate role in deciding the laws that govern their country. Parliaments, legislators and parties tend to adapt according to their own agendas. They apply their own political biases in the final form of legislation. While working on legislation, the parties might try not to offend financial contributors or special interests, and also enact their own political platforms.

Bringing decisions to the people themselves might avoid these tendencies. The initiative pushes the process of self-government even further, by giving citizens the right to put issues on the table as well as to decide on them. The most vocal opponents to direct democracy repeat the elitist mantra that the people are not competent to govern themselves - an argument as old as democracy itself. The governing of a modern state is a complex affair balancing interests and priorities and requiring highly-technical and specialized knowledge that an average citizen might not readily have.

As opponents of direct democracy argue, bringing an issue down to a choice between two so-called solutions is more likely to over simplify a problem than enlighten the electorate. Even Rousseau had his doubts about the ability of citizens to make policy: "It follows from what I have argued that the general will is always rightful and always tends to the public good; but it does not follow that the decisions of the people are always equally right.... The people are never corrupted, but it is [are] often misled; and only then does it seem to will what is bad."

Critics of referenda argue that the risk of deception is just as great in the age of a broadcast democracy. Biased news coverage, deceptive advertising and unequal resources available to competing sides can distort the information received by the public.

The counter-arguments to the above are many. Even though the average education level of citizens is now higher than what it used to be in the past, one Swiss political scientist believes that the relative ignorance of citizens on some referendum issues is not cause for worry. "He who drives an automobile needs signposts, not mechanical expertise, in order to reach his destination." Government officials, parties, and MPs are these signposts. It is in their interest to pass vital information on the issue to the voters. Over time, voters will learn which sources of information are most reliable.

MPs are not always experts in many fields and tend to specialize in narrow ones, yet have a say or make decisions outside their speciality. Legislators are not immune from the influences of biased sources of information. Lobbying groups and campaign contributors from special interest groups tend to influence the MP's perception of an issue.

Referenda advocates also claim that it is easy enough to educate citizens during the time before a popular vote. They say that only 5-10 per cent of voters make a serious attempt to digest information sent from all sides of the issue and the media. Even if some information is missed, the tools of referendum campaigns, such as media ads, leave an average citizen at least marginally well-informed. They add that the relative ignorance of voters on certain issues makes direct democracy all the more desirable because referenda serve to educate citizens. Even if everything goes amiss, don't people in a democracy have the right to be wrong?

Direct democracy critics claim that the ultimate goal of government is better decision making, but if this were true wouldn't government by a philosopher-king or technocracy be preferable to democracy? Many societies are ready to sacrifice expertise in the name of democracy, and the trade offs turn out to be beneficial in the long run.

Representative Democracy and Referenda

The Canadian experience demonstrates how plurality electoral systems give parliamentary majorities to parties supported by less than 45 per cent of the voting electorate. Proportional representation is also far from ideal. When a voter supports a party, it rarely means that he or she agrees with the party on every issue. The distribution of opinions in a proportional parliament can also give an unrealistic reflection of opinion in society as well as MPs who have little identification with their electors in a particular constituency. Referenda, it is claimed by its advocates, can solve this problem of representative distortion by over ruling representative bodies or by circumventing them completely.

Government can be sure that the action has popular support if the people legitimize it with their approval. The opponents claim that referenda fail to reflect the intensity of belief. Indeed, some observers deny that referenda are a better means of reflecting the will of society than representative assemblies. The critics say that with low participation levels it is possible that highly motivated minorities gain disproportionate influence on particular referenda questions. Finally, the argument that assemblies mirror accurately the views of their citizens is readily disputed by a close look at the demographic composition of parliaments and other legislative assemblies against that of electorates.

In Canada, as in Switzerland, on average MPs tend to have higher incomes than the rest of the population. Their education training is higher and they tend to come from more privileged backgrounds. Some occupations (e.g. lawyers, business people, educators, doctors) are over represented. If, the argument goes, the legislature is unlike its citizenry, then it will have difficulty reflecting the views of voters accurately.

It is often argued that referenda discourage responsible government. They do provide a means of suspending collective responsibility in cabinet governments. When popular rejections of government decisions become routine, individual ministerial responsibility and ensuing resignation from office as a result of unpopular policy is likely to disappear. In Switzerland, in only three of 121 times the people rejected a government position in a referendum or initiative vote did the relevant Federal Councillor resign. Referenda might also weaken governmental responsibility in the sense that legislators may not want to take the risk of making tough laws. It might be tempting to pass controversial topics to the voters. Advocates of referenda say this is not necessarily a bad thing. Shouldn't the people have the right to decide on the most important questions of government rather than politicians trying to please different interest and lobby groups?

The Canadian model of "government versus the opposition" provides a different political background in which direct democracy has not been widely tested. Swiss democracy is characterized by consensus building and in spite of many recent polarizations on divisive issues, a compromise satisfying the greatest number of interests is still almost always the preferred solution. The presence of the referendum device is seen as a central reason for this behaviour. Direct democracy makes it imperative that all interests be accommodated, because any `loser' in the legislative process can seek redress by campaigning to defeat the offending law in a referendum. Such challenges are taken seriously by the Swiss Federal Assembly. It appears to be the fear of being over ruled in a referendum that produces consensual behaviour in most Swiss MPs. According to one Swiss political scientist: "The balancing of interests and reinforcing of compromise are largely founded upon an institutionally-necessitated anticipation of sanctions."

Within the Swiss Parliament, small parties lacking seats on the Federal Council have used the referendum as a potent tool of opposition. The four major parties do not take chances by ignoring the small parties. Legislation passed by a narrow majority stands little chance of surviving a referendum. Wider support and consensus is thus sought in advance.

Referenda and the Minorities

Referenda were introduced in Switzerland to strengthen and sustain consensus-oriented government. They are intended to protect minorities which otherwise might be harmed by majoritarian decision-making. Paradoxically, the referendum, a most majoritarian way of settling conflicts and disputes, was seen as a means of preventing tyranny by the majority. The referendum further discourages such tyranny by the majority by preventing the emergence of a consistent majority from issue to issue. Political majorities in the Parliament do not guarantee popular majorities in referenda. Therefore, legislators in the Swiss Parliament must seek the broadest possible basis of support on every piece of legislation in order to avoid or survive a referendum challenge. And referendum campaigns, though often divisive and polarizing, do not have a lasting effect; the lines of division are temporary, transitory and change from issue to issue.

Observers say that referenda outcomes have shown time and again that the Swiss are willing to reject the proposals and advice of their elected representatives. Among the constitutional amendments and challenged laws, decrees, and treaties put forward by the Bern government between 1848 and 1992, only 164 (or 61.9%) have survived referenda. Although this indicates a high tendency for the rejection of challenged laws, it is noted that many acts of the Federal Assembly are never brought to a referendum. Constitutional amendments must always face a referendum even if there is little public opposition to it. Other laws must be challenged by petition before they can be subjected to a popular vote. Thus, only those issues that generate public opposition face a referendum.

Since 1874, approximately 7% of Swiss laws, decrees and treaties susceptible to challenge have had to face referenda. This is largely due to the nature of Swiss democracy and the increased volume of legislative activity, with many issues being too technical or uncontroversial to face much opposition. There are also limits, it appears, to the known and financial resources available for challenging laws by way of referendum.

The proportion of parliamentary measures rejected by referendum has changed with time. The highest rates of rejection were recorded in the nineteenth century. The advent of consensus building and making the Swiss Parliament more inclusive reduced the amount of opposition in society to most parliamentary measures. Since 1959, the rejection rate has remained at 25-30 per cent. Defeating a government measure supported by all four major parties and large interest groups appears to pose a more difficult task than those bills supported by only one or two. The agreement of all four parties can have a fairly persuasive impact on voter attitudes.

An occurrence of a negative vote has also been noted in the Swiss direct democracy experience. Even the most unobjectionable legislation can meet opposition at the polls. Only two referenda in Swiss history received more than 90 per cent of the vote. Political scientists have difficulty in pinpointing the source of this "nay-saying". Some blame it on the electorate's distaste for office-holders and their behaviour. Others put it down to the existence of "gut-level Swiss skepticism towards change." It appears from many referenda results that for many Swiss citizens the best policy is "when in doubt, stick with the status quo."

Neither the referendum nor initiative has been entirely beneficial to any side of the political spectrum in Switzerland. The initiative has been used effectively by interest groups and parties of both the Right and Left. However, a referendum ultimately reflects the political leaning of the voting population and in Switzerland it had a tendency to help the Right more often, with some exceptions. Essentially, referenda are a conservative device, which offer citizens a final opportunity to reject the proposals and policies of their legislators. In the case of Switzerland, they have tended to preserve the status quo, making it more difficult for changes and reforms to be adopted. As such, they reflect the conservative-tilt of the Swiss electorate.

Political Parties and Direct Democracy

The lack of cohesion among Swiss political parties is often attributed to the pressure of direct democracy. Although all four governing parties rose to power by using the instruments of direct democracy, ultimately it was the impact of direct democracy that helped to undermine the strength of all political parties. Referenda have a tendency to remove or undercut some of the primary reasons for the existence of parties. The functions of parties such as expression and advocacy of special policies, representation of interests, and setting policy agendas have been affected by the use of referenda, making them weaker. The referendum has effectively removed from parties the function of representing the will of the electorate. The use of the initiative made it hard for political parties to claim that they set the policy agenda. To a large degree, interest groups have been successful in affecting the formal parliamentary agenda in Switzerland.

Referenda have also been found to undermine party solidarity. Leaders of parliamentary factions are rarely able to hold their MPs to a consistent line. A leader of one of the parties in the Swiss Federal Assembly said: "There is very little party discipline.... This is a consequence of direct democracy.... All of our parliamentarians must face re-election every four years. Yet, 10, 15, 20 times a year, the people vote on something that their representatives have passed and thereby see what their representatives are doing. So the parliamentarians here refer much more to their base, not to their management."

It is difficult to predict public voting patterns in referenda by party allegiance because they provide voters with opportunities to defect from their party. Similarly, one cannot predict the position of an MP by his or her party allegiance. It appears common that MPs from the same party openly endorse opposite sides of a referendum question. The Swiss parties, though, still maintain a strong voter loyalty in elections, which is due, some say, to referenda which allow voters a means of dissenting from their party's position without leaving the party. Past family allegiances and general party images appear to be important. "Referendums encourage looser, but more resilient, party ties," commented on Swiss political scientist.

The Swiss experience shows that smaller parties, outside the governing coalition, use the tools of direct democracy more often. The referendum device has also been used as an effective weapon by the opposition. Smaller parties lack any real veto power in the normal parliamentary process, so they use direct democracy to challenge bills favoured by the governing coalition. The popular initiative provides an alternative means by which minor parties can rally public support for their position and force the government to address an issue.

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