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Forms of direct democracy - federal level

Numerous different direct democracy mechanisms can be used at federal level in Switzerland. The mechanisms fall into two broad categories: referendums and initiatives - there is no provision for use of the recall in Switzerland. Each mechanism can be used to achieve different results, and has different design features. Referendums Unlike in other countries, in Switzerland it is not the government that decides if a referendum is held on an issue; the circumstances under which referendums are used are clearly prescribed within the country's constitution. The first type of direct democracy mechanism is the mandatory referendum, i.e., a referendum that the government must call in relation to certain important political issues. These are:

A partial or total revision of the federal constitution; Joining an organisation for collective security or a supranational organisation; Introducing urgent federal legislation whose validity exceeds one year, without the required constitutional basis (such legislation has to be submitted to the vote within one year after its adoption by Parliament);

Popular initiatives for a total revision of the constitution; Popular initiatives for a partial revision of the constitution in the form of a general proposition which were rejected by the Parliament;

The question of whether a total revision of the constitution should be carried out if both chambers of Parliament disagree.

The first three kinds of mandatory referendums require a double majority to pass; that is, they must achieve a popular majority (a majority of the votes cast at the referendum) whilst at the same time achieving a majority vote in a majority of the cantons. The latter three, which take place as part of the initiative process, only need a popular majority. Optional referendums can be held in relation to new or amended federal acts and/or international treaties. The optional legislative referendum is held in relation to all federal laws and urgent federal laws which are due to be valid for more than a year. The optional referendum on international treaties is held in relation to international treaties that are of unlimited duration and may not be terminated, and international treaties that provide for membership of international organisations or contain legislative provisions that have to be implemented by enacting federal laws Optional referendums are called if 50,000 signatures are collected in support of a referendum within 100 days, or if eight cantons request a referendum,

and pass with a popular majority. Until 2004, an optional referendum has never been successfully requested by a group of cantons; the first referendum initiated by the cantons was held on 16 May 2004. Initiatives Initiatives can be used to propose changes to the federal constitution. In addition, in 2003 Switzerland adopted a new form of initiative, to be used in relation to more general statutory provisions. Once an initiative is filed, a specified number of valid signatures (i.e. signatures of registered voters) are required in order to force the Federal Council and Parliament to consider the initiative and to hold a referendum on the initiative proposal. Amendments to the constitution can be proposed using two different initiative mechanisms. The popular initiative for a partial revision of the constitution provides voters with the opportunity to propose a draft revision to part of the federal constitution. 100,000 voters must sign an initiative in order for a referendum to be held on the proposal. The popular initiative for a total revision of the constitution also requires the support of 100,000 voters in an initiative. In both cases, the signatures must be collected within 18 months of the initiative being filed. From late 2006, the general popular initiative will be available to Swiss voters. This mechanism can be used to force a referendum on the adoption of a general proposal that will be incorporated on a constitutional and/or legislative level, providing that 100,000 signatures are collected in support of the initiative. Until 2006, initiatives in Switzerland can be submitted as a general proposition or in the text that would be adopted if the initiative measure is successful. However, after the implementation of the general popular initiative, the popular initiative for a partial revision of the constitution will only be accepted in the form of a written text proposition (general propositions in relation to the constitution should be made using the general popular initiative). In response to initiatives which meet the required signature threshold, the Swiss Parliament advises the people on whether to adopt or reject the proposal. In addition, the government is also able to formulate a counterproposal that is included on the ballot. The "double-yes" vote allows voters to approve both the original initiative and the government's response to it, and indicate which of the two measures they prefer. The measure which receives the most support is passed.

Forms of direct democracy - cantonal level


Use of direct democracy is even more extensive in Switzerland's 26 cantons (i.e., state authorities). However, use of direct democracy varies between the cantons; between 1970-2003 Zurich held 457, whilst Ticino held just 53 (the canton of Jura held just 45 referendums, but was only formally established (by referendum) in 1979).

In addition to the referendum and initiative mechanisms used at federal level, the following mechanisms are also used in some or all of the Swiss cantons. Unlike at federal level, the legislative initiative has for some time provided voters in all cantons with the opportunity to propose additions to laws. In some cantons, the administrative initiative can be used to demand that certain work is undertaken in public administration (e.g., building a new school or a new road). In addition, some cantons provide for the initiative to launch a canton initiative, an initiative to force the canton to table a motion to the Federal Assembly. All the Swiss cantons provide for legislative referendums on legislation passed by the cantonal parliament; however, in different cantons, these may be mandatory or optional. Administrative referendums may be held on major public projects that will incur high levels of public expenditure (and may lead to increases in taxes); these are sometime called fiscal referendums. Lastly, administrative referendums may be held on the non-fiscal issues of public administration listed above.

Characteristics of the use of direct democracy in Switzerland


Turnout Swiss voters are given the opportunity to vote in federal referendums on average four times a year. Typically, voters will also vote on a number of cantonal and local issues on the day of a federal ballot. Over the second part of the twentieth century, turnout at federal referendums fell from around 50-70% to an average of around 40%; this mirrored a similar decline in turnout at federal elections from 80% to around 45%. One suggestion is that this comparatively low turnout is due to the sheer number of votes that the Swiss are able to vote in; however, it is argued by many that a far higher proportion of the population is politically active than appears so from the figure of 40%, since it is not always the same 40-45% of voters who vote at each opportunity. Issues Given the numerous opportunities for using direct democracy in Switzerland, it is perhaps not surprising that the variety of issues on which referendums are held is extremely wide. Since 1990, referendums have been held on such diverse issues as:

Banning the building of nuclear power stations; Building new Alpine railways; A new federal constitution; Controlling immigration;

Abolishing the army; Joining the United Nations; Shortening working hours; Opening up electricity markets.

Impact of direct democracy Undoubtedly, direct democracy has played a key role in shaping the modern Swiss political system. Yet it is important to question the actual impact of direct democracy on the legislative issues that, in other countries, are the responsibility of elected representatives. On one reading, it could be argued that the impact has been limited: in the first century of using the initiative (1891-2004), just 14 initiatives were passed in Switzerland. Yet to consider this statistic alone ignores the considerable, indirect impact of direct democracy. Although the majority of initiatives fail, the fact that there has been an initiative, and therefore a campaign, increases publicity surrounding the issue in question and public knowledge of it. This may well increase pressure on the government to introduce measures dealing with the issue, even if it is not required to by virtue of a successful referendum. An initiative might therefore be successful in achieving some of its proponents' aims, even if it is not successful in the sense of having passed. This trend explains why many initiatives are filed but subsequently withdrawn; because sometimes a government chooses to act before an initiative reaches the referendum stage. A further impact of the direct democracy mechanisms within Switzerland is that the government is forced to seek a wider consensus about the statutory (and constitutional) measures that it seeks to introduce than is the case in a purely representative system. In a representative system, the party of government may, in the absence of a large majority, have to develop cross-party consensus on an issue in order to ensure that the measure is approved. In the Swiss system, the possibility of an optional referendum forces the government to ensure consensus with groups outside of Parliament so as to prevent the possibility of such groups seeking to overturn the new legislation. Conversely, the significance of direct democracy in the Swiss system is often cited as the reason for the weakness of Swiss political parties and the relatively low significance attached to normal elections. This is because, given the prominence of direct democracy, political parties are not solely responsible for controlling the federal agenda. In addition, direct democracy often raises cross-cutting issues on which members of political parties might not be in agreement.