As the October 20th federal elections are fast approaching, it is worth noting that in Switzerland, unlike other countries where elected officials make decisions on behalf of their constituents, the parliament doesn’t control the political process.
The ultimate power to create laws, and to shape local and national policies, lies with the people.
What is the role of the Swiss parliament and why is it limited?
The Federal Assembly, which is composed of the 200-seat National Council and the 46-seat Council of States, is the legislative body of the government. However, just because a law is created in the parliament, doesn’t mean that it automatically comes into force. That is because a unique feature of the Swiss political system — direct democracy through referendums — limits the power of the parliament, giving the citizens the final word on changing existing laws or creating new ones.
Because the outcome of referendums determines Switzerland’s policies, the country holds more direct popular votes than any other nation — referendums take place four times a year, with several issues of national or local importance on the ballot each time.
How do the referendums shape laws and policies?
There are three kinds of referendums in Switzerland: a mandatory one, requiring all the constitutional changes approved by the parliament to be put to a nationwide vote.
The second kind, an optional referendum, allows the people to challenge a law passed by the parliament — as long as 50,000 valid signatures are collected within 100 days of publication of the new legislation.
The third feature of Switzerland’s political system gives people the right to create their own laws through citizen-driven initiatives. A petition with 100,000 signatures is required to get an initiative on a ballot.
By the way, there is no way to cheat while gathering signatures on the petition: they are checked by the Federal Chancellery to ensure that they fulfill the legal requirements (Swiss citizens over the age of 18) and that nobody signed more than once.
What are some examples of Swiss citizens challenging existing laws through referendums?
Before 2014, Switzerland allowed the citizens of the European Union countries to live and work here.
But in a citizen-driven referendum in 2014, 50.4% voted to curb immigration from the EU to protect Switzerland’s workforce, defying the government’s pleas that such a legislation would have a negative impact on Switzerland’s economy and international relations. The government had no choice but to accept the people’s decision and amend its previous policies.
A more recent example occurred in 2017, when 53% of voters went against a parliamentary project to reform the country’s pension scheme.
In what ways is this grassroots democracy beneficial to the Swiss?
Such a system promotes government transparency and accountability. When parliament members know that their decisions can be challenged at the polls, they seek consensus, rather than conflict and divisiveness, in their ranks. In other words, the threat of a referendum keeps Swiss politicians on their toes.