Modern direct democracy: Citizens take center stage

There are many misunderstandings and confusions linked to the very concept of modern direct democracy. This creates a feeling of insecurity or even fear when it comes to democratizing our democracies. However, the tools and practices of modern direct democracy are genuine aspects of each truly representative democracy, as well-designed direct democratic procedures can make representative democracy more representative. On the other hand, other forms of popular political activity, like street protests, are sometimes mixed up with direct democracy. Plebiscites (popular votes called by an authority) are sometimes labeled as referendums. Because of those problems and because there is a growing global need and willingness to increase the direct participation by citizens, it makes sense to have a look into a country like Switzerland.

Switzerland is unique in so far that it democratized its democratic system more than a century ago, without being involved in any external or internal wars and without any non-democratic leaders to reverse key achievements of popular sovereignty.


Gas pedals and breaks


The two main pillars of direct democracy in Switzerland are citizens’ initiatives and citizens’ referendums.

The initiative mechanism is the more dynamic instrument. It allows a minority of voters to place an issue of their own choice on the political agenda and to have it decided by a popular vote. Eligible voters thus have the right to participate directly in legislation, regardless of whether the government or parliament likes it or not. The initiative gives a minority of citizens the right to ask a question to all citizens and to receive a binding answer. This is the gas pedal in modern direct democracy.

It is the other way around with citizens’ referendums. It serves as an instrument to control government and parliament, and gives citizens the chance to apply the breaks. It gives a minority of eligible voters the right to force a popular vote on a decision passed by the parliament.

Swiss voters are well aware of their political rights and know the special status of these rights. As citizens of a Federal State with 26 cantons (individual constituent states or provinces) and more than 2,700 communes, Swiss voters have the right to cast their votes at federal, cantonal and local level. On average, four to six times a year, there are popular votes on substantive issues at all three levels. In a lifetime, an average Swiss citizen may have had a direct say in thousands of decisions on substantive issues and has been a part of as many agenda-setting processes as she or he wished. Such a continuous possibility to take responsibility has clearly shaped a genuine political culture.

The historical roots of today’s modern direct democracy can be found both in pre-modern, medieval forms of democracy. The Swiss cantons were bound together by a strongly rooted republican tradition, which set them apart from their monarchical neighbors. Therefore, the very ideas of popular sovereignty, developed during the American and the French revolutions, fell on more fruitful soil in Switzerland than in the countries of origin.


A never-ending story


The cornerstones of modern direct democracy on the national level are the introduction of citizens’ initiatives for a total revision of the Constitution and the mandatory constitutional referendum in 1848, the optional referendum in 1874 and of the citizens’ initiative in 1891. The referendum on international treaties was introduced in 1921, extended in 1977 and 2003. It allows citizens to be involved in decisions on foreign policy.

At the national level, a mandatory popular vote (referendum) must be held in the event of a total or partial revision of the Federal Constitution or to join an organization for collective security (e.g. the Unite Nations) or a supranational community (e.g. the European Union). Swiss citizens who are entitled to vote can also propose a partial or total revision of the Constitution. Before a citizens’ initiative can be officially validated, the signatures of 100,000 citizens who are entitled to vote (approximately 2 percent of the Swiss electorate) have to be gathered within 18 months. If the initiative is valid, a mandatory popular vote has to be held. The title as well as the text of a citizens’ initiative are determined by the proponents of the initiative.


As yet another key procedure, an optional referendum takes place when it is requested within 100 days after the official publication of a statute by either 50,000 citizens (approximately 1 percent of the Swiss electorate) entitled to vote or by eight Cantons. Subjected to an optional referendum are all federal as well as international treaties that are of unlimited duration and may not be terminated. With regard to an optional referendum, it is worth mentioning that of the more than 2,200 laws passed by the parliament since 1874, only 7 percent have been subjected to referendum. In other words, in 93 percent of cases, the citizens thought the legislative proposals of their parliament were good enough not to be opposed.


Becoming a global matter of fact


The instruments of initiative and referendum are available to Swiss voters not only at the national level, but at the cantonal (regional) and communal (local) levels too.

And because each canton can choose its own way of allowing citizens to participate, there are even extra possibilities here: In addition to the constitutional initiative and the legislative referendum, all the cantons except Vaud also have the so-called finance referendum. One example: In the canton with the largest surface area, Graubunden, any non-recurring expenditure in excess of 10 million Swiss francs ($8.6 million) has to be approved by the voters in a popular vote. Any expenditure from 1 to 10 million Swiss francs can be challenged by the voters in an optional referendum if they can gather at least 1,500 signatures (about 1.2 percent of the total cantonal electorate).

In terms of the continuous modernization of direct democracy, Switzerland has also turned to the internet. Since the first local e-voting tests in 2003, several cantons have started to offer e-voting during nationwide popular votes, developing technical systems which are ensuring the security of the voting process. This summer it was decided that from 2012, most Swiss voters living abroad (there are about 600,000 of them) shall get the right to vote electronically in elections, initiatives and referendums, and maybe also to sign initiatives — making modern direct democracy yet another worldwide matter of fact.

The Swiss experience offers many concrete lessons for countries, regions or municipalities that want to modernize democracy. However, there is no blueprint for such reforms, as each political community does have its own cultural context and historical background.

The upcoming Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy will offer a unique opportunity for the strengthening of political democracy in Korea and across Asia.




Bruno Kaufmann is a broadcasting journalist based in Stockholm, Sweden. He heads the Initiative and Referendum Institute Europe ( at Marburg University in Germany and is the International Director for the 2009 Global Forum on Modern Direct Democracy in Korea (Seoul-Namhae) hosted by the Korea Democracy Foundation.