Direct democracy is one of the special features of the Swiss political system. It allows the electorate to express their opinion on decisions taken by the federal parliament and to propose amendments to the Federal Constitution.
In Switzerland the people play a large part in the federal political decision-making process. All Swiss citizens aged 18 and over have the right to vote in elections and referendums. The Swiss electorate are called on approximately four times a year to exercise this right, and vote on an average of 15 federal proposals. In recent decades, voter turnout at elections and referendums has been below 40%.
As well as the right to vote in elections and referendums, Swiss citizens may voice their demands by means of three instruments which form the core of direct democracy: popular initiative, optional referendum and mandatory referendum.
The popular initiative gives citizens the right to propose an amendment or addition to the Constitution. It acts to drive or launch a political debate on a specific issue. For such an initiative to come about, the signatures of 100,000 voters who support the proposal must be collected within 18 months. The authorities sometimes respond to an initiative with a direct counter-proposal in the hope that a majority of the people and the cantons support that instead.
The optional referendum allows the people to demand that any bill approved by the Federal Assembly is put to a nationwide vote. In order to bring about a national referendum, 50,000 valid signatures must be collected within 100 days of publication of the new legislation..
All constitutional amendments approved by parliament are subject to a mandatory referendum, i.e. they must be put to a nationwide popular vote. The electorate are also required to approve Swiss membership of specific international organisations.