The Swiss Direct Democracy Experience


Remarks on Swiss Direct Democracy and citizens' participation by Ambassador Martin Dahinden, Ambassador of Switzerland to the United States of America. On the occasion of a panel discussion about "Direct and Participatory Democracy: Can it really change America?" at the Residence of the Swiss Ambassador. 

Speaker: Ambassador Martin Dahinden

Ladies and Gentlemen, dear friends,

It is my pleasure to welcome you to the Swiss Residence for this discussion of an issue that is dear to me personally as the Swiss Ambassador to the United States and also as the former head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, namely, citizens’ participation and direct democracy. So when Mr. Bruno Kaufmann asked me to host this event, I did not hesitate. I am looking forward to tonight’s debate about experiences and experiments in direct democracy in the United States and what impact they might have on this country’s politics and policies.


Switzerland sees itself as the bedrock of direct democracy. In fact, the figures seem to strongly support this claim: well over one third of the popular votes which have taken place globally occurred in Switzerland. National votes are held up to four times a year usually with several ballot issues. This year, among other issues, we voted on major corporate tax reform (which was rejected), facilitated naturalization of third-generation legal aliens (which was approved), a major realignment of energy policy (which was approved), and social security reform (which was rejected). All those votes were accompanied by a broad and intensive public discussion, which, in my view, is one of the very positive collateral effects of direct democracy: people talk about policies.


In Switzerland, we distinguish between three major instruments of direct democracy on the national level, namely, the mandatory constitutional referendum on every amendment to the Federal Constitution and some international treaties; the optional referendum: all parliamentary decisions on ordinary laws are subject to a possible referendum: if 50,000 citizens demand a referendum within 100 days, a popular vote on the law has to be held; and the popular initiative: if 100,000 citizens sign a proposal for amending the Constitution, there must be a vote on it.


There is much to say about the development of direct democracy in Switzerland, and its effects and outcomes. Let me just mention four. First, popular votes in Switzerland are not plebiscites; they are “bottom-up” and not “top-down”—like many votes which were recently held in other parts of the world and which are problematic for several reasons. Second, votes are binding in Switzerland; we do not ask citizens to decide and tell them afterward that we do not like their decision. Third, Switzerland is a far cry from an Athenian direct democracy. Well over 90% of all laws passed by the Swiss Parliament are never challenged in a referendum. Devices of direct democracy do not replace Parliament, but are a supplement to parliamentary decision making. Fourth, direct democracy happens on all three levels of the Swiss polity, the local or community level, where you often still have assembly democracies, the cantonal or state level, as well as the national level.


Direct democracy is an integral element of Swiss political identity. It is supported by a huge majority of citizens independently of social strata, income, gender or party identification. Direct democracy has led to remarkable political stability, and it has upheld both the legitimacy of the Swiss political system as a whole as well as the citizens’ trust in the political process. Historically, direct democracy has doubtlessly contributed to the integration of different political, linguistic, confessional and cultural subgroups of society. Direct democracy does not lead to “worse” policies than representative democracy. In fact, direct democracy has proven to be efficient and rather positive for the economic development of the country. Direct democracy slows down reforms, but it also makes them steadier and more sustainable. It is an instrument of permanent control of the political elite.


Swiss direct democracy is not an export product. It has developed incrementally and is linked to specific historical experiences and lessons learned. But learning from the Swiss experience by dialogue can be useful to others.


In development cooperation, for example, local citizens’ participation is a key element today. The days when cooperation focused almost exclusively on governments and a macro top-down approach are long over. Sustainable development without the participation of those directly concerned is an illusion.


As for the United States, it obviously has long-standing and profound experience in citizens’ participation and direct democracy. For obvious reasons, that experience is mainly on the local and state levels. While I do not think that direct democracy is the solution to some of the main and pressing problems many modern democracies face today, I do believe that integrating citizens more thoroughly into the decision-making process is important. There are many instruments to do that, and Swiss direct democracy can serve as an inspiration in that regard.


Thank you.