‘We vote today’. Again. And again. And again. Sigh.

‘We vote today’. Again. And again. And again. Sigh.

Peter Ungphakorn


On Sunday (24 September 2017), the Swiss voted overwhelmingly to amend their constitution to add food security as a government policy objective on agriculture. Much closer were two votes to change the pension system. They were both rejected, leaving the country with a dilemma over how to support retirees in the future.

In most countries just one referendum is a big deal, let alone three. The Swiss took the three in their stride. After all, this was the third set of national referendum votes this year and the 18th in five years. There have also been countless local referendums on issues ranging from resurfacing a village main street to deciding which canton the village should belong to.

Around the world, Switzerland may be seen rather dismissively as a country of triangular chocolate bars (made in Switzerland but now owned by a US company), cuckoo clocks (they’re probably German anyway), and secret bank accounts (now seriously under attack).

Ask the Swiss what typifies their country and high up on the list will be “direct democracy”.

This is considered so important that foreigners who take up Swiss nationality are urged throughout the process — from the first interviews by their local authorities to the official naturalisation ceremony — to do their civic duty by voting. It’s a duty, not just a right, officially at least.

More than just decentralisation


The Swiss Confederation is essentially a set of alliances in a substantially diverse nation. It spans four language regions with multiple dialects particularly in the German and Romansch areas — the other two languages are French and Italian. It covers Protestant and Catholic districts. It includes cosmopolitan cities and rural mountain communities.

The first alliance was forged in the late 13th or early 14th century between the Alpine cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden (now two “half-cantons”, Obwalden and Nidwalden) — a pact essentially against the feudal rule of the Hapsburgs of Austria and associated with the mythical hero William Tell. The alliance expanded gradually over the centuries to reach its present 26 cantons.

Holding the alliance together was not easy. Occasionally the conflict erupted into civil war. But the confederation survived.

No central authority was able to gain power, even though some such as Bern had ambitions over their neighbours. And so Switzerland stayed decentralised, an alliance of more or less equals.

The need to hold the diversity together is reflected in many aspects of Swiss life, most recently in the election of a new Cabinet member from Ticino — the only Italian-speaking canton — partly to ensure a wide cultural spread at the top of political power.


The most famous living Swiss: but Roger Federer is above all a “Basler” | Schulerst, CC BY-SA 4.0)


But Swiss direct democracy is much more than a decentralised federation of 26 cantons.

Take Roger Federer, perhaps Switzerland’s most famous living citizen. In Switzerland, he is described in German as the “Basler” or in French as the “Bâlois” (person from Basel) at least as often as he is the “Swiss”.

Officially, Swiss people are first of all citizens of their locality (the village or town), then of the canton, and only finally of Switzerland. More casually, they are usually identified by their town or canton.

Swiss direct democracy is typified by the fact that in two cantons and a handful of districts in rural German-speaking areas, voting is still by a show of hands in an assembly — the “landsgemeinde” (or see this less respectful description).

Although voters elect representatives to act on their behalf in local, cantonal and federal legislatures and administrations, they can also have a direct say in actual decisions. That includes taxes at all three levels.

Securing these rights has not always been easy. Women could not vote nationally until 1971, for example, although they obtained the vote a few years earlier in various cantons, starting with Vaud (whose capital is Lausanne) in 1959.

Direct democracy now means four dates per year are reserved for referendums and “initiatives”. Voting is so frequent that local authorities put up signs reminding the electorate “we vote today” (“On vote aujourd’hui” in French, “Heute Abstimmung” in German, for example).

Not all those dates are actually used. The 24 September vote was the last for 2017 although a date in November had previously been pencilled in.



Much has been said about voter fatigue. Turnout is often below 50%, the system slows down decision-making, and many would echo the complaint “Oh no, not another one!

The only time in the last five years that turnout has topped 60% was in February last year (2016) when there were four referendum topics arousing considerable interest.

The four were: a change to taxation laws to give unmarried partners equal treatment with married couples (rejected), the expulsion of foreigners convicted of crime (rejected, partly because it would split families), banning financial speculation on food (rejected), a change to Alpine road traffic laws allowing the Gotthard road tunnel to be refurbished (accepted).

However, according to at least one study, people vote more than the turnout figures might suggest.

“If we look at the last 20 votes, more than 90% voted at least once,” says Simon Lanz of the University of Geneva, quoted in this swissinfo.ch report.

At the same time, the numbers who have voted every time are also small. So most people seem to be “selective voters” who pick and choose the issues they want to vote on, which explains the fluctuations in turnout.


Initiatives and referendums


Bear with me now. To understand the system, we need to look briefly at the legal and technical provisions in the Swiss constitution. It’s quite complicated, partly because of the need for checks and balances in the process.

There are actually three situations that we loosely call national “referendums”; but strictly speaking the word only applies to two of those. The third is an “initiative”. They each have different rules.

Swiss national “referendums (both types) are about laws or constitutional changes proposed by the government. They are themselves checks on government power.

In some cases — including any constitutional amendment and some laws such as accession to international organisations — the government must consult the public (it “refers” the legislation to them). Article 140 of the Confederation’s constitution calls these “mandatory referendums”.

To succeed, a mandatory referendum needs a “double majority”: a majority of the voters nationally, and also to be accepted by voters in a majority of the 26 cantons. It’s the only case where this is needed.

Even when a referendum is not compulsory, citizens can challenge legislation by calling for an “optional referendum” (article 141). To do this they need to collect 50,000 signatures within 100 days. Alternatively, eight cantons can call for an optional referendum.

Optional referendums do not need a majority of cantons, only an overall majority of the national vote.

“Popular initiatives are when citizens want to amend the constitution or to replace it completely, without a government proposal (although the Cabinet and Parliament can submit a counter-proposal). In this case 100,000 signatures have to be collected in 18 months (articles 138 and 139).

Two options are possible: the initiative can be a draft legal text (the most common approach), or simply set out principles. If it is not a legal text, a complex process follows for the Parliament to prepare a draft. The constitution includes some safeguards, for example ruling out initiatives that would violate Switzerland’s international commitments.

After the signatures have been verified, the Federal Parliament and Cabinet have to scrutinize it, and optionally submit a counter-proposal, before it goes to a popular vote, which requires a single majority: a majority of cantons is not needed.


Issues big and small


Various similar provisions exist at the cantonal level — and in some cantons popular initiatives can be on laws as well as the cantonal constitution — and all the way down to towns and villages.

Voting in a tiny community can be pretty important too. A week before the latest national vote, two small villages in the largely German-speaking canton of Bern voted on whether to switch to the French-speaking canton of Jura, which itself split from Bern in 1979 after a referendum.

They voted to stay, by 121 votes to 114, and 121 to 62. Even villages of a few hundred people can decide which canton they want to belong to.

This followed a vote in June by the town of Moutier (population about 7,500) which had the opposite result. Moutier decided to leave Bern and join Jura, although allegations of voting fraud are still being investigated.

Emotionally and culturally the choice of allegiance is a big deal. Administratively, it’s handled routinely. Allowing people to decide has sometimes resulted in enclaves of one canton existing within a neighbouring canton. There are even little islands of German and Italian territory in the cantons of Schaffhausen and Ticinio because the people preferred not to be Swiss.

Among the many other local initiatives that could be in the pipeline is a proposal by a group in Geneva who are still collecting signatures to ban advertising billboards in the city.

Nationally, voters may get to decide next year whether to continue with the TV and radio licence fee, which funds public broadcasting. Enough signatures have been collected. Parliament is now considering how to proceed.



Food security


The 24 September referendum on food security is an indication of what can happen before the electorate gets to vote.

It started off as a popular initiative by the Swiss Farmers’ Association, with the required 100,000 signatures. The Government looked at the initiative and drafted a similar counterproposal. The farmers’ group accepted it and withdrew the original initiative, leaving the government’s version as a constitutional amendment, which the farmers now backed. As required, this was put to a referendum.

The amendment adds food security as a specific objective to the constitutional provisions on agriculture (article 104). The amendment (a new article 104a) offers a range of ways to achieve this, from supporting local production and efficient and sustainable use of resources, to ensuring agriculture and the food supply chain are market oriented and do not rely on subsidies.

The government says the amendment will not require any policies to be altered: it simply clarifies the objectives and constrains any future changes.

The provision on market orientation is not a major part of the discussion, but it would actually add a less protectionist direction for agriculture in the constitution, which currently only prescribes subsidies.

Including it is recognition that Switzerland is unlikely ever to be able to feed itself completely. It currently produces just over 55% of what it consumes, so “food security” means ensuring good supplies from abroad as well as producing locally.

Consistent with this approach, Switzerland is one of a group lobbying in the World Trade Organization (WTO) for tighter disciplines when countries want to restrict food exports (as Ukraine and Argentina did recently), one way of assuring importers that supplies will not be disrupted.

The background to this is that Switzerland is one of the most protectionist countries in agricultural trade. Subsidies and import barriers combine to provide farmers with a huge 62% of their agricultural incomes, overtaking Norway to reach highest proportion in the world according to latest figures (for 2015) from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

One result is that food in Switzerland is very expensive. Relying less on subsidies and being more market oriented would ease that.

As expected, the result was overwhelmingly in favour of the amendment, almost 80% of votes and a clean sweep of all the cantons giving it a clear double majority.




Much closer — and sometimes contradictory — were the votes on sweeping changes to the pension system. The system and the proposed changes are complicated.

“It is undoubtedly one of the most important reform projects to be put to a nationwide vote in many years,” reported swissinfo.ch, part of the public Swiss Broadcasting Corporation.

This is “because it concerns the whole population: almost all residents — Swiss or foreigners, young or old, working or not, rich or poor — have a right to old age security benefits”.

The money involved is huge. Assets of CHF800 billion ($825bn) are deposited in employee pension funds alone.

One of the two referendums includes raising the retirement age for women from 64 to 65 in line with men, and changes to the way assets accumulated in the pension fund are converted to payments, resulting in some reductions. To compensate, all new pensioners will receive an additional CHF70 ($72) a month.

The second referendum proposes increasing value-added tax slightly to strengthen the pension system’s finance.

Change is needed because people are living longer — on average 10 or more years longer than 50 years ago — and are therefore they are drawing retirement pensions for longer; the ratio of people in work (who finance the system) to pensioners has also fallen in the same period, from five workers per pensioner to just over three; and the investments are vulnerable to financial shocks. The goal is to guarantee funding for the social programmes and pension incomes into the future.

Parliament approved the plan by a “wafer-thin majority” earlier this year amid opposition from right-wing and centre-right parties (and some extreme left activists). Parties in the centre and on the left have come out in favour of the government-sponsored reform.

Both were rejected. The popular votes were 52.7% against and 47.3% for pension reform, and a much closer 50.05–49.95% against increasing value-added tax (VAT), meaning a number of voters did not link the two. But the proposal to increase VAT needed a double majority and it was more clearly defeated by 13.5 cantons to 9.5 (six cantons are “half-cantons” as a result splitting larger areas).

The German-speaking cantons tended to vote against pension reform (except Basel City, Bern, Zurich and Lucerne, all of them containing large urban centres), while Geneva and Vaud broke ranks with French-speaking cantons to vote against. Bern’s vote was extremely close: the majority was 29. Italian-speaking Ticino voted for the reform.

“The outcome of the vote shows that the reform was too complex and put a heavy financial burden on the younger generation, according to the political right,” Swissinfo.ch reported.

“The far-left, which also campaigned against the reform, said it was pleased that women’s retirement age will not be increased.

“Supporters of the reform have admitted defeat but they warned that an alternative solution to shore up the pension system will be difficult.”

Among the other more local votes were approval by a district of Geneva to build a new theatre, rejection in Neuchâtel to build a new court house and rejection in Lucerne of a proposal that would have the effect of banning teaching English as a foreign language in primary school (while continuing to allow French or Italian). There were mixed results in various localities on welfare and facilities for refugees or asylum seekers.

And that’s it. Until next year.


Want to see more?


Watch a video on how the Swiss political system works here.

Meanwhile, this page has more about William Tell, including a video that tells his story and Switzerland’s:


YouTube video

(Just be careful not to believe everything you hear about Switzerland)


Peter Ungphakorn is based on the shores of Lake Léman in Switzerland. He spent almost two decades with the WTO Secretariat, Geneva. Before that he worked for The Nation and the Bangkok Post. He now blogs on trade, Brexit and other issues at https://tradebetablog.wordpress.com/



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