Referendums are a political instrument that also often lead to discussions in the Netherlands. In Switzerland, however, citizens have had the right to influence the legislative process for more than 150 years. They also have the option of making changes to the constitution. How did this system come about in Switzerland, and has it worked well in the past?
About the term Direct Democracy.
Andreas Gross wrote an article about direct democracy in Switzerland in 1999. This article appeared in the collection Mehr direkte Demokratie wagen. Volksbegehren und Volksentscheid: Geschichte — Praxis — Vorsläge(link is external). In the article, Gross deliberately used the term Direct Democracy (with a capital letter) because it allowed him to distinguish between the form of democracy from Athens (popular assembly) and that of the early modern period.
Also, the term in this way symbolized all democratic acts in which the people were involved. For example, popular initiatives and binding referendums also came under the term.
Origin of Direct Democracy.
Direct Democracy was largely not conceived in Switzerland. The concept of giving legislative power to the population is based on three elements, only one of which comes from Switzerland itself. The referendum on the constitution started in America, in the northeastern states.
The first modern constitution to be directly ratified by the people was Connecticut ( Fundamental Orders of Connecticut ) in 1639. Some historians also see the Orders as the first written constitution. According to them, the document meets all requirements. The document is short but creates opportunities for the male population to choose their representatives.
Direct democracy, as we saw it in Athens, was no longer: a combination of an elected parliament with a controlling electorate took its place. Connecticut’s nickname, The Constitution State, is well explained by all this.
Ideals from the French Revolution.
At the end of the 18th century, the consultative referendum or plebiscite arose in revolutionary France. The 1793 Constitution, which would never enter into force, provided the people for the first time in the consultative referendum. It was not until 1795 that a conservative version of this constitution officially came into effect. But what about Switzerland? The Helvetic Republic was created on Swiss soil in 1798 when French troops invaded the area.
A new unitary republic was founded there, based on the ideals of the French revolution. The constitution (as seen above) was of paramount importance. The population was against these French ideals and did not want a new constitution. However, the country received it in 1802, after a national referendum. The first referendum on a national constitution was born. Because the 167,172 non-voters were added to the 72,453 yes-voters, the constitution was adopted (there were 92,423 no-voters).
Direct Democracy in Switzerland.
Today Switzerland has 3 forms of Direct Democracy. It is possible to start an initiative yourself, vote on legislative proposals, and change the constitution. Before these means can be used, certain requirements must be met, such as a certain number of signatures. Furthermore, a double majority is required for all important decisions, national and international.
The government must accept the plan, but also a majority of those entitled to vote. When a new law is introduced, citizens have 100 days to collect 50,000 signatures. If this succeeds, a vote is taken as to whether the new law should be adopted. This state of affairs is also common for the constitution. Within 18 months, 100,000 signatures must be collected for a change to be made.