Switzerland and its Democracy – a view from inside

Bern, 21.04.2006 - Ansprache von Bundeskanzlerin A. Huber-Hotz am Royal Institute of Management, Thimbu, Bhutan, 21. April 2006. (Die Rede wurde auf Englisch gehalten.)

Es gilt das gesprochene Wort.


Switzerland and its Democracy – a view from inside

I am very happy to be in Bhutan again. Your beautiful country seems to me to be even more interesting, brighter and happier than it was the last time I visited. Five years ago I had the opportunity to talk to you about the Swiss political system, about the political organisation of my country with its 7.3 million people, the 4 national languages, the 26 cantons, the parliament with two chambers and the 7-member-government. I talked to you about Switzerland's federalism and its semi-direct democracy. I remember the interesting discussion with the Bhutanese audience.

Over the last five years Bhutan has changed a lot, as has Switzerland. I am very impressed by the deep and innovative reforms your country has achieved. I read with great interest the draft of the new Constitution of the Kingdom of Bhutan from March last year. While talking about Swiss democracy, I will also refer to your constitution and its basic elements and values.

As Federal Chancellor – the government’s “chief of staff” – I am particularly involved in the workings of Swiss democracy. It is one of the important task of the Federal Chancellery to supervise the functioning of the instruments of direct democracy and to watch over legislation in this field. In close cooperation with the cantons and communes, not to mention the committees responsible for the various initiatives and referendums, the Federal Chancellery organises popular votes and elections at national level.

Direct democracy as a basic principle of the Swiss Confederation

The political form in which people live is not arbitrary, but is determined by a country's character and its past. This is true for Bhutan and for Switzerland. Switzerland is a multi-cultural country with four national languages (German is spoken by 60%, French by around 20%, Italian by 8% and Romansh by 1%). Due to global migration, Switzerland has taken in a large number of foreigners over the last fifty years, and now makes up about 20% of our population. Switzerland has always been a multi-confessional society and this is even truer today.

Due to those characteristics of society and cultural heritage, one of the features of Switzerland's political system is its distinct form of federalism and extensive system of direct democracy, both of which developed over a number of centuries. The founders of the modern Swiss state recognised over 150 years ago, that stability and prosperity can only be guaranteed through solidarity and a far-reaching involvement of the linguistic, regional and cultural minorities both in the political decision-making process and in all key positions of the State.

They created a finely tuned political system with a complicated network of checks and balances between
- the people and the political authorities
- the government and parliament
- the Confederation and the 26 constituent states (cantons).
No-one person should hold too much power. There is no permanent head of state, no permanent president of the political authorities. No-one should always belong to the majority, just as no-one should always be in the minority. Every Swiss citizen is at times part of the majority and others part of a minority.

Since 1848, the cantons have enjoyed autonomy in all matters in which responsibility, with their consent and that of the people, has not been ceded to the federal government. This is one of the reasons why our Constitution is often amended. Every new task assumed by the federal government requires constitutional legitimisation.

Article 60 of the Constitution of 1848 stated that “The supreme power of the Confederation shall be exercised by the Federal Assembly”. With the introduction of the legislative referendum in 1874, the Federal Assembly found itself in a situation that was unique in Europe. Other parliaments have, as a rule, preserved their political sovereignty. If, for instance, the House of Commons in London enacts a law, there is no-one else who can challenge it. If the German Bundestag adopts a law, there is a constitutional court that has the power to abrogate that law if it is deemed to be contrary to the Constitution. The people, however, have no say in the matter. The same applies to the French National Assembly and – according to the draft of the Constitution of Bhutan – to the Bhutanese National Assembly.

It is no exaggeration to say that the situation in Switzerland is reversed. Federal laws are not subject to any judicial control as to their constitutionality, but they are all subject to the scrutiny exercised by the people. As you know, all Swiss citizens over the age of 18 are entitled to vote in federal matters. It is well-known that it took Switzerland a long time to give women their voting rights – they had to wait until 1971, when Swiss men voted in favour in a popular vote. Once that step had been taken, no-one quite understood why such a natural right had taken so much effort to introduce!

What we term as a “popular vote” does not have the character of a plebiscite. Our referendums are not understood as allegiance to a person or to the Government. The acceptance or rejection of a proposal is certainly a means of expressing confidence, or lack thereof, in the authorities, but the government remains in place in the event of rejection.

Given the large number of votes that are held, the issue at stake is not used to express discontent with the government. We vote for or against the issue at hand and not on something else.

The experience in Switzerland has been that all matters relating to domestic policies are settled eventually, even if it takes several goes. It took two attempts to introduce the vote for women, four attempts to bring in VAT. And it is even more difficult if it concerns international matters. After rejecting membership of the UN in 1976, there then came a “yes” in 2002.

Instruments of direct democracy

Voters’ right in Switzerland are, indeed, more extensive than in many a country. First, as is usual, voters elect the members of the National Council, the first chamber of our Parliament. The members of the second chamber, the Council of States, are elected according to cantonal law.

But voters also have direct rights with regard to the Constitution and federal legislation: 100’000 voters can request a total or partial amendment to the Constitution by means of a popular initiative. Signatures backing the initiative must be collected within a period of 18 months. And any such amendment is subject to a compulsory referendum: this means that a majority of the people and the cantons (12 out of 23) must vote in favour. Finally, federal laws and even certain international treaties, are subject to popular vote, if 50’000 signatures are gathered within 100 days of their publication.

Swiss citizens have also the right to vote on similar matters at cantonal and communal level.

Here is a little statistical information:
Since 1848, voters have taken part in 535 polls at federal level, in other words, they were able to say yes or no to various proposals on 535 occasions. In 222 cases, the vote was on an amendment to the Constitution, and in 154 cases, the adoption of a law or the approval of an international treaty. In votes on constitutional matters, the response has been positive in 159 cases and negative in 63 cases. Votes on treaties and legislation have been positive in 81 cases and negative in 73 cases.

As far as popular initiatives are concerned, which can only be submitted to amend the Constitution, but not to propose legislation, more than 200 have been submitted since the end of the 19th century. 161 have been taken to a referendum, 16 of which were accepted. 70 or so were withdrawn, mainly because the authorities had already more or less satisfied the wishes of the initiators, and around 20 are pending.

As you see, the Swiss citizens have many means to participate in the political decision-making process, and they can vote two to four times a year at national level and even more at cantonal and local level. To sum up, I would say that the initiative allows the people to correct the sins of omission of government and parliament, the referendum to correct their sins of commission! (Hans Tschäni).

But if we regard the success of the work of our Federal Assembly, it is not bad at all. On balance, the people have followed the recommendation of the government and parliament in roughly three-quarters of cases since the creation of the modern Swiss Confederation in 1848.

The role of the political parties and the media

The political parties and the media play an important role in direct democracy. Switzerland's political parties emerged at the beginning of the 19th century as relatively unstructured political movements based on common ideas and centring around well-known political personalities, and can be characterized as the “children of popular rights” (Gruner 1977). Direct democracy contributed considerably to the early development of the political parties. The power a party has in political life depends either on its size, which allows it to become a part of the governing coalition, or on its capacity to veto government decisions. Two aspects of the Swiss party system are particularly salient, especially in international comparison: the large number of parties, due to the fragmentation and segmentation arising from the country's cultural heterogeneity (multiculture) and decentralised structure (federalism), and the relative stability of the distribution of power.

Since 1959, the four largest parties, which cover about 80% of voters, are represented in the government (Social Democrats, Liberal Democrats, Christian Democrats and Swiss People’s Party). The political parties do not occupy a strong position within the political system. They are organised as associations without public financing. They have only been mentioned in the Swiss Constitution since 1999, in Article 137: “The political parties shall contribute to the forming of the opinion and the will of the People”. I was very impressed by the draft of the Bhutanese constitution, which regulates in a very detailed manner the rights and duties of political parties in Articles 15 to 18.

The main task of Swiss political parties is to present candidates for parliamentary election – and at cantonal level also for government - and to take an active part in election and referendum campaigning. Even though, originally, the system of direct democracy promoted the formation of political parties, at the end of the 20th century, direct democracy actually weakens their position. In fact, they face competition from new social movements (such as anti-nuclear, women’s, youths, peace and ecological movements) and new forms of financially strong interest representation (lobbying?). Party loyalty and the parties’ capacity for political mobilisation as well as party membership are declining.

A big challenge for the political parties, as for the government and parliament, is the dominant role of the media. They influence now the forming of public opinion in a decisive way. They contribute to political agenda-setting and they make it possible to build up popular candidates for election. In daily life the political parties are often compelled to comment to the media instantly on the political problems of the day, thereby circumventing the process of internal opinion forming. The success of a given party depends to a large extent not only on how well it is able to raise important problems and put forward possible solutions, but also how it can deal with the media.

As you may imagine, the political parties have not an easy life. To strengthen their position, their public financing is discussed from time to time as well as the obligation for all participants in a referendum campaign to declare how much money they put in their campaign. But until now, no measures in this sense have got a majority.

Advantages and disadvantages of direct democracy

On the one hand, direct democracy is a very important instrument of political legitimisation for government and parliament. On the other hand, it contributes to the stability of the political system, which is a base for a successful economy and the welfare of society. However, the perfect functioning of this system is not self-evident.

A word must be said about the problems we have to face. We are preoccupied by the following questions:

1. The first question concerns the participation of citizens in popular votes and elections:
With a voter turnout of under 50%, can it still be said that we have the legitimacy that we are seeking? And what can be done to increase voter turnout and encourage citizens to use the ballot box? What can we do to ensure that people not only consider democratic rights as an individual right, but also as a civic duty?

This much I can tell you: never in the past 150 years have we had a voter turnout of 100%! However, there have been times when voter turnout all over Switzerland was high, in the interwar years, for example. After the Second World War it gradually declined, until it reached an all-time-low, averaging just under 40%, at the beginning of the 1990s. There were some excellent turnouts, but only in the case of very important votes: for example, 79% for the vote on Switzerland’s accession to the European Economic Area.

In recent years, an extension of popular vote procedures has resulted in a slight increase in voter turnout, which today averages around 45%. One reason for this is the introduction of postal voting. Around four weeks before any Polling Sunday, voters receive their voting papers along with a pamphlet put together by the Federal Chancellery that explains what the votes are all about. As soon as they have these papers, voters can complete the ballot paper and send it back by post. In the cities and urban areas, some 95% of voters vote by post.

We are hoping that e-voting will result in a further increase in voter turnout. Pilot projects are already underway in certain cantons, in close cooperation with the Federal Chancellery and funded by the federal government. The first results look promising.

For complex proposals, such as those on GMOs/genetic engineering, public forums and "consensus conferences" also help to explain the issues and increase citizens’ understanding. In Switzerland, these forums were set up in the run up to the vote on an amendment to the Constitution in order to regulate genetic engineering.

2. Can we take political decisions that are needed quickly enough?

Both direct democracy and federalism need concordance in order to function well. Concordance is the resolution of political conflicts and differences of opinion through negotiation and the search for compromise. This is considered to be a typically Swiss virtue.

It is a fact that our decision-making process is protracted and appears to be an overly-complicated way of tackling an issue. The reason for this is not just the popular votes, however. They are preceded by a complex procedure involving the cantons, the political parties and civil society. At an early stage in the decision-making process, all those participating in the lawmaking process and those affected by the new law take part in a consultation procedure, which involves checking the factual accuracy of the proposal, whether it can be put into practice and whether it will be acceptable to the people. Anyone can take part in this public procedure. All the views submitted, along with a summary of the results, are made public.

This procedure is time-consuming, but it does help to make sure that a new law, once it has been approved, is actually implemented. It ensures that the results of the political process enjoy widespread support. And as a result it assists in ensuring the stability of the state.

An acceleration of the decision-making processes by watering down the democratic process is not something that has been called for, whether in academic literature or in political circles. On the other hand, efforts are being made towards increased efficiency and faster procedures in public administration, in government and in parliament. To this end, a number of reforms have been approved and implemented in recent years.

Whether and how voters make use of their democratic rights and thus legitimise the actions of the State essentially depends on their relationship with those in government and on the trust that they have in them.

Trust as an important requirement for democracy

There is evidence to suggest that trust in institutions – both private and public – has declined over the years. And Switzerland is no exception due to a number of factors: the political context, globalisation, the state of the economy, the political culture, attitudes to authority in society, changing values and the media.

Mutual trust between the political institutions – government and parliament – and the citizens is an essential element of the democratic contract and a necessary condition for effective public policy. A decline in trust can mean a lower level of compliance with rules and regulations. Lack of public trust and interest can make it difficult, if not impossible, to implement reforms and policies that will only produce benefits in the long term and that may have perceived negative effects for some groups of citizens in the short term. A loss of public trust can, in the long run, compromise the democratic system itself.

This is particularly true for Switzerland. We need people to agree with the government and parliament to a far greater degree than in other countries. Even if the government and parliament do not have complete control over all the factors affecting trust, they can make some things better! Let me give you some examples.

1. Ensuring transparency of communication and fostering dialogue with the citizens.

We are certainly not short of information in our increasingly IT-influenced world. And with the introduction of the transparency/freedom of information principle, information on the activities of the government and the administration is being made widely accessible.
This concept of transparency is also contained in the legislation on the Federal Council's government communication. The Federal Council not only has the task of informing the public in full and in good time on its activities (Art. 180 BV) but also of cultivating relations with the public and keeping abreast of the opinions and concerns expressed in public debate (Art. 11 RVOG). Effective government communication means cultivating relations. It works both ways – it affects both citizens and the government – both sides should change through mutual exchange. For this information to have a persuasive effect, the content as well as the form and the language must be right.

2. Comprehensibility and accessibility of information and legislation

Form and language are crucial. Albert Einstein, whose life and work we are celebrating this year in Bern, once said: "Things have to be as simple as possible – but not simpler". We let ourselves be guided by this principle when drafting the Federal Council's explanatory statements to voters, and in particular in our efforts to find a citizen-friendly language for our legislation. Citizens need to be able to understand their rights and duties without too much effort on their part. Only if government information and legislation is clear and comprehensible, can the response of the authorities be predictable to citizens, and only then can arbitrary action be exposed, only then is it possible for individuals to fight for their rights, only then can there be any legal certainty.

Comprehensibility goes hand in hand with accessibility and this is where the internet comes in. Government portals and the provision by government offices of online services are important projects for the future.

3. Promoting values

Politics is part and parcel of society and changes along with it. With this change, politics and in particular governments have a particular responsibility. Government means taking the lead and being a role model. If a government wants to do this with credibility it must meet specific requirements.

First and foremost, it must be honest and humble. Honesty and humility mean presenting the decision processes openly and truthfully, saying what we know and what we don't know, admitting that we have not got everything under control and that mistakes can happen. An honest government can admit that not everything can be planned in advance and that there is no such thing as the one and only solution, but that there are always alternatives.

Tolerance and the ability to listen are another requirement. By tolerance I mean taking note of other points of view and incorporating them into one's own thought processes. That implies listening to and taking your political opponent seriously. The debate must be on the issues at stake, and must not degenerate into a personal attack. Citizens often react to the way a solution has been presented rather than to the solution itself.

Finally, unity is part of political leadership. A government is only credible if it has a certain amount of internal consistency or if it is at least willing and able to achieve unity under difficult circumstances. The unity of government and parliament, and this is at least borne out in studies on Switzerland, is a key factor in its success in referendum campaigns. Against the backdrop of a media landscape that is more interested in confrontation than consensus, and in a confrontation between people rather than a confrontation about the issues at stake, the need for unity is particularly high.


The involvement of citizens in public policy, the legislative process and public sector reforms depend on the characteristics of a country's political system, on tradition and the political context. Switzerland is often considered as a role model. Even if we are flattered by such statements, we are still aware that our democracy cannot be exported as it is, and that improvements can still be made. It does, however, compel us to take citizens more seriously than elsewhere and to cultivate an ongoing dialogue with them right from the start. It makes politicians perhaps somewhat more humble and more patient, because they have to anticipate the verdict of the people not only every four years, but several times a year. And finally our system gives rise to the situation where it is not always the same people who are the winners or losers, but where, time and again, minorities with their concerns win the day. At least we understand that direct democracy is a collective learning process, for citizens as well as for political parties, governments and parliaments.

But, I think, that a similar political learning process is currently taking place in Bhutan. The way in which the draft of the new Constitution is discussed in public and the marvellous commitment of His Majesty are exemplary – a Bhutanese role model. I wish your King and your Country every success in this excellent political project as well as much happiness and prosperity for the future.

Thank you.