Why you should care
Switzerland’s quirky political system gives every citizen the chance to put things to a vote.
This month, Swiss voters were asked whether they support a proposal to limit urban sprawl and promote environmentally sustainable housing — the first of several times they’ll be called to the polls this year in a nationwide ballot.
Switzerland has an astonishing number of referendums compared to other nations: Any Swiss citizen who gathers 50,000 signatures in 100 days can force a referendum about any law passed by Parliament, while 100,000 signatures can kick-start an initiative to create a law. In fact, the Alpine nation holds the highest number of referendums and initiative votes worldwide: Since direct democracy was embedded in its constitution in 1848, voters have been called upon 309 times to decide on 625 questions, and that’s just on the federal level. Voters are asked their opinions on issues of state and local importance as well.
While many other countries across the world are seeing destabilizing populist movements negatively impact people’s trust in governance, the land of folk hero William Tell hasn’t seen such a shake-up — which may be helping the Swiss appreciate their form of popular representation and governance. In fact …
Swiss citizens’ trust in government has risen 17 percentage points since 2007, while other once-trustworthy countries have seen their numbers slip, a report found.
A report from 2017 studying countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that 80 percent of Swiss people trust their government, up from 63 percent in 2007, and the 2018 World Values Survey found that Switzerland’s combination of trust in government and trust in Parliament topped even Indonesia’s, which came in second on both studies. Meanwhile, many countries that had previously scored high in the 2007 OECD survey, like Finland and Luxembourg, saw public trust in government drop by double digits, and American trust dropped from 39 percent to 30 percent.
So why hasn’t Switzerland fallen for populist politics?
“Populism makes no sense here because it’s possible to integrate into the political system and have your voice heard,” says Gerhard Pfister, president of the center-right Christian Democratic People’s Party and a retired high school teacher. He says the fact that parliamentarians also maintain other jobs is another reason people trust their government. “It’s not our main profession, and it’s not our only profession,” he explains. Politicians in Switzerland answer their own phones and give out their personal cell phone numbers. They take the train to Bern while Parliament is in session, and continue with their regular lives the rest of the year.
Moreover, the Swiss Constitution was designed so that no one party or branch of government could have a concentration of power. Seats in Parliament are awarded based on the proportion of votes won in elections. The executive branch, the federal council, is composed of seven members from the four largest political parties. The presidency — a largely ceremonial role — is rotated each year among the seven.
Another reason trust in government may be so high? The Swiss have the highest average wealth of any country in the world. Economic status, according to Joachim Blatter, a professor of political science at the University of Lucerne, is usually tied to satisfaction with the status quo.
Pfister agrees. “We Swiss like to travel abroad. We see that, compared to others, things are good here.”
“Direct democracy forces the elites to make decisions that are more satisfactory to the average voter or face a referendum,” says Blatter. “Whereas in the representative system, the political elite has more freedom to pursue their own preferences.” There were 10 nationwide referendums in 2018, including one allowing insurance companies to hire private investigators to tail those suspected of committing benefit fraud, which passed, and one abolishing licensing fees for radio and television, which was rejected.
Many initiatives don’t pass — 60 percent of 2018’s votes were rejected. But being able to ask the question makes a difference. “You have at least the feeling that you vote for your destiny, that you can have influence,” says Denise Weder, a primary school teacher from St. Gallen. “There is always the possibility in Switzerland that citizens can directly take action to make a difference. You can at least try.” While some might be annoyed at voting so often, Weder says it’s simply part of being Swiss.
Diccon Bewes, author of Swiss Watching, sees both positives and negatives in the referendum-heavy system. Ideas — even extreme ones — get aired, discussed and voted on without one ideology dominating. Still, change comes slowly to Switzerland. Women didn’t get the right to vote nationally until 1971, after 67 percent of the country’s male voters rejected a referendum on women’s suffrage in 1959. In some cantons, women weren’t allowed suffrage until the early 1990s. While registered unions for same-sex couples were legalized by referendum in 2005, marriage equality remains banned — though legislation on the question is expected this year.
The feeling that politicians aren’t looking out for the average person and that their concerns won’t be addressed — one oft-cited cause of populist votes like the Brexit referendum — isn’t likely to happen in Switzerland, because citizens know they have a voice. It also means, Blatter says, that citizens feel like they can’t complain when problems arise. “In other countries, citizens say, ‘The elites should do something to solve my problem,’” he says. “Here they don’t do that. They think, ‘I should have initiated a vote.’”