the global coalition for democracy

Cool and Calm: Direct democracy in Switzerland

Sign up

to our news, analyses and features on direct democracy worldwide!


Cool and Calm: Direct democracy in Switzerland


Witnessing Swiss citizens practising direct democracy and learning from experts how the system works – this was the aim of the journey to the Swiss Confederation from 2 – 4 May 2014, organised by our partner organisation Mehr Demokratie e.V.

The main event on our agenda was the assembly of the canton Glarus on Sunday (“Landsgemeinde”), one of the oldest forms of direct democracy that has been practiced in Glarus for 727 years. The assembly is held each year at the first weekend of May and invites all eligible citizens (older than 16 years, holding Swiss citizenship and a resident of the canton) to vote on the laws and expenditures of their canton (In Switzerland a “canton” is the political unity of the federal level).  

This year nine issues were on the agenda, of which the most controversial ones were whether to grant cost-free transport of a cable car and the re-modelling of Glarus’ train station demanding high costs from its citizens. Also, the judges of the canton were newly elected.

If you had expected heated debate and tumults, the “Zaunplatz”, the main square of Glarus where the assembly annually takes place and where about 5000 people had gathered, was the wrong place to be. This is because Glarus’ citizens sticked to the about three minutes allotted to presenting their motion. Moreover, you could not hear any applause or boos to what had been said. Instead, the atmosphere was calm and highly concentrated.

Concentrated Atmosphere

Also, there was not any uproar amongst the voters when the result was so close that it could not clearly be spotted and hence had to be decided by the Landamman (chairman) and his colleagues of the governing council (“Regierungsrat”). This was the case with the vote on whether Glarus’ station should be re-built including a bus terminal or not. After the third vote, while the majority was still unclear, the five men present on the podium put together their heads and decided that the modern bus terminal including the proposal should not to be built. Expressing astonishment about accepting this way of consensus finding, a Swiss man next to me said: “We are used to this form of decision-making since we have been children. Everybody wins sometimes”.  – A fascinating stoic attitude that makes direct democracy work.

Dr. Uwe Serdült of the Centre for Research on Direct Democracy
Dr. Uwe Serdült of the Centre for Research on Direct Democracy

Today, only the cantons Appenzell-Innerhoden and Glarus practice direct democracy in form of the annual gathering of the “Landsgemeinde”. We learned about the procedures and other forms of direct democracy exercised in Switzerland when paying a visit to the Centre for Research on Direct Democracy c2d in Aarau on Saturday morning.

Swiss - German voter turnouts

Dr. Uwe Sedült, Co-Director of the Institute, gave a presentation on the political system of Switzerland. He covered a broad range of issues such as e-voting, demographic voter turnout and internationalisation of legislation and patiently answered our many questions. With regards to voter turnout he empirically demonstrated that 81% of all Swiss citizens turn out to vote in a referendum at least once every four years. (In comparison: In Germany 71 per cent of the electorate participated in the federal elections also held every four years.)

We were accommodated in a typical Swiss country house of the Scout Association in Nesslau, a village counting 3000 inhabitants in the canton of St. Gallen. On Saturday evening, we welcomed Kilian Looser in the cottages’ living room that was cosily warmed by a wood-burning fireplace. Kilian Loser is the President of the municipality of Nesslau (“Gemeindepräsident”). He explained to us his work which - given the huge amount of direct decision-making - mostly consists of preparing proposals that the municipal assembly then decides on.

Leif Hansen and Kilian Looser (right)
Leif Hansen and Kilian Looser (right)

Germany’s basic law (“Grundgesetz”) provides that municipal assemblies can take decisions instead of elected representatives (Article 28). Spending a weekend in Switzerland  and witnessing the fascinating culture of common decision-making, it becomes more than evident: Direct democracy does work. The variety of reasons that we hear by politicians not to introduce more direct democracy in Germany and other countries is an excuse. This is because the status quo give politicians more power than the people.

The participants of the journey
The participants of the journey

A BIG Thank you to Leif Hansen and Alexander Trennheuser of Mehr Demokratie who had organised the journey.

Text and phots by Cora Pfafferott

Website Info

Democracy International is a registered association in Germany
(eingetragener Verein e.V.).

Gürzenichstraße 21 a-c
50667 Cologne
Phone: +49 (0) 221 669 66 50
Fax: +49 (0) 221 669 665 99

Amtsgericht Köln
VR-Nr. 17139

Full website information here

Data protection - Datenschutz


Democracy International e.V.
IBAN: DE 58370205000001515101

Bank für Sozialwirtschaft
Konto: 1515101
BLZ: 37020500


Sign up

to our news, analyses and features on direct democracy worldwide!


Follow us