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Switzerland’s system of direct democracy not perfect

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Swiss people vote. Photo: hdzimmermann, flickr

Switzerland’s system of direct democracy not perfect


On Sunday, 9 February 2014, 50,3 per cent of Swiss voters opted by referendum in favour of the citizens’ initiative “Against mass immigration”. The turnout was high at 56 per cent.

As a result of this approval, the Swiss government is required to change the Swiss constitution and to set an annual upper limit for labour immigrants. The constitutional change will affect EU citizens’ free movement of workers within Switzerland, enacted through bilateral treaties between the Swiss Confederation and the EU.

“Yesterday, those who prefer a stronger regulation of immigration won by a thin margin of 0.6 percentage points over those who believe that the right of free movement and migration is important for the Swiss economy and society in the 21st century” explains Gerald Häfner, chairperson of Democracy International. “Many critics of this result go too far when they see it as a proof of direct democracy being dangerous. Many now demand that other European countries should refrain from giving their citizens the right of direct voting on important political issues. Modern democracy needs instruments of direct and participatory democracy. The question is not whether, but how these instruments should be implemented”, states Gerald Häfner.

Switzerland is the country that practices direct democracy at most at national level in the world. Since its existence as a modern federal state in 1848, Switzerland has seen 580 citizens’ initiatives and referendums. However, the parliament can only deem citizens’ initiatives invalid when they infringe fundamental principles of international law like torture or slavery. Unlike many other states like Germany or the United States, there is no supreme constitutional court in Switzerland that could stop citizens’ initiatives breaching Swiss law. Switzerland lacks a preventive judicial control whether initiatives are compatible with the constitution and with international law. That is why Democracy International and leading experts of direct democracy demand the inclusion of preventive judicial control mechanisms into direct democratic procedures.

“Democracy International advocates the implementation of binding direct democracy all over the world. Initiatives and referendums should be bound to international law as well as constitutional principles”, so Gerald Häfner on behalf of Democracy International, a citizens’ movement, which unites direct democracy activists from all around the world.


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