A - Z 2020 Switzerland - Democracy

Random picture of a restaurant in Engelberg, chosen because of the flags showing our cantons.

Welcome back to my Swiss themed 2020 A - Z.

Today I'm talking about a pilar of Switzerland's system of government, the (direct) democracy, emphasising direct, as opposed to representative.

The purest form of direct democracy exists only in the cantons (=states) of Appenzell and Glarus, both very traditional and conservative. As you will learn E is for equality they were the last to grant women the right to vote. It was in 1990, you heard right.

Anyway, this is what happens once a year on the central square of the town: residents will appear and vote by raising their hands. 

This process is called Landsgemeinde, and for this reason many town squares today are still called Landsgemeindeplatz. 

Photo Credit: IHK
For the rest of us, democracy works like this:

Every quarter we will get a thick envelope containing our Stimmunterlagen, documents informing us about the issues at hand. There will be leaflet full of legal explanation because typically it is about constitutional amendments. 

For every agenda there will be our Federal Council's recommendation. 

So if you trust them, you'll just follow their lead. 

Or if you like to watch TV debates where extreme opposites bite each other's heads off, that's how you'll form your opinion. 

You may also like or dislike colourful roadside posters telling you what to vote.

As an alternative you know where the political parties stand on the particular issue, and if you tend to think the Green Party has the right idea, you'll vote what they promote. 

How does the actual voting process work? 

The envelope we get contain a right to vote identity card and ballot cards on which we write YES or NO. We put the cards back in the envelope and return it by mail or appear on the actual voting day, present our ID card and drop each ballot card in the respective box.

Photo Credit: Berner Zeitung

Voting day at our village is actually voting hour, and it's Sunday between 8 - 9am, so the people who have to count the votes have enough time to transfer the results to the canton, who will then submit them to the federal government. 

Some cantons (=states) had pilot projects for e-voting. Where I live, we're still doing it the old fashioned way. 

So what are the topics we'll get to weigh in on?

The most memorable ones (for somebody of my generation) were the following (here's the complete list in German in case you are interested):

Do we want to 

  • become a member of the United Nations? (1986) The Swiss said no. In 2002 it was voted on again, and surprise - the Swiss said yes. We are a neutral member now!
  • opt out of having an army? (1989) The Swiss said no.
  • stop building new nuclear power plants? (1990) The Swiss said yes - at the same time, however, we also said no to completely opting out of any atomic energy.
  • become a member of the European free trade area? (1992) The Swiss said no.
  • make August 1st (=our national day) a paid day off? (1993) Of course the Swiss said yes. Can you believe this wasn't the case all these years before?
  • implement a heavy vehicle fee for all those trucks passing through our little country? (1994) The Swiss said yes.
  • make abortion legal? (2002) The Swiss said yes.
  • implement one car-free Sunday per quarter? (2003) The Swiss said no.

  • finally implement a paid maternity leave using moneys that were formerly exclusively used to compensate loss of wages due to military service? (2004) The Swiss said yes!
  • indefinitely confine high-risk criminals who can't be treated? (2004) The Swiss said yes.
  • implement free movement for people within what would later become the European Union, which we are not a member of? (2005) The Swiss said yes. the same year it was also approved that Switzerland made bilateral agreements with the EU and Schengen states.
  • implement the right for registered partnerships for gay couples? (2005) The Swiss said yes. 
  • forbid building minarets? (2009) The Swiss said yes.
  • protect ourselves from passive smoking? (2012) The Swiss said no. Shame!
  • fight against contagious diseases? (2013) The Swiss said yes - and yet here we are: #coronavirus
  • limit mass immigration? (2014) The Swiss said yes. 

  • secure basic medical care? (2014) The Swiss said yes after repeatedly denying initiatives about public health care and the like. (Note: we do have compulsory private health care, but an increasing number of people can't afford it and are subsidized.)
  • forbid pedophiles to keep working with children? (2014) The Swiss said yes.
  • implement an unconditional basic income? (2016, feels like yesterday) The Swiss said no. Some may it regret these days.
  • deport foreign criminals? (2016) The Swiss said yes.
  • opt out of financing national radio and TV? (2018) The Swiss said no.

The initiatives in blue were the ones showing voting participation of 50% and higher. Translation: that's when the Swiss citizens mean business. Otherwise the turnout is around 35 - 45%. 

The initiatives I talked about were federal ones, so concerning every Swiss person. In addition to those we'll also get to elect our state officials and vote on state and even communal issues. Do we approve of funds to build a larger school gym? Do we want to protect the brown hare's habitat,..? 

Does this sound weird to you? Awesome? How are you able to influence what happens in your country? 

Before you leave, let's do a democratic activity: you get to decide about my letter J. Do you want me to write about Switzerland's justice system, or would you rather read about a soccer arena called Joggeli (Swiss German for Jumping Jack)? 

Let me know in the comments below and enjoy tomorrow off - we don't post on Sundays. 

On Monday I have a post waiting for you. It's about equality in Switzerland. 

Also on Monday I am participating in a monthly project called Blog with Friends. April's theme is carrots, and I'll be sharing a recipe and instructions to make Swiss Style Carrot Cake Muffins. Don't miss it!


  1. I know a little about Swiss voting system, as I'm from the French Alps, so close to your counrty ;) We are neighbours! I'm so sad that in France so many people will not go to vote...
    Ok let's go for the democratic activity: I'm not a soccer fan at all (I didn't even watched the big game where France won the championship, World winner? Something like that), so for you letter J, I vote for Justice ;))
    D is for Denim

  2. Interesting post, and I like the idea of direct voting. Representative government is not working in the US. It's time for change. My vote for J is the justice system.

  3. This is so fascinating! I had no idea that voting worked this way in Sweden. That fact about votes for women is surprising.

    1. Not sure how it works in Sweden, Anstice - this post is about Switzerland. See major differences between the two countries here: https://thethreegerbers.blogspot.com/2020/04/a-z-2020-switzerland-bundeshaus-bern.html


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