The think tank Avenir Suisse thinks that the Swiss system of referenda, where popular votes can change the Swiss federal constitution, has been hijacked by political parties and minority interest groups and needs fixing.
According to the think tank, this cornerstone of Swiss direct democracy has become the instrument of political parties and a marketing tool for specific minority interests. In addition, Federal initiatives are increasing centralisation to the detriment of cantons. This is of particular concern where a national majority, largely unaffected by an initiative, impose their preferences on a canton of voters who are adversely affected by it.
Avenir Suisse’s numbers show that in recent years referenda have increased three-fold and their approval rate has shifted from 8% to 19%. In the 110 years from 1891, when referenda were introduced, to 2001, there were 145 votes, an average of around 1.5 a year. From 2002 to 2015 there were 53, an average of around 4 a year. Until 2001 only 12 of the 145 initiatives were approved. In the 14 years since, 10 out of 53 have passed.
Of greatest concern to Avenir Suisse is the growing difference between what is voted for and what is actually implemented. This perverse trend is creating damaging political uncertainty in Switzerland and leading to constitutional changes that do not reflect the wishes of the initiatives’ backers.
Avenir Suisse proposes a five-point plan to fix the problem and get direct democracy back on track.
1. Change the admission system
Decisions on referendum admissibility are currently made by parliament, but because initiatives are often put forward by the political parties making up parliament, conflicts of interest arise. Transferring the role to the Federal Chancellery, which would be a more rigorous and impartial decision maker would solve this.
2. Increase the signature hurdle
Increase the referendum hurdle from 100,000 signatures to 210,000 – equivalent to 4% of the electorate. The 50,000 signatures required in 1891 were equivalent to 7.7% of voters. This change would reduce the number of initiatives.
3. Introduce follow-up votes on final constitutional amendments
Voters would be given a chance to vote on the final constitutional changes resulting from a successful vote, giving them the last say on what is actually enacted. This way the end result would reflect the will of the electorate and not the interim meddling of political parties.
4. Create a right to initiate changes to federal law without a popular vote
If a proposed initiative is compatible with the current constitution it would gain the right to initiate a parliamentary vote to change federal law as an alternative to going to a popular vote to change the constitution. This right, which has existed for 100 years at a cantonal level, would not limit the right to initiate popular votes.
5. Only one initiative per voting day
A rule limiting voting to only one proposal per voting day would improve the level of debate and lead to more informed voting.
All of this however is only a proposal. Any constitutional changes would need a successful popular vote to make the required changes to the constitution.