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Popular Access to the Decision‐making Process in Switzerland: The Role of Direct Democracy


CENTRAL TO THE STUDY OF DEMOCRATIC POLITICS IS THE IDEA of popular control over the activities of elites. More specifically, how can the preferences of citizens be aggregated into a political choice for a government policy or government personnel? Popular control, the effects of citizen participation in political life, is the basis of a major value orientation in the discipline: the notion of participant democracy. The degree of citizen participation becomes the key to the nature of democracry in a society : the more participation, the more democratic the political life of a country becomes. Political participation may take a variety of forms, e.g., running for office, holding office,voting, soliciting votes, and campaigning for, or contributing funds to, I the party of one's choice. However, voting is the most emphasized aspect of citizen participation, since it is the only form of active participation many engage in. The limitations placed on voting as a mechanism for popular control over political choices are well documented. Voters do not choose when to vote, nor the agenda. They have minimal input into the selection of candidates and the choice of issues which divide the parties at elections. Public participation in the selection and resolution of important policy issues between elections is severely restricted.

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1 The central role of participant democracy for the study of political science is well argued in Verba S. and Nie N., Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality, New York, Harper and Row, 1972 , particularly parts I and III.

2 See for example, Wahlke John, ‘Public Policy and Representative Government: the Role of the Represented’, Occasional Paper, No. 9 Laboratory for Political Research, Iowa City, Iowa , Also Parenti Michael, Democracy for the Few, New York, St Martins Press, 1974, and Steiner Jurg, ‘The Impact of Elections Upon the Political Decision Making Process’, Res Publica, 13, 1971, pp. 285–97.

3 Recent discussions in the daily press in Great Britain, and in the rest of Europe, on referenda at both the national and European Community levels are indicative of this trend. More specifically see Niga Adrian, La démocratie directe, Paris, La Pensée Universelle, 1973.

4 It is a misnomer to use the words ‘direct democracy’ to refer to the Swiss political system. Direct democracy is usually defined by referring to its ideal type, generally believed to have existed in some of the ancient Greek city states, where government was supposedly a mixture of decisions made through direct participation of the citizens and decisions ‘by turn’, by a randomly chosen elite. It would be more accurate to refer to Switzerland as a semi‐direct democracy because the referendum and initiative complement the system of representative government. The phrase ‘direct democracy’ will be utilized here to preserve consistency with the other works on the referendum and initiative in Switzerland. The only author who consistently refers to semi‐direct democracy in Switzerland is Jean Meynaud. See, for example, his La Démocratie semi‐directe en Suisse, 1954–1968, Montreal, University of Montreal, 1970.

5 Discussions of agenda setting refer to two types of agenda. The first is the public agenda consisting of issues that have obtained a high degree of public interest and visibility. The second is the formal agenda made up of the issues that the decision makers actually accept for deliberation. I am concerned in this paper with the latter. The works on the topic of agenda building are few. See for example, Cobb R. et al, ‘Agenda Building as a Comparative Political Process’, American Political Science Review, Vol. 70, 1, 1976, pp. 126–38; Benton M. and Fraser J., ‘Agenda Setting Function of the Mass Media at three levels of information holding’, Communication Research, Vol. 3, 3, 1976, pp. 261–74; Bowers T., ‘Newspaper Political Advertising and Agenda‐Setting Function’, Journalism Quarterly, Vol. 50, 3, 1973, pp. 552–56; Tipton L. et al., ‘Agenda setting in City and State Election Campaigns’, Journalism Quarterly, Vol. 52, 1, 1975, pp. 1522 ; McLeod Jim, ‘Another Look at the Agenda Setting Function of the Press’, Communications Research, Vol. 1, 2, 1974, pp. 131–66; Weaver D. H. et al., ‘Watergate and Media‐Case Study of Agenda‐Setting’, American Politics Quarterly, Vol. 3, No. 4, 1975, pp. 458–72; Cobb R. and Elder C., Agenda‐Building in American Politics ‐ Dynamics of Agenda‐Building, Boston, Allyn and Bacon, 1977.

6 Siegfried André, La Suisse: démocratie témoin, Neuchatel, Les Editions de la Baconnière, 1969, p. 63.

7 Blasser Françoise, ‘Initiative et reféréndum: fleurons ou épines de la démocratie suisse’, Journal de Genève, 20 10 1974 .

8 de Salis Jean‐R., La Suisse diverse et paradoxale, Neuchatel, Les Editions de la Baconnière, 1968, p. 248.

9 Schmitter Philip, ‘Still the Century of Corporatism?’ in The New Corporatism, Pike Frederick B. and Stritch Thomas (eds), London, University of Notre Dame Press, 1974, p. 93.

10 Neubauer Deane E., ‘Some Conditions of Democracy’, Empirical Democratic Theory, Cnudde Charles E. and Neubauer Deane E. (eds), Chicago. Markham Publishing Co., 1969, pp. 225–36.

11 Ziegler Jean, Une Suisse au‐dessus de tout soupçon, Paris, Seuil, 1976.

12 For a more detailed discussion see Auget J. P., Institutions Politiques, Lausanne, Payot, 1961, pp. 7581 . See also Tschani Hans, Profil de la Suisse, Lausanne, Spes, 1968, p. 242; Maurice Batelli, ‘L’équilibre entre le pouvoir legislatif et le pouvoir é’xecutif’, paper presented at the second International Conference of Comparative Law at The Hague, 1937.

13 Article 71 of the Federal Constitution states that the Federal Assembly is the ‘supreme authority in the confederation’. This supreme authority of Parliament, however, is qualified by the fact that the powers not specifically allocated to the other two branches of government, the executive and judiciary, do not necessarily fall to Parliament. Parliament does not have the power to override any executive decisions. It can only refuse to vote on legislation and therefore produce deadlock.

14 The type of proportional representation used in Switzerland is complex, incorporating a list system which permits both panachage and cumulation. Lists of proposed candidates are drawn‐up by the parties in each canton and are sent to the cantonal election bureau 48 days before election day. On arrival at the polling station a voter is given the party lists and one blank ballot. Each voter has as many votes as there are vacant seats. Ballots can be cast in one of the following ways: a ballot consisting of one of the party lists unaltered; a ballot of a partial party list with some names eliminated and others added (panachage); or a list of personally chosen candidates on the non‐partisan blank ballot. Where there are two or more seats to contest, only names appearing on one of the official lists can be written in. A voter is permitted to write in the same name twice on a ballot, and is, therefore, able to register a duplicate vote for the same candidate (cumulation). A party can also list the same name twice on its official ballot. On no ballot, however, can the number of votes exceed the number of seats to be filled.

15 For more detail see Gueissas André and Meynaud Jean, ‘La Démocratie semidirecte en Suisse’, Etude du Droit Fédéral, n. d. (mimeographed).

16 The withdrawal simply consists of the authorization being written into the popular initiative giving the right to a minimum of 3 signatories to withdraw the initiative in favour of a counter‐proposal.

17 See Meynaud Jean, Démocratie semi‐directe en Suisse, Montreal, University of Montreal, 1970, p.26.

18 Ibid, pp. 29–499.

19 George Plomb, the journalist, scheduled one interview each week of April 1976, in both Berne and Geneva, to answer my questions. Government Administrators interviewed include: Oswal Sigg, Information Officer for the Federal Chancellery, 12 April 1976; Jean Beguelin, Director of the Federal Bureau of Taxes, 9 April 1976; Dr Han Schar, Secretary General of the Department of Justice and Police, 7 April 1976.

20 Information on the established interest groups was obtained from work by Meynaud Jean reported in Les Organisations Professionnelles en Suisse, Lausanne, Payot, 1963.

Information on the ad hoc groups was collected from the newspapers or from contacting the organization.

21 For an elaboration of this point see Henri Kerr, ‘The Structure of Opposition in the Swiss Federal Assembly’, paper prepared for the conference on the Role of European Parliaments in the Management of Social Conflict, Iowa City, Iowa, May 1977, p. 3.

22 Information was from an interview with Alios Pfister, Secretary of the Federal Assembly, 3 May 1975.

23 See Meynaud Jean and Korff Adalbert, La Migros et La Politique: L’Alliance des Independants, Lausanne, Etudes de Science Politique, 1965.

24 Information from interview with Tüller Fritz, Swiss Romand Secretary of the Socialist Party of Switzerland, 6 04 1976 .

25 The sources of this information is the Socialist Party document: Rapport de Gestion, Berne, Coop, La Chaux‐de‐Fonds, published yearly. Each report of the national meeting of the Socialist Party of Switzerland was studied to ascertain who had originally introduced an initiative. For a number of initiatives the Rapports de Gestion were incomplete. The information was then obtained from the Socialist Party archivist, Hans Kohler, in Zurich.

26 Dahl Robert A. (ed.), ‘Patterns of Opposition’, in Political Oppositions in Western Democracies, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1966, p. 341 .

27 This was an initiative, in 1949, to return to the people certain of the powers inherent in the procedures of direct democracy which had been suspended during the Second World War.

28 The reason for the withdrawal of a popular initiative is usually stated in the Feuilles Fédérales. When a particular popular initiative that was withdrawn was not reported in the Feuilles Fédérales, I checked through the archives of the Tribune de Genève and found the reason given in the newspaper at the time.

29 The remaining 7 per cent were withdrawn because they were out of order.

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Government and Opposition
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