For members


Why does Switzerland have so many referendums and how do they work?

On Sunday 19 May, Swiss citizens will be asked to vote in two federal referendums - one on the tightening of gun laws and the other is based on company tax laws, but why exactly does Switzerland have so many referendums?

Why does Switzerland have so many referendums and how do they work?
Swiss referendums are an integral part of the lawmaking system. Photo: Fabrice Coffrini/AFP

In Switzerland, referendums are considered one of the main methods of demonstrating the nation's belief in the value of direct democracy. Referendums allow voters to have the final say at the ballot box on certain parliament decisions.

In the 1800s Switzerland's years of civil strife were caused by unpopular constitutions, leading the government to hold Switzerland's first referendum in 1802,  after a fifth constitution was submitted to the people for approval.

The most polarising issue at the time was the question of restoring a federal state versus maintaining a central state. Although the 1802 constitution had favoured a unitary nation, the decision was seen as unfair and caused the government to create the Act of Mediation of 19 February 1803, a new constitution restoring the sovereignty of the cantons in a federal system with guidelines that have persisted to the present day. 

Today, although most laws passed by the Swiss Parliament come into force without having to ask the people to vote on them. There are two reasons a vote or referendum can occur: 

1. Optional referendum

When citizens disagree with the decision of the Swiss Parliament and they gather 50,000 valid signatures within 100 days of the official publication of the act, or eight cantons submit a request, the act is submitted to a vote and citizens participate in an optional referendum. The legislation only comes into force if it is accepted by the majority of the voters. 

2. Mandatory Referendum

Certain laws passed by the Swiss Parliament, including amendments to the Federal Constitution, must be put to a national vote in the cantons. Amendments to the Federal Constitution only come into force if they are accepted by a majority of the voters and cantons.

Read also: What you need to know about Switzerland's crucial gun control referendum

Besides federal referendums, there are also cantonal and communal referendums. These referendums can be held on a wider range of matters and each canton has different rules about how these types of referendums are run.

Cantonal referendum rules differ in every each canton. Photo:

How often do federal referendums take place?

Swiss people vote in referendums up to four times a year. They vote on around 15 federal proposals and also cast their ballot on issues affecting individual cantons at the same time.

Who can vote?

All Swiss citizens aged 18 or over can vote, including Swiss citizens that are registered as living abroad. Around 5.3 million voters are eligible to take part in the next vote set for June 10th. That is a little under two-thirds of all people living in Switzerland.

A government information video about who can vote in Switzerland

How do people vote?

There are three ways to cast a vote: by postal voting (the most popular option), at the ballot box, and, in some cantons, electronically (e-voting). However, e-voting remains controversial with concerns over system security.

In the case of postal voting, envelopes are sent out to people’s homes around two months before the referendum and contain the ballot papers as well as booklets with all the relevant legislation (or proposed legislation), and an outline on arguments in favour and against each proposal. These booklets also contain recommendations from the federal government on whether voters should accept or reject proposals.

Read also: Why Switzerland's gun referendum threatens its membership of Schengen

What is voter turnout like?

In 2017, Swiss voters were called to vote in referendums on three occasions. The average overall turnout out was around 45 percent. Over the last decade, the figure has been above 40 percent.

How many referendums are successfully passed?

The Swiss have been called on to vote around 306 times since 1848 for a total of 617 proposals. In total, 299 proposals have been passed while 334 have been rejected. 

What are the upcoming referendums about?

The next vote is on Sunday 19 May and the referendum is to decide whether the country should tighten its gun laws by adopting the European Union's revised Firearms Directive. On this day, voters will also decide whether to accept or reject a new corporate tax plan to replace the special tax breaks that multinational companies now receive.


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For members


Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence

Swiss government has devised three contingency plans that could be implemented to fight a new outbreak. What are they?

Three scenarios: How Switzerland plans to fight a Covid resurgence
Authorities want to prevent overcrowded hospitals if new wave comes. Photo by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP

Although Switzerland relaxed a number of coronavirus rules from June 26th and 28th, “the pandemic is not over”, as Health Minister Alain Berset said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Berset said Switzerland should not become complacent, with last summer a warning against feeling that the battle is won. 

He added, however, that the new wave is unlikely to be as large as the previous ones due to the country’s vaccination campaign.

This situation leaves a degree of uncertainty for which the government wants to be prepared as well as possible, Berset noted.

The Federal Council established a “just-in-case” procedure on Wednesday for three possible scenarios that could take place in the autumn and winter. 

These plans focus mainly on the rapid detection of variants and the continuation of vaccination, testing, and tracing.

The best-case scenario: status quo

In this scenario, the number of cases remains at a low level, though small outbreaks are still possible.

The number of infections may increase slightly due to seasonal factors — the virus is known to spread slower in summer and faster in autumn and winter—  but does not place a significant burden on the health system.

If this happens, no measures beyond those already in place would be necessary.

READ MORE: ANALYSIS: Is Switzerland lifting its Covid-19 restrictions too quickly?

Not so good: more contaminations

In this second scenario, there is an increase in the number of cases in autumn or winter.

There may be several reasons for this, for example the large proportion of unvaccinated people, seasonal effects — people tend to stay indoors together in cold weather, and contaminations are easier — or the appearance of new, more infectious variants.

This situation could overburden the health system and require the reintroduction of certain measures, such as the obligation to wear a mask outdoors.

Booster vaccinations may also be necessary.

The worst: new virus mutations

In scenario three, one or more new variants appear, against which the vaccine or the post-recovery immunity are less effective or no longer effective.

A new wave of pandemic emerges, requiring strong intervention by the public authorities and a new vaccination.

Which of the three scenarios is most likely to happen?

The government hasn’t said, but judging by the comments of health officials, the latter two are the strongest contenders.

Firstly, because the highly contagious Delta mutation, which is spreading quickly through many countries, is expected to be dominant in Switzerland within a few weeks.

It is expected that the virus will spread mostly to those who are not vaccinated and, to a lesser degree, to people who have only had one shot of the vaccine, according to Andreas Cerny, epidemiologist at the University of Bern

READ MORE: How Switzerland plans to contain the Delta variant

Another concern is related to the appearance of the new variants which could be as or possibly even more contagious than Delta and not as responsive to the current vaccines.

The government said the best chance of avoiding the second or third scenarios is to ensure people are vaccinated. 

“Widespread vaccination of the population is crucial to relieve the burden on the healthcare system and to manage the epidemic. A possible increase in the number of coronavirus cases in the autumn will largely depend on the proportion of the population that has been vaccinated,” the government wrote in a press statement.

The government has also indicating it is preparing for booster vaccinations to take place in 2022 and are encouraging cantons to keep their vaccine infrastructures in place.