Politics For Members

EXPLAINED: What was on the ballot in Switzerland's first ever referendum?

Helena Bachmann
Helena Bachmann - [email protected]
EXPLAINED: What was on the ballot in Switzerland's first ever referendum?
Switzerland's railway system was the subject of the country's first referendum in 1898. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

As Swiss voters are set to head to the polls on February 13th, you may be wondering when this tradition had started — and what issue was at stake the first time around.


Whether the issues in question are controversial or perfunctory, voting in Switzerland is an integral and important part of the country’s political process and its unique brand of direct democracy.

The Swiss typically vote four times a year — more often than any other country - with several questions on the ballot on each occasion.

It is such a commonplace occurrence in Switzerland that many people don’t even give this democratic process a second thought.

In fact, many may not even know in which year the citizens of Switzerland cast their first ballots, and what issue had to be decided on at the time.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works

Even though some forms of direct democracy were practiced in parts of the country since the 14th century, popular initiatives were introduced at the federal level in 1848, the year Switzerland became a state.

But the system of initiatives and referendums didn’t go into effect automatically as soon as the new state was formed — it took several decades before that happened.



According to an article on the website of the Swiss National Museum (SNM), “in principle, this type of ‘intervention’ was not envisaged either under Swiss law, or in the ideas of those in power in Parliament”.

However, after many debates among MPs about how to revise the constitution and drive political change in general, “the logical outcome was the introduction of popular initiatives”, SNM wrote.

Early initiatives laid foundation to voting as we know it today. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

Early initiatives laid foundation for voting as we know it today. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

When was the first popular initiative created?

A legislation that went into effect in Switzerland in 2018 outlawed the boiling of live lobsters before knocking them out first. But the concern for animal welfare is not a new notion — the first proposal brought up for vote nearly 130 years ago focused on this very issue.

In May 1892, almost 90,000 men (as women would have no right to vote for another 79 years) signed a petition demanding that the slaughter of animals without prior stunning be banned.

But the issue was not as straight-forward as it seemed: “The move was more than just a matter of animal rights; it also had anti-Semitic undercurrents”, SNM wrote.

That’s because killing of animals without knocking them out first was practiced mainly by Jewish kosher butchers.

In the end, the proposal was accepted by 60 percent of Swiss voters (again, men only) in 1893 — the only initiative to be approved until 1908, the year when the ban on absinthe was approved.

The latter vote came after a winegrower in a Swiss village of Commugny reportedly downed two glasses of absinthe (along with other alcoholic beverages) and murdered his entire family.

This incident in 1905 served not only to outlaw absinthe — a potent plant-based drink created in Neuchâtel — in Switzerland, but also led to the worldwide prohibition that lasted for a century.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s ‘absinthe murders’ saw the drink globally banned for a century

“Over 480 popular initiatives were proposed between 1893 and today”, SNM said.

“Many of them were rejected or withdrawn. But most of these initiatives have still had some effect anyway, because the voice of the people could not and cannot be ignored”.


What about the first referendum?

As a reminder, initiatives and referendums are different.

In simple terms, an initiative is put forward by citizens seeking to pass a new legislation, while existing laws can be challenged by the public in a referendum.

The first Swiss referendum was held 124 years ago, almost to a day: on February 20th, 1898.

It sought to nationalise the railroads, a move that was approved by nearly 68 percent of voters. This has paved the way to the creation, in 1902, of Swiss Federal Railways.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

EXPLAINED: How to find cheap train tickets in Switzerland


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