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POLITICS

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

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.

Switzerland's railway system was the subject of the country's first referendum in 1898. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP
Switzerland's railway system was the subject of the country's first referendum in 1898. Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP

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.

Why?

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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POLITICS

How Switzerland can force you to run for public office

Having Swiss citizenship brings with it all sorts of benefits - but also the possibility that you could be forced to run for public office. Here's why.

How Switzerland can force you to run for public office

In most cases, when an election for a public office is held, several candidates compete and campaign for the position.

But if you are a Swiss citizen your name can be added to the ballot against your will – even if you have no knowledge of or interest in politics.

One recent example of such “coercion” comes from the town of Buchrain (population 6,000) in canton Lucerne.

As reported by Blick, the municipality must fill a position of social director, which is an elected rather than appointed role, but no candidates have come forward to fill the vacancy on the town council.

The town has solved this conundrum by adding names of all the residents eligible to serve — Swiss nationals over the age of 18, who have lived in the community for at least five days — to its election roster.

Whoever gets the most votes in the September 25th election will be constrained to serve on the municipal council, no matter how unwillingly or reluctantly.

While  this move is undoubtedly extreme, it is not unique in Switzerland.

Another such example comes from Spiringen, Uri (population 903), where Tobias Imhof was elected to the municipal council against his will in 2017.

If elected, these people must serve, but they do have the right to appeal the voters’ decision.

Objections against one’s own election must have valid grounds, though. Other than suddenly dying (a cast-iron alibi if ever we heard one), they include being over 65 years of age or providing proof that serving in a public office would be detrimental to the person’s health or the local economy.

READ MORE: How Switzerland’s direct democracy system works 

Can you be elected to a public office against your will?

This is not a widespread or common practice, as in most cases there are enough candidates who are eager, or at least willing, to serve, but it does happen, especially in smaller places.

However it only happens at a local, rather than national, level, so you don’t need to worry that one day you will wake up and discover that you are the president of Switzerland.

Also, for your name to be added to the list of candidates, you must be eligible to stand for election in the first place.

This means you must be a Swiss citizen, whether from birth or naturalised. And being a dual national — that is, of Switzerland and another country — doesn’t exempt you from this civic obligation either. That is because in the eyes of the law, you are considered to be Swiss, regardless of what other nationalities you hold.

Each town could have its own specific eligibility criteria as well, such as the length of residency in the community, for instance.

Additionally, fluency in the language of the region (that is, German, French or Italian) is certainly a requirement too, as no municipality wants councillors who don’t speak and understand the local language.

 READ MORE: Switzerland rejects voting rights for foreigners

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