Direct Democracy in Switzerland - how does it work?

Topics covered

  • What is direct democracy?
  • Who can vote?
  • Swiss Parliament

Who We're Speaking With

In this episode, Daniel Shalom and Diccon Bewes take a closer look at the Swiss political system of direct democracy.

Diccon grew up in Britain but moved to Switzerland in 2005. His first book, Swiss Watching, became an international bestseller and he is now writing his ninth Swiss title. He lives in Bern with his partner (and a cupboard full of chocolate).

About the Episode

Switzerland is a direct democracy, which means that the people vote on a wide range of topics, and the government has to act on the outcome of these votes. This procedure occurs at the federal, cantonal, and local levels. Expats who are not yet Swiss citizens can only vote at the federal level, but some cantons and municipalities accord foreigners the right to vote in local referendums and elections.

Here are some important terms to help you understand the Swiss political system:

  • The Federal Council: This is the collective head of state. There are seven members, and they each head one government department. Each year, one member is chosen as the President, but they aren’t head of state. Instead, this position is shared among all seven Federal Council members. The President has some duties and tasks, such as welcoming foreign ambassadors and giving a speech on Swiss National Day. In 2024, the President is Viola Amherd.
  • The Federal Assembly: 246 members (200 National Council and 46 Council of States members) make up the Swiss Federal Assembly. They have legislative power. For a law to pass, both councils have to approve it. The members are from eleven different parties, so no one group is ever fully in control.
  • Initiatives and referendums: With an initiative, voters can propose a change. Initiatives can be started by groups of people, organisations, or cantons. A referendum, on the other hand, comes at the end of the legislative process. It allows voters to have a final say on a law or decision.


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