That’s enough referendums, say Swiss

English: Coat of Arms of Switzerland. Česky: Z...
Referendums on Treaties, Nein Danke, non merci, no grazie.

I hadn’t spotted this until just now, but about a month ago a Swiss referendum rejected a proposal from a pressure group with far right links to put all new international treaties or treaty amendments to a referendum. It was a thrashing, really, as no canton voted in favour and the national vote was less than 25% in favour (referendums need a majority of both cantons and votes).

It’s interesting in the UK context, partly because people rather lazily assume that the Swiss love referendums on everything, but also because proposing referendums has become our new national sport. We have already had one on AV, and new ones are promised/threatened on Scottish independence, transfers of sovereignty, Lords reform, the EU itself, and even (today) gay marriage rights.

If you want a reminder that referendums don’t mean that Switzerland is Happy Democracy Land, look at the turnout – a typically anaemic 39% across the three referendums held that day. The general referendum average is 40% or so, and federal elections are little better, with the 2007 and 2011 editions attracting under 50% of voters. Compare that with – to take two unloved electoral contests – the AV referendum in the UK (42%) and the last European Parliament election (43%).

There is much to learn from Switzerland’s model of democracy, but it isn’t “referendums make it all better”.

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.

2 replies on “That’s enough referendums, say Swiss”

  1. Anthony,

    I believe some of your interpretation is misleading. The fact that most people do not participate in every referendum does not mean that most people do not support referendum. In other words, turnout in referendum and popular support for referendum are not the same thing.

    In general terms, the evidence shows that while a smaller part of the population participates in referendums (when they are available), a much larger portion supports its existence.

    For instance, in 2004, only 5% of Swiss citizens disagreed that “Referendums are a good way to decide important political questions in the country” (source: [pdf]

    I have my doubts these numbers have changed drastically since then. But I would be interested in knowing if you find some evidence of that.



    1. Thanks for your comment, Tiago. I’ve obviously not expressed myself clearly, because I think you’re right that people in Switzerland support referendums as a method. My post – and perhaps this is just me being parochial – was trying to counter the sense in some parts of UK politics that more referendums are *the* solution to UK issues of low turnout and political disillusionment, and that Switzerland has in some way solved our problems. I think they have similar problems, but in a different political tradition.

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