Switzerland is not only known for its mountains, the cheese or the chocolate. But also for their (semi-)direct democracy! Every Swiss who is at least 18 years old can vote.

The system has some high-powered admirers. The French President, Emmanuel Macron would like to introduce a similar referendum system.

As you may know, Switzerland operates thanks to federalism. National government shares power with the "cantons" (our states). The highest is the federal level. There are 7 members in the executive government who are elected by parliament. That is why Switzerland is a semi-democracy and not a democracy. To be a direct democracy, the government has to be elected by the people. There are also two legislative chambers. The first is the national council, which is supposed to represent the people. This chamber has 200 seats and is elected every 4 years by the people. There is also the Council of States which represents the interest of the states.

Lower down in the hierarchy are the cantons (Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons). Each canton has 7 executive members in its council. It is called the council of state. Their members are also elected by the people. There is also a legislative chamber called the "Big Council". This chamber has between 100 and 200 seats according to the canton.

At the bottom of the hierarchy are the communes (there are 2222 in Switzerland). Each commune has a "communal council". This council is composed of 5 to 12 members often nonprofessional in smaller but professional in large municipalities. There is also the general council which makes the laws in the communes.

One fun fact is that the president isn't elected. The parliament elects one member of the cabinet to be the president for one year. The members of parliament agree before the vote to make a turn between the 7 members. So it's almost never a surprise who is going to be the next president. Another fact is that the president has not more rights than other members. It's just an honorary title.

What is beautiful in all this is that we can have votes at any of these levels. There are three types of voting:

1. Complementary election

These happen one time every four years. During these votes, we elect people to the legislature and the executive.

2. Referendum

When citizens do not agree with the parliament, they can hold a referendum. They must then collect signatures in a given time. At the federal level, they have 100 days to collect 50,000 signatures.

The initiative makes it possible to modify the constitution. At any constitutional change, the people vote. If this change is initiated by a person (not the parliament), that person must collect 100'000 signatures in 18 months.


The advantage of giving power to the citizens is that they decide on their own. However, some choices are debatable.

In 2014, the people voted in favour of a referendum to restrict mass immigration. Having not appreciated the results of the voting, the EU stopped the Erasmus program with Switzerland.

The Swiss citizens are accustomed to vote. But they do not vote so much anymore. The average participation rate is less than 50%. This proves a general disinterest of the population for politics.

Interesting fact

There is also one thing you will notice in Switzerland, politicians do not have bodyguards. It is possible to meet them on the train. I already had the chance to meet one of the seven members of the cabinet in a mall because we live close to each other.

A couple of years ago, an image of the president become famous. It showed him on a station platform, waiting for his train to get back home. Naturally, he was alone.