Popular initiatives are a tool for amending the Swiss constitution. Men can use it since 1891; for the Swiss, it was not until 1971. The idea, born at the end of the 18th century, went around the world, as reported by Bruno Kaufmann, expert in democracy and editor-in-chief of the people2power platform.
This content was published on July 5, 2016 – 11:00
Bruno Kaufmann, people2power editor-in-chief, swissinfo.ch
“I am very happy to see that the fantastic idea of making laws for people is now also gaining ground on the other side of the world,” said the editor of a Swiss social democratic newspaper in response to a letter sent to by an overseas emigrant.
This was in 1894. A pamphlet by New York journalist John W. Sullivan on the introduction of initiatives and referendums in Switzerland, both nationally and cantonal, made a lot of noise in the United States.
The “Swiss system,” as Sullivan called it, inspired farmers, unionists and workers to demand similar rights in the new Pacific states of the United States.
In his letter to the Swiss newspaper, the immigrant hopes to learn more about the impact of direct democracy. He lives in Oregon where the popular initiative was introduced in 1902 following a public ballot. More than 300 votes have taken place in Oregon since – even more than in Switzerland, where the national poll in June brought the total number of initiatives voted to 206.
The “Swiss system” became the “Oregon system” across the Atlantic, which led to 23 other American states granting their citizens such participation rights.
The Republican movement, and with it the “Oregon System,” which successfully introduced women’s suffrage, also reached the ancient kingdom of Hawaii – the Pacific Islands halfway between Asia and the United States. ‘North America.
The movement had one member – a certain Sun Yat-sen who was later to be elected the first president of the Republic of China. The idea of popular initiatives was enshrined in the country’s constitution in 1912. Despite the political upheavals of the 20th century, it has remained the basis of the constitution of Taiwan (also known as the Republic of China).
This is just one example of how the idea of the popular initiative – introduced 125 years ago at the national level in Switzerland – began to triumph around the world. In Switzerland, this direct democratic right includes compulsory votes on constitutional amendments and the optional referendum on changes in the law.
The underlying principle of this political instrument is as simple as it is plausible: it allows a minority group to ask a political question and commits the majority to give an answer and address the question.
If the initiative’s requirements are implemented in a binding and citizen-friendly manner, it can help achieve democracy, including wide public debate before a popular vote.
Surprisingly perhaps, it was not the Swiss who had the idea of popular initiatives 125 years ago. The origins go back to another century, to the French philosopher, mathematician and revolutionary, the Marquis de Condorcet.
After the overthrow of the King of France, Condorcet was elected president of the Constitutional Commission. It is his idea to consecrate the compulsory constitutional referendum – a sort of control instrument – and the right of “progressive” citizens’ initiative.
But Condorcet fell victim to political unrest and was found dead in his prison cell in 1794.
In France’s current centralist political system, the presidential plebiscite – a form of citizen participation that mainly benefits the political forces in power – is the only vestige of these revolutionary democratic ideas of the 18th century. Yet they began to thrive in neighboring Switzerland – a country with a decentralized structure.
Most cantons began to grant direct democratic rights to their citizens from 1830, paving the way for introduction at the national level.
Worldwide, citizens of 22 countries, including Hungary, Uruguay, Kenya, Taiwan, Mexico and New Zealand, have the right to launch and vote on popular initiatives similar to the Swiss model. Citizens of 14 other states, including the Netherlands or Italy, can challenge parliamentary decisions in a national vote.
From local to transnational
The popular initiative has spread even faster at local, regional and transnational level over the past 25 years.
In the more than 75,000 municipalities of Germany and its 16 Länder (states), citizens can resort to popular initiative. The same is true for hundreds of thousands of associations and cooperatives around the world.
The European Union was the first to introduce the tool of direct democracy at the transnational level in 2012.
A particularly fascinating aspect of the popular initiative is the possibility of forming and revising this political instrument.
In Switzerland alone, voters voted on ten proposals to change citizens’ rights over the past decade.
This text is part of #DearDemocracy, the swissinfo.ch platform on direct democracy.
In short: Switzerland is not the cradle of popular initiative but was only an important launching pad for the dissemination of this tool of direct democracy.
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Swiss initiatives and referendum on Brexit
After Britain’s 23 June vote on leaving the EU, the debate over citizens’ rights to decide on political issues gained momentum. Never before had there been such broad and intense discussions on direct democracy.
But the forms of popular votes differ across the world. In Switzerland, at least 100,000 signatures are required to force a vote. The parliament and the government also discuss the proposal and issue recommendations or launch counter-proposals.
The result of the popular vote is binding and the approval of the initiative leads to an amendment to the country’s constitution.
Britain’s Brexit vote, however, was a plebiscite called by incumbent Tory Prime Minister David Cameron. It is not legally binding.
Observers say this raises additional legal questions and is a recipe for political games of all kinds.
For more information, click hereExternal link.
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