From representative to direct democracy

The Bundesplatz – Seventh stop on my guided tour through Switzerland’s history of democracy

We are now standing on the federal square, inaugurated in its current shape in 2004. It symbolises the Swiss national state and its cantons, represented by the square and its 26 fountains that spring from one source surrounded by stone from the Alps.

The free democratic movement (Freisinn) of 1848 was no unitary party, it was a movement with different currents. Now that a new state was to be governed, its representatives drifted apart.

Jakob Stämpfli, a student of the Snell brothers, became federal councillor in 1850, representing the canton of Berne, and representing state-oriented liberalism (Staatsfreisinn). In 1857, he built the Federal Council building to my left, and he did not hesitate to raise taxes in Berne for this purpose. These were supposed to be non-recurrent, however, the money that was raised only sufficed for the first storey. So taxes were raised again, and they lasted to finish building to just below the roof. After that, taxes were introduced permanently in Berne. After his resignation from the Federal Council, Jakob Stämpfli founded the Federal Bank, the predecessor of the Swiss National Bank. It is evident that he was obsessed with the idea of creating a strong state.

Economic liberalism (Wirtschaftsfreisinn) did not share the ideas of state-centred liberalism, it was capitalist and only wanted a laissez-faire state. Its main proponent was Alfred Escher. He lived in Zurich, but as National Councillor also came to Berne. He also was member of the government of the canton of Zurich. And he was president of different railway companies, president of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, as well as president of the Swiss Credit Association. This made governing easier. At his peak, he signed contracts regarding the construction of new railways with himself – on the one hand as member of the cantonal government, on the other hand as concessionaire of the railway company.

In the 1860s, a new movement mobilised against the power of the barons of state and industry. Calling itself the “democratic movement”, it demanded more influence on policy-making. Elections were not enough, petitions too weak. The democratic movement called for popular rights. Decisions made by the people by referendum were to be binding for parliament and government.

At this time, only one popular right existed: The referendum on the (complete revision of the) constitution, with which the constitution of 1848 had been legitimised. However, with this popular right, only a complete revision of the constitution was possible. This was a protection-measure against the opposition in the federal state, the catholic-conservative circles.

In 1874, the facultative referendum, i.e. the possibilities to subject laws passed by the parliament to a referendum, was introduced by referendum. This optional referendum, a Swiss invention, still exists today. In 1891, a second popular right was introduced: the popular initiative. The initiative allows the population to demand the change of constitutional provisions (articles of the constitution as opposed to the whole constitution). If a majority of people and cantons agree, the constitution is amended.

The rapprochement of the two centre-parties, the liberal democratic party and the Christian popular party of 1891 did not come about voluntarily. In 1888, the social democratic party, a worker’s party, had entered the political stage, the political traditions of which were entirely different. The SP did not endorse the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, it did endorse class struggle by means of strike. Only gradually, they learned how to use popular rights instead, but soon the popular initiative was used to put left-wing demands on the political agenda, and referendums were used to block right-wing policies. Until 1918, the idea of class struggle was dominant, leading to a civil war. Only afterwards, it was gradually replaced by social partnership in work-related matters, and by concordance in politics.

Almost every component of the Swiss political system has been “imported“ from abroad: the values from France, the theory from Germany, the institutions from the USA. However, popular rights are homemade, so to speak, they are a Swiss invention which developed on the basis of the democratic movement that fought against concentration of power whatever its kind. They have shaped the Swiss state.

Popular rights in Switzerland are being used extensively. Between 2003 and 2007, we have been called to the ballot 26 times to decide upon issues put to the people in referendums and initiatives. We decided on the bilateral agreements with the European Union and accepted the accession to Schengen/Dublin, we accepted legislation on stem-cell research, but rejected the distribution of the state’s gold reserves, and we rejected cutting old-age pensions. Step-by-step, we thus created a government program. The political centre was usually successful, whereas the left and right lost a number of times.

Popular rights today are the strongest bond between Swiss citizens. We are proud of our popular rights – a pride that goes back to the 19th century, where it came into being also due to raison d’état. The introduction of the popular rights happened at the same time as the unification processes in Germany and Italy. Until 1871, Switzerland was one country among others of equal size, only France was substantially larger, whereas the neighbours to the North, East and South were not. Now, that Italy and Germany were ‘belated nations’, they were.

Switzerland is not a nation-state even today. It is a nation of nations, as a political scientist put it recently. And this nation of nations needs myths.

One of these myths was born in 1891, and its midwife was the state. Believe it or not, but it is related to the foundation of the town of Berne in 1191. In 1891, the town of Berne celebrated its 700th anniversary. The minister of justice at the time did not want to be second to the town of Berne: he declared 1291 to be Switzerland’s founding year. Hence, both the 700th anniversary of Berne and the 600th anniversary of the federation were celebrated, and as a birthday present, the popular initiative was introduced – without referendum.

Just as the „foundation“ of Switzerland in today’s form in 1291, the notion of Swiss democracy already existing then is a myth. In 1798, Napoleon tried to democratise Switzerland from above – and failed. In 1830, the liberals democratised some cantons piecemeal, in 1845, the radicals pushed for further democratisation and were successful locally. In 1848, Switzerland was ready for representative democracy, and in 1874, it gradually introduced direct democratic rights. Democracy develops if you fight for it!

Swiss democracy did not just exist. Like other political systems, it had its good times and its bad times. One of the difficulties resulted from mixing Anglo-Saxon thinking in terms of government and opposition with popular rights, where the people are the authorities’ opposition.

This contradiction we still have to shed light on – at our next and last stop. Be proud: for you, I’ll end my city tour in the room where our government convenes, a very special honour also for me!

Claude Longchamp, Historian/Town-Rambler of the Town of Berne
1.10.2007, Translation by Bianca Rousselot, PhD-Candidate


ich bin der berner stadtwanderer. ich lebe in hinterkappelen und arbeite in bern. ich bin der felsenfesten überzeugung, dass bern burgundische wurzeln hat, genauso wie ich. also bin ich immer wieder auf der suche nach verästelungen, in denen sich die vergangene kultur in meiner umgebung versteckt hält.

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