Calls to curb use of people’s initiatives intensify

Approval of the anti-minaret initiative in 2009 prompted a debate about the scope of initiatives, but it has not led to any reforms Keystone

As political players of all stripes increasingly turn to the use of people’s initiatives to push their causes, calls to reform this beacon of Swiss direct democracy are getting louder.

This content was published on May 31, 2015

Should it be harder to launch initiatives given the problems encountered in recent years with proposals accepted by the people but run contrary to international laws signed by Switzerland?

Even if so, building a political majority ready to sacrifice part of the people’s sovereignty would appear to be nigh on impossible.

At present, some 15 initiatives are pending to be put to a nationwide ballot, while activists are in the process of gathering signatures for another 15 or so initiatives. Add to that the dozens of proposals that have been launched but withdrawn: rarely have the Swiss been subjected to such an avalanche of propositions for constitutional amendments.

It is also interesting to note that the success rate for initiatives has dramatically improved over the last century: of the 22 initiatives accepted since 1891, nine were held in the last ten years.

“Several of these initiatives pose problems of compatibility with international law or create major difficulties when it comes to implementing them,” says Pascal Mahon, professor of constitutional law at the University of Neuchâtel. “That’s why there have been a number of ideas floated recently to reform the system.”

In April, Avenir Suisse, a liberal think-tank close to the business community, put forward a raft of measures designed to curb abuse of the people’s initiatives.

Notably, the organisation suggested having the Federal Chancellery examine all texts before the collection of signatures, doubling the number of signatures required, or holding a mandatory vote on the implementation of the legislation.

Another think-tank, Foraus, has proposed that initiatives that contravene international law should be accompanied by a vote to repeal the treaty they infringe. The proposal follows the difficulties posed by the implementation of the 2014 initiative aimed at limiting “mass immigration”, which breaches the bilateral accord for the free movement of people that Switzerland has signed with the European Union.

Problematic initiatives

At least five recent initiatives approved by voters at the ballot box between 2008 and 2014 are considered problematic:

Plans to re-introduce immigration quotas for EU citizens, the automatic deportation of criminal foreigners and the ban on the construction of new minarets.

Decisions to do away with the statute of limitations for paedophile crimes and a life-long ban for convicted paedophile to work with children.

They all are incompatible with international treaties or fundamental principles of the Swiss constitution.

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Several personalities have also recently expressed their views in the Swiss press.

Vice-chancellor at the University of Fribourg, Astrid Epiney suggested voting only on texts of a general nature and not on those which have a more precise wording.

“It’s an interesting debate from an intellectual point of view, but we never ask the central question, that is how to unite a political majority around these projects,” says Georg Lutz, political scientist at the University of Lausanne.

“So despite multiple propositions put on the table in recent years, nothing has changed.”

A sacred cow

This standstill is most easily explained by the difficulty in criticising an institution which is something of a “sacred cow” in Switzerland.

“Direct democracy has always being excluded from the big reform projects of the constitution,” says Andreas Ladner, professor at the Swiss Graduate School of Public Administration in Lausanne.

A government proposal to increase the number of signatures required from at least 100,000 to 150,000 was rejected by the parliament during the revision of the constitution in 1999.

Then there is another phenomenon: the increased use of the instrument by the traditional parties. Originally created to allow minorities with little or no representation in parliament to have a political voice, the people’s initiative is used more and more as a political marketing tool.

“Over the last ten years, the major parties represented in parliament, apart from the Conservative Democratic Party, have all launched at least one initiative,” notes Lutz.

“It is not at all in their interests to make the conditions for using the people’s initiative harder. And even if certain politicians are in favour, they don’t really dare to publicly voice their opinion for fear of being branded an enemy of the people.”

Counting on people power

Such being the case, the government was last year forced to abandon a project that aimed at a closer scrutiny of the validity of texts and their compatibility with international law, after suffering a drubbing during the consultation process.

Earlier this year, the Senate committee on political institutions has begun examining ways to clarify the role of parliament in the invalidation of texts put to a vote.

The centre parties are proposing that the invalidation criteria be increased or that the authors of an initiative be more precise, but they are meeting resistance from both the political left and the conservative right People’s Party, the two groups who use initiatives most frequently.

Some suggest that the voters themselves will be the ones to curb the increasing number of people’s initiatives by making their feelings known through the polls.

“We are going to see a certain auto-regulation,” predicts Ladner. “The people have already shown that they are fed up in recent months by rejecting several initiatives, something which is sure to cool a few passions.”

Indeed, after the Liberal Greens’ proposal to tax energy instead of VAT was rejected by an historic 92% No vote, and the Christian Democrats’ proposal to exonerate family benefits from tax garnered just 24% of the vote, it’s doubtful they will be in a rush to propose new initiatives.

Piece of cake?

Has it become too easy to gather the necessary signatures for a people’s initiative, as critics argue?

In 1891, when the initiative right was introduced, it took a minimum of 50,000 signatures, or 7.6% of the potential electorate, to force a nationwide vote.

The minimum number of signatures required was doubled to at least 100,000 in 1976, that is 2.6% of the electorate.

As a result of demographic changes the percentage is now again below 2%.

But the introduction of the postal vote has made it more difficult for campaigners to gather signatures, notably outside polling stations, as political experts point out. Most committees these days hire paid professionals to collect signatures.

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