Democratic system ‘needs debate more than reform’

Couchepin (left) and Leuenberger (to his right) during a traditional cabinet outing in summer 2009 Keystone

Two long-serving former cabinet ministers are wary of overhauling the Swiss system of direct democracy, for example by increasing the number of signatures to force a nationwide vote, introducing a minimum turnout quota or setting up a constitutional court to rule whether people’s initiatives are compatible with basic law or international treaties.

This content was published on July 18, 2015 - 17:45
Urs Geiser,

Moritz Leuenberger and Pascal Couchepin were both dominant figures in the government from the mid-1990s for more than a decade. They served as interior, economic and transport ministers in the seven-member cabinet.

They retired more than five years ago but regularly comment on politics, also adding their voice to ongoing discussions about direct democracy and citizen participation.

Couchepin, in office from 1998 to 2009 and a member of the Radical Party, sees no real need to launch a constitutional reform now.

“I agree that we should discuss the issue, but I’m against specific changes in the next few years as a result of one political problem or another,” he said in an interview with

He said he wouldn’t object to an increase in the number of signatures required to force a ballot on a people’s initiative, but this couldn’t be the solution.

“The most harmful proposals [for democracy] have a demagogic purpose and it is very easy to gather plenty of signatures from citizens.”

Setting a higher minimum of signatures – currently at least 100,000 must be collected within 18 months – would not improve what is sometimes considered an abuse of the initiative right, according to Couchepin.

However, critics argue that the population growth and modern forms of communication have made it easier to gather signatures over the past century.


What’s more, he dismisses critics who complain about an avalanche of public ballots.

“It is those who do not participate in votes that argue there are too many ballots,” Couchepin said.

Elder statesmen

The quotes by Couchepin are taken from an interview with during the Europa Forum conference earlier this year.

The complete version is available on swissinfo in French.External link 

Leuenberger’s comments are part of a speech at the Centre for Democracy in Aarau from last December.

A revised version of the address was published by the Neue Zürcher Zeitung External linknewspaper in March.

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“I don’t think there are many Swiss citizens who would like to curb their democratic rights. It is a fact that we are called to the polls a lot. But I disagree with those who consider it too much.”

However, Couchepin is wary of too much praise for Swiss direct democracy. He doubts whether the system can be used elsewhere in the world.

“We have a certain culture, a historical tradition of our own and a specific mix of the population.”

When it comes to highly controversial issues, for example a ban on the construction of minarets or immigration curbs, Couchepin says there must always be room for public debate.

“Direct democracy is above all a way of spreading information and involving citizens. There is no other country where citizens are so knowledgeable about the details of politics.”

Gloss over

Leuenberger, in office from 1995 to 2010 as a member of the Social Democratic Party, has expressed his thoughts on direct democracy in several speeches and interviews over the past few months.

In an address to the Aarau-based Centre for Democracy, he admitted idealising certain aspects of the Swiss system in many public speeches during his time in office, notably when he announced his resignation from cabinet.

Now he sees direct democracy in a different light. This is partly to do with the position he held.

“The difference between desires and reality can occasionally become blurred,” Leuenberger said self-critically.

But this attitude is also the result of the increase in votes, the subjects at stake and criteria used by citizens to decide.


There is nothing wrong with that, according to Leuenberger. “Every democracy must change, otherwise it becomes a lifeless ritual.”

In his address, Leuenberger highlights the pitfalls of the Swiss system, notably the restrictive naturalisation policy and a danger of letting a majority ignore minorities, basic legal principles and human rights.

He refers to a speech by this year’s president, Simonetta Sommaruga, who likened democracy to an orchestra and citizens to a choir.

“I’d like to add that disharmony and dissonance belong to all music. But the image of the orchestra shows there must be concordance between a people’s initiative, international law and the constitution as a whole.”


The right to force nationwide votes was introduced as a prerogative of minorities, Leuenberger points out.

But democracy and good governance are increasingly affected by a tendency of major parties on all sides to launch initiatives, undermining a coherent policy by the government and parliament, he adds.

Leuenberger doubts whether proposed minimum turnout quotas, a higher number of signatures or a ban on governing parties launching people’s initiatives would be beneficial.

“These proposals would primarily affect those minority groups whose democratic rights must be protected and boosted,” he explains.

Instead, Leuenberger calls for more transparency about the funding of political parties and campaigns and a thorough checking of initiatives to establish whether they are in line with the constitution and international treaties.

Cabinet and parliament should muster the courage to declare an initiative invalid or partially invalid, he says.

“This will always be highly contentious, but it stimulates the political debate. Most of all, it increases democratic awareness and makes for a healthy democracy.”

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