When initiatives undermine democratic tenets

Putting the Swiss constitution above international law: The initiative by the Swiss People's Party is a "legal botch-up" according to critics Keystone

Who’s to blame for a series of people’s initiatives causing a political impasse in Switzerland and undermining the democratic system? A renowned expert on constitutional law as well as two senior politicians have different answers.

This content was published on February 5, 2017

In a wide-ranging interview with Der Bund newspaper, Bern University senior law professor Pierre Tschannen says promoters, notably from the political right, have successfully used the tool of people’s initiatives to push their own agenda and wilfully trying to bypass parliament.

“This is undemocratic. Nothing much can be done about it strictly on a legal basis,” Tschannen says. “It is a question of the political climate. And this is also related to global developments.”

He says legal experts strongly disapprove of efforts by initiative committees to submit proposals to voters which make it impossible for a parliament to ‘do its job’: to draft the necessary and coherent legislation implementing the demands of an approved initiative.

He says promoters of such initiative are trying to wreck the democratic system by badmouthing and shackling parliament. “This is a deadly sin in a constitutional state.”

Pierre Tschannen

Tschannen was a professor of constitutional and administrative law at Bern University until January, when he retired after 19 years in his post.

Before his academic career, he worked for the justice ministry in the 1990s and contributed to the reform of the Swiss constitution.

Tschannen, alongside many of his colleagues at law faculties of Swiss universities, in 2015 signed a manifesto against a hardline deportation initiative of the People’s Party. 

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Safety valve

Still Switzerland’s direct democracy has a huge advantage over other countries, where populists have attacked governments and the democratic system, according to Tschannen. Initiatives can act as safety valves, letting citizens vent their anger.

Therefore, he is against limiting the scope of initiatives. “Numerous attempts in the past to fine-tune the initiative right have come to nothing,” he adds.

A self-proclaimed supporter of leftwing and Green parties, Tschannen in the interviewExternal link with the Bern-based daily lashes out against the political left.

“I don’t blame the right for exploiting the immigration issue. But I blame the left for betraying itself for decades,” he says.


A recent panel discussion at the Graduate Institute of International and Development StudiesExternal link at Geneva University, two senior politicians gave their views of the main challenges for Switzerland’s system of direct democracy.

Pascal Couchepin (right) talking to Pascal Broulis

Pascal Couchepin, a former senior member of the Swiss government, downplayed the risk of provocative and populist proposals or the need to raise the bar for promoters of such initiatives.

Instead, Couchepin said it was fundamental for Switzerland to remain a member of the European Court of Human Rights. He denounced as “absurd” a proposal by the rightwing Swiss People’s Party to give priority to Swiss judges over ‘foreign judges’ in Strasbourg.

Another participant in the panel, Pascal Broulis, a senior member of the Vaud cantonal government, called on parliament to make use of its powers by declaring initiatives invalid which, according to him, often do not respect the single-subject rule.

Read the full account in FrenchExternal link of the panel discussion, which was also attended by renowned Swiss political scientist Hanspeter KriesiExternal link of the European University Institute in Florence, constitutional expert Andreas Auer and former Interior Minister Ruth Dreifuss.

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