Swiss Democracy – Chance for Other Countries?


Multicultural, poor in natural resources, and mountainous, Switzerland has existed, essentially, in an unchanged form since the second half of the 19thC. In Switzerland, it is not one’s slogans, origins, wealth, or skin colour that matter but, rather sound arguments and the protection of citizens. After 1848, when the Swiss constitution was adopted, and the current political system was established, Switzerland transformed from a backwards and poor nation into a society that still enjoys an unparalleled wealth and political stability. Due to bold systemic and institutional solutions, based on the instruments of direct democracy, as well as an advantageous economic situation and unique historical circumstances, Switzerland and its numerous ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities, is able to deal efficiently with both internal and external conflicts.

The political doctrines of various countries emphasise that the idea of their direct democracy is mainly associated with the political system of ancient Athens and other Greek city-states. Today, however, it would probably be more precise to use the term “half-direct democracy”, since it rarely happens that the two conditions that define democracy are rarely fulfilled. These conditions are: the unity of place and time, and the collective participation of the sovereign subject (Being a sovereign subject means having the ability to exercise power over a given territory, a group of people, or oneself in an autonomous, independent manner. Sovereignty of the state includes autonomy in both internal and external matters [author’s note]). in all stages of political decision-making (from the initial proposal of a draft to the final adoption of a bill). If we, however, consider the fact that the sovereign’s (A sovereign is a political entity that exercises supreme, independent power [author’s note].) voice is the ultimate power in political decision-making, then the vast majority of the instruments that enable Swiss citizens to actively participate in this can be thought of as direct democracy.

Direct democracy has wielded an enormous influence on the history of Switzerland and its citizens. Nothing unites people more than the awareness of the fundamental value of their democratic independent rights and the protection of the jointly acquired wealth. This raises the following question: why has Switzerland ­– a wealthy country, located in the centre of Europe, with a long multi-cultural tradition– chosen such an unprecedented way of development? This book strives to answer that question.


The Swiss success is a result of many political, economic, social, and psychological factors that, essentially, have aligned perfectly throughout the country’s past.

First, Switzerland is a nation founded upon a political will, otherwise it would not have been possible to establish such a state comprised of different ethnic, linguistic, and religious minorities. From the very beginning of the Swiss statehood, the will of its founders and the principle of compromise has been its determining factor. For the communes and the cantons were not only different but also at odds with each other. It was the political will, the attitude of compromise, and, consequently, the acceptance of one’s political opponents’ opinions that became the foundation of this system of direct democracy. If it had not been for these national traits, the Swiss would have never succeeded politically and economically. These traits evolved throughout centuries of poverty, constant threats from neighbouring powers, and a multicultural coexistence marked by a long tradition of independent self-determination. The Swiss government (the Federal Council) is formed collectively and in a way that acknowledges the whole diverse spectrum of the Swiss. As a result, it is very difficult to quickly change any law since every bill may be put to the vote in a nationwide referendum. Thus, it is essentially impossible to suddenly change the political direction of Switzerland.

Second, the French occupation at the turn of the 18th and 19thC. had a positive effect on the development of the Swiss statehood. There are many examples from European and world history which suggest that being conquered, invaded, or occupied may foster the evolution of state’s institutions and society’s unification. A similar process happened with Switzerland when Napoleon took the full control of the country. As a consequence, a model of a state was established, which combined the Swiss tradition of grass-roots democracy with – due to Napoleon’s influence – the principles of a law-governed state (A law-governed state is a state in which democratically made laws have the supreme position in the political system. It binds those who exercise power and demarcates their authority while granting citizens a number of rights and liberties. In a law-governed state, government agencies and institutions may operate only within the limits of law, whereas citizens may do anything that is not forbidden by law [author’s note].).

Third, another factor that has positively influenced the development of the Swiss state is its neutrality. During the Congress of Vienna, in 1815, Switzerland gained the status of a permanently neutral power (A permanently neutral power is a state that remains neutral towards the participants in all future wars. It is not sufficient to declare neutrality in order to gain the status. Such a neutrality must be recognised by other members of the international community. Permanent neutrality is established through an international treaty or a decision of a given state acknowledged by the international community [author’s note].). In its constitution of 1848, the country sanctioned its neutrality and defined the principle of the cantons’ autonomy. It was a turning point in the history of Switzerland since it used to be fragmented by religious wars and inter-cantonal conflicts. Instead of joining international conflicts, the country focused on the protection of its borders and the preservation of internal order. The First World War was a real challenge for Switzerland. Although the country was neutral, the Swiss people expressed various sympathies, depending on their region. The Swiss who lived in French and Italian regions supported the Allied Powers, whereas the majority of the German regions supported the Central Powers. It was obvious that violating the conditions of neutrality and joining the conflict would cause a bloody civil war and the potential disintegration of the country. That is why the government constantly invoked the Swiss ideals and appealed for a national unity. Switzerland emerged victorious from that trial. The First World War, which devasted nearly the whole of Europe, had little impact on the country.

During the Second World War, Switzerland also remained neutral – mainly due to its advantageous geopolitical situation, well-equipped militia-type army, and its reliable banking industry that respected the principle of banking secrecy.

Fourth, an essential factor in the evolution of the democratic system of Switzerland is the wealth of the country. It is well-known that political stability is key to the economic development of a country, but economic growth and wealth also guarantee political stability. The maintenance of the system of direct democracy is highly expensive. This raises the following question: where did the wealth of this small, Alpine, and landlocked country that lacks natural resources come from?

The economic structure of Switzerland is based mainly on the chemical and precision tool industries, tourism, export-oriented farming, banking and financial services. In the early Middle Ages, Alpine highlanders gave up farming and focused on breeding dairy animals, as well as the production of milk and cheese. That is one reason why Switzerland has become famous for its cheese and chocolate.

After the religious conflicts in Europe, French Huguenots came to Geneva, which was dominated by the ideas of John Calvin at that time. Since they specialised in watchmaking, their arrival marked the beginning of the Swiss watchmaking industry. Almost instantly, the Swiss started to export watches to wealthier European countries.

In the 19thC. the Swiss Alps were discovered by wealthy Brits. They were the first ones to conquer the summits of the country and so began the age of tourism in Switzerland.

Towards the end of the 19thC., in the industrial age, the textile industry was developed, which paved the way for chemical, mechanical, and pharmaceutical industries. The Swiss industry lacked any patent protection which, in partnership with low import duties, resulted in the higher competitiveness of Swiss products. In 1934, banking secrecy was introduced as a natural step in the development of the financial sector. These conditions, extremely favourable for economic growth, fostered the political stability of the country and attracted numerous immigrants, among whom were many entrepreneurs.

The real economic boom in Switzerland, however, started after the Second World War, when Europe, destroyed in the conflict, began raising itself from the ruins. Since the Swiss economy and industry were unaffected by the war, the country began a large-scale export industry to its devastated neighbours: Germany, France, and Italy. The Cold War also proved to be advantageous since many Western politicians and businessmen, as well as the “red aristocracy” of Eastern Europe and dictators from around the world used to deposit their money in the Swiss banks.

Fifth, the Swiss are diligent and take responsibility for their lives and communities. They are stereotypically called a “police nation” because they meticulously guard their common good. Due to the fact that they take decisions concerning every area of their lives, they treat public property as their own. This attitude is reflected in politics, which is practiced most actively on the communal level. The Swiss learn about their joint responsibility for the common good from childhood and, as a result, become highly politically aware adults. The decisions made through referenda are not hasty but, rather, well thought out and based on the sense of common responsibility for oneself, the state, and the future generations.

The centuries of poverty shaped the diligent attitude of the Helvetic nation. The Swiss value work and cultivate the idea of it. Polls show that work is not only the source of wealth but also satisfaction. Moreover, the Swiss tend to value functionality over luxury. They are rarely impressed by material goods, and even if so, they do not show it. The responsibility for the common good is much more important than wealth, and work is a value in itself, not just a source of income.

Sixth, it is often forgotten how important the role of education is in the socio-political development of a country. In Switzerland, education is, not accidentally, considered to be a national treasure. The schooling system follows the idea of pragmatism and is based on two types of schools: general and vocational. Choosing one of them does not exclude the possibility of continuing one’s education in the other in the future. For example, if a student graduates from a secondary vocational school, he may also complete a one-year skills improvement course and study an entirely different field. That is why the Swiss say that one can accomplish one’s goals regardless of the initially chosen educational path. Furthermore, students do not learn business skills in higher-level schools but through practice. It is interesting that vocational and trade schools are more popular than the ones providing general education.

Seventh, the mentality of the Swiss plays a crucial role in developing and maintaining the system of direct democracy. Seemingly uninteresting, their mentality is characterised by calmness, composure, apparent slowness, acceptance of authority, punctuality and meticulousness.

It may seem strange to a foreigner that the Swiss direct democracy has proven to be one of the most stable political systems in the world. It would seem that giving the reins of the state to the people is a recipe for a financial disaster. However, the numerous examples of the Swiss referenda prove otherwise. Swiss citizens often have to take decisions on very bold and untypical matters such as: the extension of paid leave to six weeks, the introduction of unconditional basic income, or the dissolution of the Swiss army. The Swiss have proved that they are capable of governing their country wisely and far-sightedly without giving in to unrealistic slogans and visions.

To sum up, due to the following factors: centuries-old civil socialisation, political will of the nation, discipline and diligence, responsibility for oneself and the state, tendency to compromise, advantageous geopolitical situation, mentality, and education, the Swiss have worked out a functional political system that has no counterpart in today’s world.




1.      The Institutional and Historical Determinants of the Swiss Political System

1.1.           The Beginnings of the Swiss Statehood

1.2.           The Political Situation Before 1848

1.2.1.  The Modifications of the Constitution of 1874 and 1891

1.2.2.    The 1999 Constitution

1.3.            Summary of the First Chapter

2.                 Principles and Functioning of Swiss Federalism

2.2.            Federalism Through Integration

2.2. Subsidiarity – the Role of the Cantons and the Communes

2.3.          The Party System and the “Magic Formula”

2.3.1. Political Parties

2.3.2. The Magic Formula

2.4.           The Main Political Institutions

2.4.1. The Parliament

2.4.2. The Federal Council and the Federal President

2.4.3. The Federal Supreme Court

2.5.           Summary of the Second Chapter

3. The Characteristics of Direct Democracy in Switzerland

3.1. The Origins and Evolution of the Swiss Direct Democracy

3.1.1. The Period Before 1848

3.1.2. The Development of the Modern Direct Democracy

3.2. The Instruments of Direct Democracy in Switzerland

3.2.1. Referendum

3.2.2. Popular Initiative

3.2.3. Popular Assembly

3.3. Summary of the Third Chapter

4. The Debate About Direct Democracy in Switzerland

4.1. The Efficiency of Direct Democracy

4.2. The Advantages of Direct Democracy

4.3. The Disadvantages of Direct Democracy

4.4 Summary of the Fourth Chapter

5. Direct Democracy in European Countries

5.1. Support for direct democracy in Europe

5.2. Austria

5.3. The Netherlands

5.4. Slovenia

5.5. Poland



Annex I – Facts and Numbers

Annex II – The Federal Constitution of the Swiss Confederation (Titles I and IV)

Annex III – Swiss Political System – Facts and Figures

Selected bibliography

Monographs and articles

Encyclopaedias, dictionaries, lexicons

The Press

Internet sources

Miroslaw Matyja, 2018 (© Copyrights)

6 thoughts on “Swiss Democracy – Chance for Other Countries?

  • 16 grudnia 2018 o 06:37

    Czyżby OP odchodził od j. rosyjskiego?

  • 17 grudnia 2018 o 15:43

    Switzerland is also known as the country with extremely low military spending. In terms of percentage of GDP it is only 0.7%. 2017 budget was 4.6 bln $ (15 bln PLN). Military budget in Poland was 41 bln PLN. Despite of the low spending Switzerland has exceptional high quality of its defense. There is only one country among industrialized countries with lower military budget – Ireland with 0.4% of GDP.

  • 18 grudnia 2018 o 09:40

    Ciekawe ale to iluzja. Proponuję pożyć kilka lat w Szwajcarii żeby zrozumieć jak bardzo fasadowa i Pr-owa jest “demokracja”. Koncept jest dobry, a właściwie był wobec światłego społeczeństwa. Wraz z upadkiem tego ostatniego. Ta tzw “demokracja szwajcarska” zmienia się w tyranię głupich nad łatwowiernymi. Szwajcaria jako tako funkcjonuje tylko dzięki zgromadzonym (czasem zagrabionym) dobrom i temu że nie uczestniczy w pan europejskiej “durnocie”. Forsowanie tego modelu (znaczy “demokracji szwajcarskiej”) miało sens jakieś 30 lat temu a obecnie bez równoczesnej pracy nad tzw “oświecenie” to jest przeciw skuteczne. Podobnie z pokutującym mitem o “armii szwajcarskiej”. To obecnie mit a co najwyżej fasada.
    Niech sobie autor zamieszka i wróci za kilka lat. Zmieni śpiewkę z ideolo na realistic.

  • 18 grudnia 2018 o 16:14

    @Zbigniew. “Niech sobie autor zamieszka i wróci za kilka lat.”
    Mieszka. Dobrych już kilkanaście, jeśli nie kilkadziesiąt, pod warunkiem że
    ‘ dziesiąt’ – policzymy od dołu.

  • 19 grudnia 2018 o 08:02

    To może w tej Szwajcarii na Kaszubach bo obecnie “demokracja” to tylko fasada, taki słup dla “durni” wykorzystywanych przez “debili funkcjonalnych”.


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