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Elections & Referendums in Switzerland

Elections & Referendums in Switzerland

Elections & Referendums in Switzerland

One of the key features of the government in Switzerland is the regularity of its elections and referendums. The Swiss model mandates that every significant action taken by the government is put to a public vote. In addition, popular initiatives and public campaigns can also force a referendum that instructs the government on how to proceed. As well as referenda, Swiss citizens have the opportunity to vote for officials on the federal, county (canton) and local level.

Swiss elections

Every four years, citizens of Switzerland can go to the polls and vote on who they want to run the government. The amount of choice you are given is dependent on who is standing in your area.

Federal elections in Switzerland

Federal elections take place every four years. The next federal election is due to take place in October 2023, with every Swiss citizen entitled to vote for their representative. People’s votes are tallied by canton, with each canton being allocated a certain number of seats for both chambers. These seats are then claimed by parties according to the percentage of the vote they received.

Cantonal elections

In addition to federal elections, Swiss citizens can also vote on the makeup of the cantonal assembly in their canton of residence. This takes place in four-year cycles, with the dates determined by the cantonal authority. People’s votes are cast in their local district, with seats being allocated by population. These seats are then awarded based on proportional representation.

Local elections in Switzerland

The final set of elections are those to determine who runs your local council (Gemeinde). Local elections are held continuously throughout the year and are used to determine who should hold specific positions. This can range from the presidency of your Gemeinde, to public transport and the official who runs the school system.

Political parties in Switzerland

The majority of candidates in all levels of government stand as representatives of a political party. Some parties date back to the founding of modern Switzerland in 1848, while others are much more recent inventions. Most parties today no longer represent specific professions or faiths, moving instead to more ideological stances.

Despite ruling in consensus, there are still major differences between the Swiss political parties. The six largest political parties in Switzerland, which all won seats in the latest federal election, are:

  • Swiss People’s Party (Die Schweizerische Volkspartei), SVP
  • Social Democratic Party (Sozialdemokratischen Partei), SP
  • FDP: The Liberals (Die FDP. Die Liberalen), FDP
  • Christian Democratic People‘s Party (Christlichdemokratische Volkspartei), CVP
  • Green Party (GRÜNE Schweiz), GPS
  • Green Liberal Party (Grünliberale Partei), GLP

Can expats vote in Swiss elections?

Despite making up over a quarter of the Swiss population, expats who hold a residence permit cannot usually vote in Swiss elections or referendums.

More recently, some communities have begun to allow expats to vote in some regional and local elections. These are in Geneva, Vaud, Fribourg, Neuchatel, Jura and some parts of Graubünden. If you live in one of these cantons, check with your local council to see if you are allowed to vote.

Referendums in Switzerland

One of the hallmarks of Swiss democracy is the referendum. Alongside elected representatives, Switzerland operates a form of direct democracy. This is where the government and ordinary people can put policies and initiatives to a public vote.

These referendums can be on multiple issues ranging from foreign policy to policing. Referendums can take place on the federal, cantonal, and local level. It is not the government's choice when or where a referendum takes place, since the practice is enshrined in the constitution.

Optional referendum

If a part of the Swiss public wants to vote on a law proposed or a policy enacted by any government, they can put it to a referendum. The appeal must be launched with the support of 50.000 people or by the support of eight cantonal governments. Once this threshold is surpassed, the policy must be put to a referendum. Optional referendums on local issues can also take place on the cantonal and local level with fewer signatures.

Mandatory referendum

If the government proposes any amendments to the constitution, wishes to join an international body, declare war, or significantly alter taxes or funding, they must put the issue to a referendum. These referenda are also used if the cantonal or local authorities propose large changes in policy or finances.

While the referendum takes place, political parties in opposition to the change can submit counter-proposals, which will appear on the ballot as alternatives, leading to a multiple-choice referendum.

Public initiatives

If a large section of the public object to or want to raise awareness of an issue that is not currently being discussed by the government, they may submit it as a public initiative. If a proposal reaches 100.000 signatures and concerns the whole of Switzerland, it must be voted on in a national public referendum. These can also be used on the cantonal and local level.

Public initiatives in the past have related to citizens’ rights, clean water and air, as well as transport policy. During this time, political parties are free to support or oppose a public initiative, as well as propose alternatives to feature on the ballot.

What happens after a Swiss referendum?

Once all referenda have been proposed and submitted, they will be allocated a specific date when the vote will take place. Voting always happens on the weekend and occurs around three to four times a year. While you are voting, you may vote on any federal referendum, as well as any cantonal or local referenda that are being held in your area.

In order to pass, a referendum must receive over 50 percent of votes cast, as well as have the majority in over half of the cantons. With a vote between 50 and 60 percent, the referendum is treated as a suggestion, meaning that the government can choose to ignore its wishes, provided they explain why. A vote with a majority of 60 percent is classified as an order and must be enacted upon.

Swiss federal referendum dates 2021

Below are the official dates for referenda in Switzerland in 2021:

  • March 7
  • June 13
  • September 26
  • November 28

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