Local Direct Democracy in Switzerland

From Rossland in British Columbia, Canada, we go now to Switzerland.

I continue with local direct democracy because I believe that it will be easier to start at the local level to prove direct democracy works. People have to see direct democracy working effectively. The local level is more manageable, for obvious reasons.

Switzerland is the closest any country has come to full direct democracy in 2800 years. I will deal in other blogs with Swiss direct democracy at the canton and national level.

Switzerland is part direct democracy, part representative democracy. The important thing is: the people have the final voice on laws at all levels of government.

Direct democracy and representative democracy side by side, make representative democracy more responsive.

Each Swiss municipality is unique it manages its affairs. Their size, the laws of the Canton, location, local traditions, etc., determine how they work.

About half of Swiss towns are small; less than 1000 inhabitants. The largest is Zurich with 400 000 inhabitants. The smallest is Corippo in the Canton of Ticino.

Corippo has just 12 inhabitants. It has an official website (www.corippo.ch), its own coat of arms, a church and a restaurant.

This tiny village also has a mayor and a town council. In the town council three citizens serve. It exists as municipality since 1822.

All municipalities practice forms of direct democracy.

There are other interesting curiosities to show how diverse is Switzerland.

The municipal diversity shows not only in size. For example, in the municipality of Bern there is a parliament for children between 8 and 14 years old. It also has a youth parliament for youths aged 14 to 21. These meet at least twice a year and vote to refer their decisions to the Bern municipal council.

This is not unique. Scotland, Liverpool, and probably in other places have parliaments for young people.

Each Swiss municipality also can organize itself politically and administratively. The level of freedom to do that is set by the cantonal laws. Cantonal laws also reflect culture. German-speaking cantons give more freedom to municipalities to organize. Switzerland has four cultures and four official languages; German, French, Italian and Romansch.

Most municipalities over a certain size collect enough taxes to run many services. Tiny municipalities receive money from the Cantonal government. As a result, they are less independent.

In all municipalities there is a town council presided by the mayor. Most municipalities work that way.

Larger municipalities also have a local parliament.

Voters elect the town council and also vote to pass or reject laws passed by the council.

Local parliaments passes laws. It also supervises the municipal administration, approves the executive’s management report, the budget and major expenses. But the voters always have the final say.

Local parliaments also decide town planning and building regulations. Often, also posses executive powers. For example, the power to appoint officials.

Parliaments are representative democracy, not direct democracy. If we also have direct democracy, citizens have authority over parliament, here and now. No need to wait till the next election. This does not happen in representative democracy. Naturally, this makes democracy work differently.

For example, lobbying by business or unions has much less influence on legislators. Lobbyists do not try too hard to persuade politicians to pass or change a law.

Lobbyists are less important at the Canton and Federal level also.

In all Swiss municipalities citizens can order local government to hold a referendum. Citizens can also use initiatives to force the local government to adopt a new law.

In many municipalities, some as large as 10,000 citizens, the citizen assemblies also play a key role. In the assembly, citizens directly decide to adopt or reject local laws. In this case they do not need to organize a referendum.

The citizen assemblies meet several times a year. Some take place in the town square.

Swiss municipalities are responsible for:

Education, (from kindergarten to secondary schools),


Urban planning,

Building laws,

Social assistance,

Home care,

Care for the elderly,

Water supply,


Waste water treatment,

Garbage disposal,

Public transport,




Fire department,

Regulation of local commerce and trade.

Of course, the tiny ones are not responsible for all that.

To do their job municipalities need lots of money. They have the power to set business and income taxes. Approximately 70% of the municipal budget is financed with local taxes.

Swiss citizens pay 30% of their total taxes directly to the municipality. In Canada they pay 12%. In the US varies from state to state but is never higher that 13%. Perhaps you can find out about your country.

Citizens get involved in local decision making because they know they pay for the budget. They “own” it.

A very interesting aspect of Swiss direct democracy is that citizenship has three levels in Switzerland. A Swiss national is citizen of the municipality (commune), of the canton and of Switzerland.

To become a Swiss citizen you have to satisfy the municipal requirements. This shows how important local government is in Switzerland.

Swiss local democracy is not designed to know what people think or about how to get them more involved. It is designed so that the citizens have the final say on every law and important decision. No need to write to the elected representative about something of general interest.

As you see, municipalities in Switzerland have more direct democracy than Rossland. This is because Swiss laws favour direct democracy.

It is almost like in Ancient Greece. Except that in the Ancient Greece system the people are the authority always. No need for politicians or parties.

In the next blog I will continue with Swiss local direct democracy.

Your input is critical. Do not hesitate to comment.



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