I use Zurich as an example. Other Swiss cantons function in similar ways but they all differ because each canton, even each municipality, can do its own thing; political diversity at work.
Here are the powers of the people:
- The power to launch initiatives.
Citizens of the Canton of Zurich can launch an initiative at any time. Just with the signature of 6000 voters, the initiative gets going.
Initiatives can deal with the total or partial modification of the constitution of the Canton of Zurich. They can also deal with decisions and laws passed by the parliament of the Canton and also with international or inter-canton agreements.
Some initiatives may be very detailed, others are more general
Initiatives at the cantonal level must deal only with one subject. They can not be contrary to national laws either.
Voting on an initiative must take place within 18 or 30 months.
The Parliament of Zurich can present a counterproposal to a citizen’s initiative. In this way the voters can vote for an alternative proposal. Would be nice if the same thing could be done wherever you are.
Initiatives deal only with the constitution. For other issues, they have mandatory referendums and voluntary referendums.
- The mandatory referendums which the government must carry out, by law.
Mandatory referendums happen automatically, no need to collect signatures.
A referendum is necessary if the government wants to change the constitution of the Canton of Zurich. The people must approve. The government has no option.
A mandatory referendum is also necessary if any agreement between the Canton and other jurisdictions touches upon the constitution of the Canton.
It is also interesting to note that if the people have presented a detailed initiative but the parliament of the canton rejects it, then the initiative becomes a mandatory referendum. This is actual people power; “you (the politicians) don’t like what we propose?, then everyone must vote, you can not shelve it”
Also have to go to a mandatory referendum any changes to Zurich cantonal tax laws that increase taxes or add a new tax. Wouldn’t that be nice too if you could do that?
- The power of the people-initiated, optional or voluntary referendum.
This is optional in the sense that the people call these referendums. They are not optional for the government.
Changing or repealing any law of the Canton of Zurich can be done using the voluntary referendum mechanism.
The people can also force a referendum for any expense over 6 million Swiss Francs, about 6 million US Dollars. If an expense happens every year and is of over 600 000 UD Dollars the citizens can also force a referendum.
Voluntary referendums need the support of 3000 voters (the population of the Canton of 1.5 million). It should not be difficult to get 3000 to back something that concerns many.
A referendum can also be triggered if requested by 12 municipalities of the Canton of Zurich (there are 162 municipalities in the Canton), the city of Zurich, the city of Winterthur (because they are relatively large big), or 45 members of the cantonal parliament (the Parliament of Zurich has 180 elected representatives).
How do they handle urgent issues?
Referendums take time, although new technologies can radically speed up the process. You might be wondering, how do the people of the Canton of Zurich, or Switzerland in general, manage if they need a new law urgently? For example in the case of the Wuhan virus.
What they do is parliament passes the law but the people may call a referendum, as long as they do not wait more than 6 months since the law was passed.
Examples of what the people control.
There are examples at the canton level, but also at the municipal and national level. The philosophy of direct democracy covers all levels of legislation but each jurisdiction is free to do things their way.
At the canton level the people decide on taxes at all levels, business opening hours, if kindergarten should be mandatory, construction of a new school or university building, and many issues related to cantonal legislation.
At the municipal level people decide things like the building of a new public swimming pool, what will be the authority of the local police, covering a station, and most issues related to local legislation.
At the national level voters decide on things like gay marriage, treatment of animals, gun control, minimum wage, universal income, mandatory army service, whether Swiss laws should prevail over international law, and most issues related to national legislation.
The Swiss people do not decide everything but they decide on most anything they want to decide. You should be able to do the same or even better.
Your critical and positive comments are necessary!