I realized while asking the question "Which nation is a direct democracy?" that it can't be answered without first drawing a line between a democracy direct and representative.

It's not easy since most (all?) representative democracies have some "instruments of direct democracy". And even Switzerland (considered by some as a direct democracy) have elected representatives (that's why others consider it as a semi-direct democracy).

One way to answer this question would be select the most advanced nation in that sense (which seems to be Switzerland) and declare that it's a direct democracy. Then we will need to see what's makes it so different from the representative democracies.

Switzerland is seen by some as a semi-direct democracy because it's a "representative democracy with strong instruments of direct democracy".

Defining what "strong" means seems to be the answer with this.

Why it's not a duplicate: A question has been asked How does direct democracy compare to representative democracy? But "it's currently phrased in a way that solicits opinions rather than concrete answers". The question is vague, and the chosen answers focus on whether direct democracy is better or worst than a representative democracy (which should be its title). Even if we rephrased the whole question (and its title) the chosen answers would still be off topic for "where to draw the line" (one of the 4 answers would fit, though).

  • You seem to ask how powerful the direct democracy elements in Switzerland are? Feb 13, 2018 at 13:38
  • @Trilarion not really, that would be subjective. I'm just looking for a clear definition of direct democracy (which would be precise enough to exclude the representative democracies).
    – JinSnow
    Feb 18, 2018 at 9:38

3 Answers 3


You can't draw a clear line here, because there is a large spectrum between 100% direct democracy and 100% representative democracy.

In a 100% representative democracy, 100% of all legislative decisions are made by elected representatives. The only public votes would be to elect the representatives.

In a 100% direct democracy, 100% of all legislative decisions would be made by referendum. There would be no need for any elected legislators. The only people who might be elected would be executive officials without mandate who would be bound by law to enforce the referendums. I could not name any democracy where this is the case.

And then there are many, many jurisdictions in between where some legislative decisions are made by representatives and others by public referendum.

  • There is a spectrum regarding how powerful referendums are. In the United Kingdom, referendums can be ignored by the representatives. In Switzerland, referendums can override decisions made by representatives and even change the constitution.
  • There is a spectrum regarding which aspects of legislation can be decided by referendum and which are not. For example, the Federal Republic of Germany allows and requires a referendum for exactly one thing: Changing the borders between the federal states. Everything else on federal level is decided by representatives (Some federal states allow referendums on other matters, though).
  • There is a spectrum regarding what it takes to get a vote on a referendum. Sometimes only representatives can suggest them. Sometimes it requires a certain number of signatures from citizens to be collected in a certain timeframe. The higher the hurdle to get a referendum, the less decision by referendum you will have.
  • Thanks for your great answer! But it suggests actually that it's possible to draw a clear line, by determining the eliminatory criteria. Ex: representatives have more power than people (eg. they can be ignored referendums ― [in France too]), only a few aspects of legislation can be decided by referendum, only representatives can suggest referendum or it requires a too large number of signature (let's say more than 100 000).
    – JinSnow
    Feb 13, 2018 at 12:27
  • 4
    @JinSnow But where to draw that line would be completely subjective.
    – Philipp
    Feb 13, 2018 at 12:29
  • I don't think so. The points mentioned in your answer (and in my comment) aren't subjective (they are quite easy to assess). The number of signatures is tricky but it could probably be scientifically determined. (The simple fact that 50.000 [to edit the law] and 100.000 [constitution] works for a population of 8 million [Switzerland] could be seen as a pretty good scientific experiment to assess this number). thelocal.ch/20170403/…
    – JinSnow
    Feb 18, 2018 at 9:49
  • "There is a spectrum regarding how powerful referendums are. In the United Kingdom, referendums can be ignored by the representatives." - The EU referendum law was not binding on the UK government but two previous referendums were (the EC referendum and AV referendum). Conceivably Parliament could pass a referendum law that would have other binding effects. However, after a binding referendum it is true that Parliament has the legal power to make a new law that voids the result. After all, Parliament is sovereign. It can make or unmake any domestic law.
    – Lag
    Mar 27, 2019 at 8:06

So it's important to note that the Swiss Federal Government Model borrowed heavily from the United States Government model (a lot of other countries do as well, but the Swiss really liked the Federalism aspects and separation of powers). The slight difference is that the executive branch is picked by the legislative branch, not the people, they Executive is a counsel and not a singular person (though the council president is the defacto head of state and government, they are co-equal with the six other members of the council in terms of authority). The courts also lack judicial review (so they can't declare a law unconstitutional).

The chief difference however is the Direct Democracy practices that are enacted at Federal, Canton (equivalent to a State in the U.S. system), and local levels of the government. This is in contrast to the United States, which does not have a Direct Democracy system at the Federal level only (all 50 states have some form of Direct Democracy enabled in their constitution.). The United States Founding Fathers had a big fear of Tyranny of the Majority and felt that while the Government would be controlled by the people, it needed checks against them from depriving rights to the minority. The Swiss decided to use the people as a check on government.

Under the Swiss Democracy, any matter of law or policy is eligible for a Referendum provided that the people can prove it is at issue by receiving 50,000 signatures from citizens within the Federation in a petition. They may also put constitutional amendments up for referendum with a showing of 100,000 signatures. The legislature may "counter-propose" the new law/amendment in question with their own legislation proposal. If this happens both are considered in the next referendum vote.

In a Referendum election, the original proposal is put up for a yes or no vote. If there was a counter-proposal, that option will also be open to a vote and a second question will be asked which basically amounts to "if your choice does not win, would you still be in favor of one of the two remaining options?" to ensure that if you are not going to get your desired way, you can still contribute to a decision on the other offers (If a choice is between A, B, and No and you pick No, if No loses, you would still prefer option B to option A.).

In order to pass, the vote must reach a threshold of 51% for regular laws and 66% for Constitutional Amendments. In addition, the vote must achieve what is called a "Double Majority" such that it must both win the threshold of the Popular vote AND must win the threshold among the Canton level popular vote. This prevents large population centers from fielding a larger popular vote and dominating the Referendum's actions and is similar in practice to the United States Electoral College (which ignores national popularity to state-level popularity if the two are in rare disagreement). Essentially, if 51% of the national population agrees with a bill's passage, but only 48% of the Cantons are in favor, then the bill does not pass. Likewise, if 51% of the Cantons agree, but 48% of the national population is in favor, the measure does not pass.

The net effect of all of this is that the general public act as a stronger check on the legislature in Switzerland than in the United States. One of the advantages to this system used by the Swiss government and not the United States Government is the population sizes. The United States is 40 times larger by population than Switzerland (320 million to 8 million) so the initial petition numbers are more representative of the Swiss opinions than they would be in the United States.


It's best to think of the Swiss Direct Democracy as a "Fourth" governmental check to the other three branches of government in the Swiss Federal system. They have no more authority over any branches than any one branch has over any other branch, but they are an additional part that has to be dealt with in order to enact laws. The net result is that the Legislature is simultaneously answerable to both the nation as a whole and their constituencies and must balance legislation between the two interests to avoid referendums on their laws and losing governing mandate of the people they represent. The Referendum system is merely a tool to allow the people to force an issue that the politicians do not want touch.


Just a proposition:

If I had to draw a line between representative democracy and direct democracy I would not target the presence or absence of elected representatives but their role.

The following question seems to be the key:

Who really govern, the people or the representative/government?

The problem with the term "representative" is that representatives could do two things that are opposed in this topic: a representative can be given the power to govern (like in representative democracy) or simply to advise and to find the way execute the final decision of the people (like in direct democracy).

The (rather strange) Swiss referendum about minaret shows who really govern in Switzerland because their representatives(/government) were massively against it, and they advised the people to vote against it. But the people voted for it, and the new law was implemented. This example shows who really govern in Switzerland: the people not their representatives. The Swiss seem to govern their representatives/government.

This answer summarized the point and answer the question:

Switzerland is a direct democracy because the popular vote is final and overrides the decisions of parliament

Direct democracy outdoes representative democracy

In representative democracy people need to win the right to vote directly, they need to bypass the representative system since it's the main system (eg. you need a million signatures to change a law or launch a referendum). In a direct democracy, people don't need to fight to govern since the popular vote is the main system.

Philip's answer suggests some criteria that would be eliminatory for a direct democracy :

  • representatives can ignore the result of a referendum

  • only a few aspects can be decided by referendum (people can't easily change the law and the constitution)

  • only representatives can suggest referendum or it requires a too large number of signature.

(It's more a proposition than an answer, critics are welcome to improve or refute it)


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