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Switzerland is generally recognized as a quite functional and prosperous society. It also features a political model with quite unique features:

  • All significant parties participate in the executive branch of the state (the federal council).
  • There is frequent use of direct democracy by mean of referendums (multiple times per year on the most different matters).

Given that the system seems to be working quite well, I am surprised no other country adopted it or that this system is not proposed as an ideal model to be adopted by many political parties/associations.

Is that a particular reason?

EDIT: As one of the answers points out, one other key element of the Swiss political system is strong federalism.

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    Switzerland is a small, geographically isolated and landlocked, highly wealthy country that is ethnically homogenous. I'm reasonably certain that any political system (or none) would work just fine for them.
    – Valorum
    Mar 26 at 20:17
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    @Valorum is Switzerland ethnically homogenous, though? It has four official languages and more immigration than many seem to think.
    – phoog
    Mar 26 at 21:16
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    @phoog - media-cldnry.s-nbcnews.com/image/upload/… / nautilusint.org/globalassets/news-by-topic/switzerland/…. Various flavours of 'white European' does not equal "ethnically diverse" in my opinion :-)
    – Valorum
    Mar 26 at 21:30
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    @Valorum what does then? Do not confuse skin color with ethnicity. Some years ago I moved from one neighborhood in New York that had many different varieties of white European immigrants to another that was primarily a mix of white and black American nonimmigrants. A few of my friends saw the larger number of dark faces on the street and said "this neighborhood seems much more diverse." It wasn't.
    – phoog
    Mar 26 at 22:15
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    Another important fact, is that Switzerland uses proportional representation at all levels of government, including for the executive branch. The highest level of the executive branch is the Federal Council (7 members from 4 different parties), and the President's role is mostly ceremonial. This system allows votes for smaller parties to actually count (unlike in a winner-takes-all system), and leaves enough space for smaller parties to thrive. In order to replicate that system, it would mean that whoever is already in power (or aspires to be) would have to relinquish some of it. Mar 27 at 14:11

3 Answers 3

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Don't forget extreme federalism, a key feature of the Swiss model

I would add at least one more key element of the Swiss model, which is that it is a federal system that pushes political authority for many policies to smaller political units than most countries, in part, in response to the fact that it is a multi-lingual country with differing mixes of languages between cantons (only 4 of 26 cantons have more than one official language).

The twenty-six Swiss cantons have populations and geographic areas comparable to U.S. county governments, which are among the smallest units in a federal state anywhere in the world. As noted at the link:

The areas of the cantons vary from 37 km2 (15 sq. mi.) (Basel-Stadt) to 7,105 km2 (2743 sq. mi.) (Grisons); the populations (as of 2018) range from 16,000 (Appenzell Innerrhoden) to 1.5 million (Zürich).

enter image description here

(via Wikipedia)

Yet, cantons have political power closer to U.S. states or Canadian provinces, than they do to U.S. local governments, and they each have local governments within them that also have significant political autonomy (Switzerland has 2,222 municipal governments, with an average of roughly 4,000 people each, with many municipal governments even within its largest urbanized areas). To achieve comparable levels of political decentralization, the U.S. would have to have about 3000 states.

The Swiss Federal Constitution declares the cantons to be sovereign to the extent that their sovereignty is not limited by federal law. Areas specifically reserved to the Confederation are the armed forces, currency, the postal service, telecommunications, immigration into and emigration from the country, granting asylum, conducting foreign relations with sovereign states, civil and criminal law, weights and measures, and customs duties.

Each canton has its own constitution, legislature, executive, police and courts. Similar to the Confederation, a directorial system of government is followed by the cantons.

The cantonal legislatures are unicameral parliaments, with their size varying between 58 and 200 seats. . . .

So, even a canton with just 16,000 people has at least a 58 person legislature and also elected municipal officials and referenda providing additional means of democratic input. The only U.S. state with anything close to this many legislators per capita is New Hampshire.

The cantons retain all powers and competencies not delegated to the Confederation by the federal constitution or law: most significantly the cantons are responsible for healthcare, welfare, law enforcement, public education, and retain the power of taxation. Each canton defines its official language(s). Cantons may conclude treaties not only with other cantons but also with foreign states (respectively Articles 48 and 56 of the Federal Constitution).

The cantonal constitutions determine the internal organisation of the canton, including the degree of autonomy accorded to the municipalities, which varies but almost always includes the power to levy taxes and pass municipal laws; some municipalities have their own police forces.

As at the federal level, all cantons provide for some form of direct democracy.

The vast majority of countries with its area and population have unitary national governments instead. Switzerland has the population of 8,670,300 (considerably less than Ohio, and with less land area, and less still habitable land area).

The involvement of all significant parties in the Federal Council, is possible, in part, because the central government is comparatively weak due to this strong federalism and due to the amount of political decision making that takes place through direct democracy.

The central government in Switzerland has power only comparable to what the central government in the U.S. did before the U.S. Civil War, which was not much. And it doesn't have a small national legislature either, with a lower house of 200 legislators and an upper house called a "Council of States" with 46 legislators (two each in the twenty historical full cantons and one each in the six historical half-cantons). The U.S. has roughly twice as many legislators as Swiss national parliament does, but more than 38 times as many people.

Indeed, given the large number of elected legislators at the local, canton, and federal level in Switzerland, it is something of a surprise that it needs direct democracy too. But it does have that in spades:

enter image description here

Different elements of the Swiss model have been replicated.

Italy, for many decades after World War II, had the same set of five centrist parties in the government (which constantly saw coalitions break down and then reform) with a very broad political range, in order to political isolate the far left and far right, producing a similar effect but with much less stability, and has more direct democracy than any European countries other than Liechtenstein and Switzerland.

Bosnia, Iraq, and Lebanon all require that all major factions in their countries have representation in the top level decision making bodies.

The radical decentralization of Swiss cantons with an express model in Bosnia and a moderate influence of multiple post-Yugoslavian countries. Bosnia even calls its ten subdivisions cantons.

Many U.S. states make heavy use of direct democracy, even though the U.S. federal government does not, and the U.S. is also heavily decentralized although not quite as much as Switzerland. Many European countries have some direct democracy, largely as a result a result of the Swiss model, although not nearly as much as Switzerland and many U.S. states. A high level of direct democracy was also the norm historically in New England in town government.

enter image description here

The Swiss have one of the world's oldest democratic political cultures

A comment from NoDataDumpNoContribution notes:

More direct democracy is proposed quite often here and Switzerland is also named as an model then, but then there is often the difference in population named as one reason to not follow through. Maybe what works with less than 10 million people doesn't anymore with more than 100 million? Also the history of Switzerland is quite unique with the long-standing neutrality. Maybe Swiss people honed that way of creating consensus for a long time and one cannot easily copy it?

This too has a lot of merit to it. Switzerland is one of the oldest republics, in the narrow sense of not having a hereditary monarchy, that still survives as an independent country in Europe, so it has had a much longer time to build its political culture. Key elements of its system have been in place since the 13th century, before any Europeans other than a few Vikings had set foot in the New World (and they didn't last), and only a little after the Norman Conquest of England and democratic experiments in Iceland.

The organization of its military, relying heavily on conscription, also builds national unity and consensus in a way that might not otherwise have been possible. This in turn was possible, in part, due to Swiss international neutrality, which in part, was made possible by an Alpine geography that was not hospitable to invaders given the military technologies in place for most of its history.

The strong role of conscripts in the military forcing public involvement is matched by the large number of people per thousand who serve in some canton or municipal office, in addition to federal legislators, creating a large pool of politically savvy and experienced citizens.

And, while it is linguistically diverse (German is the only official language in 17 cantons, French is the only official language in 4 cantons, French and German are the official language in 3 cantons, Italian is the only official language in one canton, and Italian, German, and Romansh are the official language in one trilingual canton, Grisons, with 200,000 people and a sixth of the country's land area), it does not have the kind of political/cultural diversity and division seen within Northern Ireland or Belgium or the United States or pre-2014 Ukraine or Italy or even unified Germany, let alone non-Western countries like Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Nigeria, Rwanda, Mexico, Indonesia, the Philippines or Thailand. Diversity within individual cantons where power is concentrated in this confederation is even smaller.

Switzerland may have more political/cultural diversity than Finland or South Korea or Japan or the Netherlands or Iceland, but it still only has so much.

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    Great answer! But I question the final paragraphs about having less political/cultural diversity. There is a great deal of difference between Geneva and Appenzell, not unlike the difference between rural Wyoming and Boulder, Colorado. There are cultural differences between the Swiss German-speakers and Latin speakers, there exists an animosity between Ticino and the north. But they manage to settle their differences, because they share the most important identity: that they are NOT German, French, or Italian, even though someone from Lausanne is more likely to study in Paris than in Zürich.
    – gerrit
    Mar 26 at 8:28
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    I like the answer. The comparison with the Italian pentapartito decade seems a bit stretched since they it was not spanning the whole Italian political spectrum.
    – pinpon
    Mar 26 at 10:42
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    The map of the number of referendums per country seems suspect - fairly sure that the UK has had four just in my lifetime
    – MikeB
    Mar 26 at 10:48
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    @MikeB Has your lifetime been lived in Scotland? If so, you had an extra three referendums about devolution and independence. The UK as a whole has had only 3 (join EU, leave EU, not change to PR). Mar 26 at 13:20
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    @ohwilleke fantastic answer (upvoted). This does not change the content of this answer in the least, but I am unsure of the US map of direct democracy. I live in a state that's gray and we've had, "ballot initiatives," that look remarkably like referendums and often contain language specifying change to the constitution or statute. Am I missing some critical point? Mar 27 at 13:22
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TLDR: This answer isn't saying referendums are always bad. Only that they are not always good, and no, there is not always a magic way to unwind bad ones before they do real harm. Like most complex systems, there are tradeoffs and knowing when and how referendums can be used is key.

see also this answer, on a linked question, about referendums.

And, concerning Swiss federalism, not really addressed here. See this other answer.


Are direct referendums always a good idea though?

Look at Proposition 13 in California, which has a lot of them and they don't always make sense in aggregate. Prop 13 reduced taxes - not always equitably either - but Californians also voted themselves a lot of services and regulations.

Or Switzerland's less than glorious introduction of women's votes in its last canton in 1990. Not by referendum, by the Supreme Court.

For that matter, the way the referendum system started in Switzerland itself is a bit of an oddity...

The Swiss model can work, true. Doesn't mean it will work everywhere and at any scale (there's probably a limit to how far down you want to refer each and every political decision to a referendum).

Speaking of referendums... Brexit.

Bottom line: it mostly works in Switzerland. Doesn't mean it automatically is a great idea everywhere, for everything.

p.s. I asked a question about cannabis legalization and referendums and the answer also stated that a good case for referendums was on "morally sensitive issues". They can also get used for independence referendums, to ask the affected population if they want to secede or not. I'd add that British Columbia has on two occasions that I am aware of, used a referendum to ask voters if they wanted to change the electoral system (ward-based councillors for the city of Vancouver, switch to proportional representation in the province's parliament). They've also been used to ask about the death penalty in US states.

These are particular types of questions, that are less about day-to-day management than they are about what kind of society the voters want to live in.

They are not "routine" regulation initiatives Or "tax less" initiatives, potentially followed by - supposedly unrelated - "spend more" initiatives, which is what hasn't worked out all that well in California (Prop 13 backed by houseowners, Prop 184 - Three Strikes, You're Out, backed by the prison industrial complex). Or the equally daft proposition 65, triggering a brouhaha about cancer warnings on Starbucks coffee.


p.s. Thought I'd add something insightful from the comments:

I'd like to add, as a Swiss, that an enormous value of having referendums is the social peace it brings. Since everyone had a say in it, those unhappy with the decision are much less likely to violently express their anger, compared to when the decision is centralized (e.g., in a government).

(Though that effect is probably more pronounced in a high-functioning referendum context - Switzerland - that a low-functioning referendum context - arguably, California)

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    The state prison population, along with the generous pay for wardens, were a frequent problem with balancing California budgets, IIRC - though I think that was walked back a bit last time there was a budget crisis. Again, this answer is not saying referendums are always bad. Only that they are not always good, and no, there is not always a magic way to unwind bad ones before they do real harm. Like most systems, there are tradeoffs. Mar 26 at 20:45
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    @Nobody this law is mitigated or even outright ignored because the government knows that if it actually implemented the law Can you clarify what you mean here? Brexit was, famously, a non-binding referendum. But is that the case in Switzerland? If all referendums are non-binding, then isn't that taxpayer $$$ waste? And if it implemented the law seems a dangerous amount of leeway for a government to give itself. Mar 26 at 22:54
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    Very interesting point about the not so glorious start of referendums in Switzerland. The women vote at federal level in 1971 was decided by a referendum so maybe is a good point for allowing them. I think the answers is too focused on referendums and do not consider other points of the Swiss political system.
    – pinpon
    Mar 27 at 13:19
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    Also, I think you are a bit cherry picking about the specific bad outcomes of some selected referendums. One could easily find a lot more stupid laws passed by parliaments. Or stupid decisions taken by elected government officials.
    – pinpon
    Mar 27 at 13:28
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    This answer define referendum's outcomes (good/bad) only based on the decision itself. I'd like to add, as a Swiss, that an enormous value of having referendums is the social peace it brings. Since everyone had a say in it, those unhappy with the decision are much less likely to violently express their anger, compared to when the decision is centralized (e.g., in a government).
    – Tim
    Mar 27 at 13:57
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Some people claim that referendums may lead to "wrong" outcomes, citing Brexit as an example. I think this claim misses the point of the Swiss system. The Swiss system is not just about getting "correct" outcomes through referendums; the very fact that people may force a referendum fundamentally changes the political system.

In a standard democracy, people usually vote for a party that is closest to their highest-priority ideological stance. For example, if your highest priority is tax reduction, you will probably vote for a party that promises tax reduction. You will do so even if you do not like most or all of the party members. This opens the door for politicians who are corrupt, or just not very smart, to get into the parliament, only because they represent a certain ideology that many voters support.

In contrast, in the Swiss system, you can promote your highest-priority ideological stances through popular initiatives: you just have to find 100,000 citizens with the same ideology, and then sign a petition that forces the government to put this issue to a referendum. As a result, when you vote for the parliament, you do not have to vote according to your ideology alone. You can vote for people whom you consider smarter or more honest, knowing that the ideological issues can be handled outside the parliament.

This means that, if a country switches to the Swiss system, the composition of the parliament would change substantially, with many incumbent parliament members losing their jobs. This explains why so many parliament members oppose the Swiss system. They make up all kinds of excuses (e.g. "Brexit"), but at the end, they just want to keep their jobs.

APPENDIX: The following comment by Tim expresses a similar idea:

I'd like to add, as a Swiss, that an enormous value of having referendums is the social peace it brings. Since everyone had a say in it, those unhappy with the decision are much less likely to violently express their anger, compared to when the decision is centralized (e.g., in a government).

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    Some people being me? Personally, I wonder at "some people" who always accuse all politicians of being on the take and that seems to be the crux of the argument here. It is a lazy argument and I see it as a major factor in political polarization as it facilitates the rise of "drain-the-swamp" demagogues because no one trusts politicians. Trust but verify instead. Mar 26 at 19:17
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    Very good point. By letting most ideological battle be settled by referendum, collaboration in administrative matters become easier.
    – pinpon
    Mar 27 at 10:21
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    @ItalianPhilosophers4Monica, the onus is on politicians to help us trust them; not on us to trust them blindly (which is exactly what we need to do due to how the system works in other countries than Switzerland). At least in my country (Germany) there is precious little going on that makes building trust very easy; and a lot in the opposite direction.
    – AnoE
    Mar 27 at 14:07
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    I'm not sure this is true. The main effect that is clearly observable with regards to parliamentary elections is that people care less. In Switzerland the participation in federal elections is much lower than in surrounding democracies. When some important and polarizing issue is on the ballot on the other hand, then it's not unusual to have high turnouts. For example the covid pandemic and measures against it polarized a lot, so when there was a referendum about the solutions proposed by the government there was 65% participation.
    – Nobody
    Mar 27 at 20:42
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    Other answers point to the example of the Republic of California which also has referendums. I agree it changed the political system, but I don't think it changed it in the way asserted in this answer.
    – JimmyJames
    Mar 28 at 20:27

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