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Rules for election campaigns and popular votes

In Switzerland there are hardly any laws governing campaigning in elections and popular votes. This is intentional: freedom of speech is an important fundamental right.

When campaigning for elections and popular votes, a tough political debate about controversial issues should be possible. Nevertheless, the law still applies. For example, no one should spread untrue information about another person with the aim of damaging their reputation. It is also an offence to make racist insults about another person. The regulation of political advertising is often a matter for the cantons, and sometimes even the communes. There are also points that need to be considered that depend on what method of campaigning you choose:

Advertising in traditional media

Political advertising on the radio and television is banned, but it is allowed in the other media. However, a newspaper, for example, can refuse to publish a political advertisement. According to the Swiss Press Council, the media complaints body, ethical criteria should also be important in deciding whether to publish political advertisements. The Press Council also says that political advertisements should be designed to make it clear that they are political and not editorial content.

Advertising material

Placing or modifying advertisements along a road requires a permit from the competent cantonal authority. Existing regulations, such as landscape protection, must be taken into consideration. (S-Traffic Ordinance Art. 98 para. 1).

In some cantons, campaign material may be sent in the same envelope as the voting papers, subject to certain conditions. Other cantons have no rules at all on this.

Roadside advertising is allowed, but requires authorisation

On roads maintained by the canton or the Confederation, the legal provisions enacted by the relevant canton or by the Confederation apply. Roadside political advertising is basically allowed, provided it does not compromise road safety (it should not distract drivers). Political adverts along motorways and other major roads, however, are banned.¨

Authorisation from the relevant cantonal authority is required before placing or changing roadside advertisements. Regulations on the protection of the appearance or character of the location must also be observed (Art. 98 Abs. 1 RSO).

Art. 95ss Ordinance on Traffic Signs (In G, F, I)
Art. 98 ff. Ordinance on Traffic Signs (In G, F, I)

Election events

Anyone planning to campaign for an election in public (street campaigning, demonstrations, etc.), should find out from the commune concerned what is permitted where and when. Often authorisation is needed for an event.

Ask you commune about what the rules are.

The SBC’s role and the role of television and radio in general

The programming regulations for the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) take on a special significance in the run-up to elections and popular votes. They are intended to guarantee equal opportunities for all candidates and political camps. Especially important are the requirements of objectivity and appropriate diversity. Complaints should be addressed to the SBC ombudsman or ultimately to the Independent Complaints Authority for Radio and Television (ICA). Other radio and television companies have to follow the same rules.

The role of the other media

Other media outlets enjoy a substantial degree of freedom. As a result, voluntary principles of media ethics and the Swiss Press Council have a vital role to play. Anyone can file a complaint with the Press Council; although it does not have the power to impose penalties, its decisions can have a significant public effect.

Complaining to the Press Council

Social Media and Online

Although social media and websites are subject to the law, people can get away with a lot during election campaigns. For example, it is not an offence, in principle, to deliberately spread false information (fake news).

Readers’ letters and contributions to online forums

During campaigning for elections and popular votes, no one has the right to have the media print their letters or post an online comment. Where people make racist or defamatory remarks, the medium concerned can face criminal penalties for publishing them. Publishers also have the right to edit readers‘ letters.

Opinion polls

Opinion polls on popular votes and elections are not subject to any special regulations in Switzerland. However, the industry regulates itself. For example, it is not permitted to publish opinion polls in the last ten days before an election or popular vote.