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Popular initiatives

Definition

Any member of the Swiss electorate can launch a popular initiative to demand an amendment to the Federal Constitution (of one or more articles or paragraphs). If the initiative is successful and is not subsequently retracted, the amendment to the Constitution will be put to the popular vote and needs to be approved by a majority of the electorate and the cantons (a ‘double majority’) in order to be made.

The Federal Council and the Federal Assembly may propose a direct counter-proposal to the initiative (usually a more moderate proposal), in the hope that the initiative committee will retract the original initiative and that the electorate and cantons will support the counter-proposal.

If the initiative (or the direct counter-proposal) is approved at the ballot box, in most cases parliament then has to draw up legislation on the basis of the amended article or articles in the Constitution.

No legislative initiative at federal level

At federal level, you can only launch a popular initiative to request an amendment to the Constitution and not the revision or introduction of a new federal law. However, a request to amend a law, which is called a ‘legislative initiative’, is permitted in several cantons (see below).

Who can launch an initiative?

A popular initiative can be launched by all members of the Swiss electorate – including Swiss living abroad.

How to launch an initiative

  1. You first need to form an initiative committee, composed of between seven and twenty-seven persons who are entitled to vote.
  2. The committee draws up the text of the initiative (which can be a proposal formulated in general terms or the final draft of a specific project) in German, French and Italian, along with a title. On request the Federal Chancellery will provide the committee with sample signature lists.
  3. The text is submitted to the Federal Chancellery, where it is translated into the two (possibly three) other official languages. Having approved the translations, the committee provides the Federal Chancellery with a model signature list and with a written declaration in which the members attest to being on the initiative committee.
  4. The Federal Chancellery checks that the text and title of the initiative conform with legal requirements and makes a decision on the basis of this preliminary consideration. The decision is published in the Federal Gazette, from which date the committee has 18months to collect at least 100,000 signatures, have them validated by the communes (see below) and submit them to the Federal Chancellery. As not all the signatures are likely to be valid, it is advisable to collect more than 100,000. It may take some time for communes to check signatures, so you should make sure you submit the signature lists in plenty of time so that the 18-month deadline can be respected.
  5. A popular initiative can be put to the vote if at least 100,000 signatures are validated by the Federal Chancellery. The popular initiative is not voted on immediately: up to several years may pass between the initiative being submitted and the popular vote taking place.

Submitting signature lists

Click on the link below to find out how and where to submit signature lists at the Federal Chancellery in Bern.

How much does it cost?

Don’t forget that launching a popular initiative can cost a considerable amount of money. The committee has to pay all the costs for setting up and reproducing the signature lists and for any posters, advertisements, public stands or other signature-collecting activities. In the last few years all the initiatives which have been successful have cost about 150,000 francs.

Cantonal and/or communal initiative

Initiatives can also be launched at cantonal and communal level. These often have a greater scope than a federal initiative. For example, in several cantons it is possible to launch a legislative initiative to request a change in the law.

Go to your canton’s website if you would like to know more about launching an initiative at cantonal and/or communal level, and what it is possible to achieve with such an initiative.