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Popular initiatives

Definition

Any member of the Swiss electorate can launch a specifically worded popular initiative or make a general proposal to require a partial revision of the Federal Constitution (of one or more articles or paragraphs); a general proposal can be made to require a total revision. One hundred thousand eligible voters must provide their signature in support of the request within 18 months for the initiative to go ahead. If the initiative is successful and is not subsequently withdrawn by the initiative committee, the amendment to the Constitution is put to the popular vote and needs to be approved by a majority of the electorate and the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.

For changes to the Constitution, the Federal Council and the Federal Assembly may propose a direct counter-proposal to the initiative (usually a more moderate proposal); for changes to the law, an indirect counter-proposal may be made.

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. If an indirect counter-proposal is made, the initiative committee may choose to withdraw the initiative on the proviso that the indirect counter-proposal will come into force as long as no referendum is launched or rejected in a popular vote (no majority of the cantonal vote is required in this case).

No legislative initiative at federal level

At federal level, you can launch a popular initiative to request an amendment to the Constitution but not the revision or introduction of a new federal law.

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 at federal level.
  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 other official languages. The committee then 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 some of the signatures are usually invalid, 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 on a continuous basis and 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.