Yale University

Voter Participation (Or Lack Thereof) and Democratic Erosion in Switzerland, by Valentina Wakeman at Yale University

Freedom House has given exceptional democracy ratings to the Swiss Confederation, awarding it near-perfect scores in overall freedom, political rights (39/40), and civil liberties (57/60). Though Swiss political structure is both highly decentralized and dependent on direct democracy mechanisms, the frequency with which the democratic system requires citizens to vote has negatively affected voter turnout, proving a major obstacle to maintaining a robustly participatory democracy that takes advantage of these structural allowances. In addition, the increasing prevalence of polarizing issues, such as Switzerland’s relationship to the EU, and growing distress over the spread of terrorism in Europe, may prove to further stress what I widely regarded as one of the most “functional” and “successful” world democracies.

Both structurally and throughout history, Switzerland seems to represent a “model democracy”, or at least one closest to its theoretical conception, where power is kept as close to the hands of the people as possible. The majority of legislative power is attributed to each of its 26 cantons as opposed to the national government. Policies within individual cantons may vary in both their laws and systems, effectively decentralising power away from the national government, and making local politics a more relevant concern for voters. (World Economic Forum) The most highly revered aspect of Swiss institutional framework, however, is its commitment to direct democracy— the “Sovereign” of the country is the entire electorate. Any citizen can challenge a law passed by parliament, the people can present a constitutional popular initiative to amend the federal constitution, and a majority in both cantonal and overall electorate votes (known as a double majority) must approve any instance of constitutional amendment, joining international organizations, or legal changes that have no basis in the Federal Constitution. A referendum is mandatory for constitutional changes, and is optional (i.e. can be requested by the public) for any change in the national laws; referenda are one of the main pathways by which people express their opinion at the ballots on a myriad of issues. (World Economic Forum)

However, despite what seems like a model democracy, and in contrast to the optimistic picture painted by Freedom House of the country’s political dynamics, The Economist Intelligence Unit has actually lowered Switzerland’s ranking since 2016, placing it ninth out of 167. This is due to a core issue that has received increased attention in the past 3 years—sustained decreases in voter turnouts at the time of elections. On average, approximately four out of every ten Swiss voters appear at polls for every possible election, and overall turnout rarely exceeds 50%. Due to ample and frequent election holdings (referenda, government elections, legislation, contestation, etc.) most voters are overwhelmed by the amount of times they should exercise their right to vote, losing interest in active democratic participation, and choosing to stay home on (any of the) election days instead. This is further exacerbated by a decentralised system, whereby both cantonal and cantonal elections are available. Ironically, it seems as if Swiss democracy is too democratic.

André Blais at the University of Montréal has attributed low turnouts to the widespread perception of Swiss political parties as “a cartel in which the same parties form the same governing coalition year after year…no matter the outcome of legislative elections.” (526) Historically, Swiss government has been characterized by stability, with its political scene consistently dominated by a coalition of its four main political parties: the Christian Democrats (CVP), Social Democrats (SP) on the left, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) and the Swiss People’s Party (SVP) on the right. (The Economist Intelligence Unit ) In what is described as the “Magic Formula” of Swiss politics, since 1959 there has been a mathematically-based allocation of each of seven Federal Assembly seats that correspond to the proportional shares of votes each party receives. (Wolff and Karagok) According to political scientist Werner Seitz, “Elections in Switzerland don’t have the importance they have in other parliamentary democracies where elections can lead to a new government.” (“Silent Majority Always Wins Swiss Ballots”) A stagnant, staid system—though stable—could also greatly reduce turnout.

Equally important is the role of voter fatigue, as the electorate may simply refuse to vote because it finds itself overwhelmed with the frequency of elections and referenda in both cantonal and national politics. A study by Anna Kern at the University of Leuven in Belgium, which focused on the difference between availability and use of direct democracy on both democratic participation and political attitudes of the electorate, found positive and supportive attitudes for the larger political system rarely spur from both the availability and use of direct democracy, especially at the cantonal level. However, this does not necessarily mean distrust in larger (i.e. federal) democratic institutions. (22)

Additionally, in their explanation for lower scores of democracy, The Economist pointed out “people’s initiatives are often launched by political parties or interest groups rather than individuals, and in the latest political cycle they have also become instruments for parties to motivate their core voters.” (World Economic Forum) Therefore, even if factors like political polarisation (which could potentially motivate more emotional voters to take to the polls) became pervasive in Swiss politics, it would leave the system susceptible to potential tyranny of the majority, given the decentralised system and emphasis on direct democracy in local affairs, with elections for different forms of laws occurring every 3-4 months. In any case, even a system initially perceived as highly institutionally democratic now confronts the question of democratic backsliding: If the Swiss have been unable take advantage of the privilege of direct democracy—perhaps the most literal interpretation of democratic ideals, which structurally gives the most power to voters— should it be the ideal in the first place?

Recently, attributing so much power to the cantons has become increasingly salient, potentially threatening Switzerland’s democratic stability after all these years in a time where both terrorism and populism are symbiotic phenomena in European politics. In 2014, Swiss voters approved legislation that would limit immigration from EU countries, placing a strain on the current relationship between the two, and undermining many of the bilateral agreements that have been in place for a long time. Additionally, current proposals that would allow the European Court of Justice to act as a mediator between Switzerland and the EU trade disputes has triggered controversial backlash from the Swiss People’s Party, the most conservative of the four dominant ones. (Financial Times) Given their recent success in the polls, and the Swiss system’s foundation on an increasingly polarised electorate, this may threaten the stability of the Magic Formula, overall trust in government responsiveness, and democratic quality overall—especially if people decide to respond by voting less often.

Democracy is not a passive process, even when stably, culturally, and universally implemented over a prolonged time period. Though participation is both an asset and prerequisite to democracy, Switzerland illustrates how an overreliance on direct links between the electorate and implemented laws may still not be enough to keep them engaged in politics. Paradoxically and counter-intuitively, perhaps accessible participation in virtually all political affairs may contribute to the backsliding of democracy, as opposed to its nurturing.

Word count: 1.187


Freedom House. “Switzerland Profile.” Freedom in the World 2017. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. https://freedomhouse.org/report/freedom-world/2017/switzerland

Lucci, Michol. “This is how Switzerland’s Direct Democracy Works.” World Economic Forum. 31 July 2017. Web. Accessed April 1 2018. https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/07/switzerland-direct-democracy-explained/

The Economist Intelligence Unit. “Political Stability.” Switzerland. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. http://country.eiu.com/article.aspx?articleid=1746503758&Country=Switzerland&topic= Politics&subtopic=Forecast&subsubtopic=International+relations&oid=1706503754&fli d=1706503754

Norwegian Centre for Research Data. “Party Descriptions and CMP Left-Right Scores.” Switzerland: Political Parties. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. http://www.nsd.uib.no/european_election_database/country/switzerland/parties.html

Mombelli, Armando and Geiser, Urs. “Silent Majority Always Wins Swiss Ballots.” SWI Swiss Info Channel. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. https://www.swissinfo.ch/eng/silent- majority-always-wins-swiss-ballots/7746

Burunsden, Jim and Atkins, Ralph. “EU’s Swiss Proposal Could Serve as Brexit Blueprint.” Financial Times. 18 January 2018. Web. Accessed 1 April 2018. https://www.ft.com/content/4164a5f0-fc6f-11e7-a492-2c9be7f3120a

Kern, Anna. “The Effect of Direct Democratic Participation on Citizens’ Political Attitudes in Switzerland: The Difference between Availability and Use.” 27 March 2017. Politics and Governance Vol. 5, Issue 2, 16–26.

Wolff, Reiner and Karagok, Yavuz. “Constant Allocation of Cabinet Seats: The Swiss Magic Formula.” University of Fribourg. Working paper.

Blais, André. “Why is Turnout So Low in Switzerland? Comparing the Attitudes of Swiss and German Citizens Towards Electoral Democracy.” 2014. Swiss Political Science Review Vol. 20, Issue 4, 520–528.




  1. Sam Sharman

    April 20, 2018 at 4:31 pm

    The author argues that the construction of Swiss democracy could be causing democratic erosion. Specifically, the eroding mechanism is the large amounts of participatory democracy included in Switzerland’s political system. Participatory democracy could also lead to developing polarization that would further threaten Swiss democracy. This post immediately interested because I have, for several years, admired the Swiss system from afar. Additionally, I have argued that, in class discussions and assignments throughout this course, the best solution to the ongoing democracy worldwide is the expansion of democracy, that more democratic systems will better sustain themselves. I still believe that to be largely true, but the case and argument presented in this article reminds me that are extremes, and expanding democracy is more complex. I think that we have seen a similar phenomenon in the United States: most Americans do not vote in competitive elections and vote in an excessive amount of elections (for things like coroners). Thus, most American voters are disincentivized and fatigued electorally. It does seem that such voter apathy could be a massive threat, yet it is also neglected. Perhaps republics with representatives chosen through highly democratic elections without the inclusion of referendums could be a superior system.

  2. Jane Huber

    May 1, 2018 at 4:24 pm

    Very interesting post and something that I would not expect from a country like Switzerland. I think part of this is due to widespread perception that currently strong and exemplary democracies will not fail or erode. Clearly this is an issue because no action to stop erosion will be taken until it is too late. Switzerland, as you mentioned, is often thought of as the model democracy and for a long time so was the United States. I would like to compare the threats of erosion that you mention in your post with threats in the USA. The United States also has high levels of voter apathy and a very centralized political system, with two parties rather than 4, but still heavily reliant on specific parties. It makes me wonder if these are somehow related to erosion in strong democracies. Also, with the high level of popular support for Le Pen in France and other far right leaders throughout Europe, it would be interesting to know what is leading these strong, stable, rich, democracies towards erosion. You mention terrorism in your post and I would argue that this has some sort of effect on conservatism and possibly democratic rollbacks. Also, the polarization in Switzerland could be compared to that of the United States and again begs the question why such intense conservatism is on the rise in so many highly developed countries. Overall, I really like this post and it is an real surprise for me to hear about this but I will definitely be following along now and looking to identify trends in these types of democracies.

  3. Jacob Olson

    February 18, 2019 at 4:09 pm

    This is a well-articulated posture you have taken on democratic erosion in the model country of Switzerland. It appears that there is a delicate balance to democracy, there cannot be too little or too much. You have also mentioned who Switzerland’s decentralized government is a double-edged sword in that it keeps politics local but that it adds to the number of elections. Perhaps Switzerland should revamp its political process so there isn’t an “overreliance,” as you say, “on direct links between the electorate and implemented laws,” making it more dynamic. However, the U.S has more of a centralized and indirect democracy yet it has even lower voter turnout. It appears that you view voter turnout in Switzerland to be an institutional problem, but could there be something deeper at work?

  4. Keli Lalicker

    March 6, 2019 at 3:42 pm

    This post does an excellent job as analyzing a country, Switzerland, that is often ignored when discussing flaws in democracy. The author even refers to Swiss democracy as being ‘too democratic.’ Her reasoning is an interesting one, that people are asked to vote too much. I know some people around me who would say that we do not get to vote on enough important things here in the US, but I think that would lead to the same problem in Switzerland. The US voter turnout is already on the lower end because people do not prioritize voting (at least not those around me and I’ve been guilty of it as well). I think voter fatigue manifests in many different ways. In many countries, they do not see the point in voting because they do not feel the options they are given to represent their wants and needs. Though voters in Switzerland do not necessarily distrust the government, the lower voter turnout seems to be similarly damaging. The author also discusses Switzerland’s weakening ties with the EU. Though I think this is an important topic, it does not feel relatable to her overall argument.

  5. Katrina Ramkissoon

    March 18, 2019 at 7:31 pm

    This is an interesting commentary on the state of voter participation from within the country. I agree that the decentralized form of government may be an actor in this issue. Having tangible democracy is important however the slowness of democracy may impede the efficiency from within the system. Whether this is the core issue for the Swiss people is hard to say from an objective stand point. The reality is voters across the world are participating at lower levels than previous generations who had a stronger view of democracy. Pippa Norris of Harvard Kennedy School evaluated a study done on the state of democratic erosion in Western European countries and found, “…compared with their parents and grandparents, the Millennial generation (born after 1980) are significantly less supportive of democratic values and institutions, as well as more disengaged in both civic and protest forms of political activism. These symptoms are interpreted by the studies as warning flags for a broader malaise that may produce deconsolidation of several Western democracies, at best, and heightened risks of potential breakdown, at worst.”
    Some of the more serious issues or policies engages a group of single issue voters which seems to be the case for Switzerland with immigration. Many countries that are facing democratic erosion are having electoral issues with the voter participation being at the forefront of the problems. The question that now arises is what can be done to attract a younger demographic to continue to uphold democratic institutions and maintain democracy through voter participation. Ultimately, I thought this blog post was very well done and opens a dialogue for voter participation in democratic states.

    Source: Norris, Pippa. 2017. “Is Western Democracy Backsliding? Diagnosing the Risks.” Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series.

  6. Marianna Moulis

    April 7, 2019 at 9:32 pm

    This is a very well written and well thought out article. It sheds light on a voter system that much like everyone else who has commented on this believed to be seemingly perfect. What is interesting here is that there seems to be “too much of a good thing” in the sense that there is too much of an emphasis on local engagement and not enough centralization of power. It would be interesting to see exactly what else is causing a low voter turnout in Switzerland, though I believe a lack of variety in issues to vote for probably contributes to their low voter turnout. Their “Magical Formula” is a viable option that has kept the country afloat, but maybe it is time for the Swiss to change things up. On the flipside, however, is this really causing democratic erosion? Or simply just a blip in Switzerland’s political timeline? Compared to other countries in Europe, Switzerland is relatively solid in their democratic ideals. It will be interesting to see whether or not the Swiss resort to political protest like their European counterparts. This is something to keep an eye on in the coming years, especially given Europe’s overall political instability.

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