Switzerland is not unique in its double majority system

A check against the dominance of the majority: the so-called “House of the Cantons” in Bern. Keystone

Accepted by a majority of the population, rejected by a majority of cantons: the outcome of Sunday’s responsible business initiative vote has led to debates about the political system in Switzerland. Is there a tension between federalism and democracy?

This content was published on December 1, 2020 - 17:00

Swiss-based companies narrowly avoided facing greater liability for human rights and environmental abuses in their business activities abroad after a national vote rejected the proposal on Sunday. Some 37,500 more people backed the divisive referendum, giving a majority of 50.7%. But at the end of the day, because a majority of Switzerland’s 26 cantons opposed the initiative, it was rejected.

What does this mean for the Swiss direct democracy system, which calls its citizens to the ballot box more often than any other country in the world? Is something broken here?

Debates have sprung up in the past few days. But a look at the frequency of such outcomes suggests this is much ado about nothing. Since people’s initiatives were introduced in 1891, a total of 481 have been voted on – only two have been rejected due to a cantonal majority overturning a popular majority. The other dates back to 1955.

A long history

This said, the requirement of a double majority for constitutional changes says much about the history and functioning of the Swiss political system.

1. More weight to the small cantons

The double majority is a mechanism by which the founding fathers of the Swiss federal constitution wanted to protect small cantons, so that they wouldn’t be dictated to by bigger regions with more political and economic clout.

The historical context is important here: Switzerland in its modern form emerged from a civil war which saw a Catholic-conservative minority defeated by the more powerful Liberal and Radical majority. The end of this “Sonderbund” war led to unification and the new Swiss federal state (1848).

Naturally, the Catholic cantons, a minority in this new federal set-up, were less than overjoyed by the prospect of always having to fall into line with the decisions of the Radical majority – hence the cantonal majority rule.

2. Federal solidarity

The double majority gives all cantons equal weight – that is, one vote – with the exception of the six half-cantons, who correspondingly have half a vote each.

This has led to big distortions: today, the vote of a citizen from tiny Appenzell Inner Rhodes has 40 times the value of the vote of a citizen from populous Zurich.

But the exaggerated weight of votes from small cantons compared with the checked power of the larger ones also makes for a bonding mechanism that helps the various Swiss cultures, languages, religions and geographical areas cohere.

3 Tempering prospect

Unlike other nations, Switzerland has no constitutional court. How can it temper the risk of extreme or unrealistic people’s initiatives hijacking the political system? Here again, the double majority operates as a brake: anyone launching an initiative must also bear in mind that they can only succeed when a majority of cantons is on board.

All this makes the double majority system one of the most important instruments of stability in a country renowned for just that – political and societal stability.

But Switzerland is not unique

  • In US presidential votes, a majority of voters can also be overturned by a majority of electoral college votes. Hillary Clinton’s defeat to Donald Trump in 2016 was a clear example; it has happened five times in total;
  • In Germany, the Bundesrat – the chamber of the regions – ensures federal balance alongside the Bundestag, or parliament;
  • Australia, like Switzerland, requires a double majority when it comes to constitutional changes. Here, due to the de facto two-party system, the mechanism leads to the rejection of around one in ten proposals;
  • In the Philippines, the system is used as a check against “the tyranny of the majority”. Even when collecting signatures for an initiative to change the constitution, not only must 12% of all eligible citizens sign; at least 3% in each of the 243 districts must also.

For and against

The system has its backers. In her reaction to Sunday’s result, Justice Minister Karin Keller-Sutter sang the praises of the double majority system, notably its protection of minority regions. Cantonal authorities themselves – especially the small ones – parliament, and practically all political parties share her view.

Disgruntled voices have naturally come from backers of the responsible business initiative. From their perspective, all the hard work over months and years has been undone by an old political quirk from the last century. Some figures from the political left, from civil society, or from the political science community are also critical of the double majority – which they say hinders political progress.

Reforming an old idea?

They might have a point: Switzerland in 2020 has little in common with Switzerland in 1848. After 170 years, it’s surely legitimate to question if and how the political “business model” of the 21st century could be adapted. And, after all, democracy means debate.

Ideas of how to reform the system have been on the table for years. These include:

  • Raising the required cantonal majority from half to two-thirds;
  • Bypassing the cantonal majority requirement when over 55% of the population votes in favour of an initiative;
  • Introduce a new weighting system: for example, giving big cantons three votes, medium-sized two votes, and small cantons one vote;
  • Getting rid of the double majority requirement altogether.

Does the debate that has flared up this week sound the death-knell for this particularity of Swiss democracy? Not in the slightest: in the end, the double majority system is shielded by the solid protective mechanism of… the cantons themselves. Reforming would mean a constitutional change: something which the majority of cantons would never accept, if it meant a weakening of their position.

With input from Bruno Kaufmann. Translated from German by Domhnall O'Sullivan,

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