Switzerland’s Direct Democracy under Pressure? Navigating Challenges in a Changing World

This is the introductory blog article for two blog posts created with masters students of Swiss Universities of Applied Sciences receiving the Hirschmann foundation scholarship. The goal for the young group of future decision-makers was to develop creative solutions and innovative outputs on how to tackle the challenges facing direct democracy today.


Military conflicts, climate change, worldwide pandemics, global refugee flows or advancing digitalisation – we live in a world marked by complex and interlocking challenges and changes. When confronted with these issues, whether they extend beyond our national borders or not, Swiss citizens have the unique power of voting on regulations, rules and laws addressing these issues or even take matters into their own hands by proposing ideas for how Switzerland should be governed. This is possible due to our (semi-) direct democracy – a form of government that involves citizens in the political decision-making process like no other. Through instruments such as referendums and initiatives, Swiss citizens are called to the ballot box up to four times a year to vote on up to 15 proposals, giving them a direct say in important decisions. Switzerland is living a direct democracy par excellence. Or not?

Overall satisfaction with our democratic rights amid critical voices 

While a significant majority within the Swiss population is slightly or very happy with their political participation rights, critics began voicing concerns about this form of government as early as in the 1980s, shortly after the popular initiative was introduced. Initiatives colliding with fundamental rights, excluded minorities and increasing polarisation are repeatedly cited as dysfunctions of the system we’re known and renowned for internationally. When former Federal President Simonetta Sommaruga stated eight years ago that “direct democracy means direct responsibility”, she emphasized the need of exercising direct democracy with care and a sense of responsibility to address future political challenges. 

But how can we exercise this responsibility and take care of our direct democracy in today’s fast-paced world? A growing chorus of critics is questioning the timeliness of this system due to an increasing number of annual voting proposals that seem to overwhelm voters, acute crises such as the Covid-19 pandemic or climate change that demand quick decisions, which the long-winded process of direct democracy struggles to provide, or the lack of civic responsibility and low voter turnout, raising the question: “Is direct democracy outdated in today’s rapidly changing world?”

In a joint project organised by foraus, the Hirschmann Foundation and the Lucerne University of Applied Sciences and Arts (HSLU), 27 scholarship holders from various Swiss universities of applied sciences explored the opportunities and challenges of direct democracy, seeking solutions to the question above. The Hirschmann grant holders hail from diverse academic backgrounds, including art and music, natural sciences, architecture or social work, resulting in a diverse, multidisciplinary group. After a kick-off workshop featuring inputs from a professor of political sciences at the University of Bern or experts from the Campus for Democracy, the young adults were able to develop their own ideas and policy recommendations on how to address the issues of direct democracy. With the aim of promoting social responsibility and providing young voices of tomorrow a platform for creative proposals to address political challenges, these students have been working on four projects since March 2024, striving to develop ideas for a better future.  

Incorporating the youth’s ideas for a strong future democracy

After exciting discussions during the workshop evening, the future decision-makers embarked on a multiple week ideation phase to brainstorm and work independently on their projects. The diversity within the groups ensured that individuals from different life situations and backgrounds were able to develop creative strategies and measures based on their own unique experiences, regardless of their professional background or political experience. By involving almost thirty young talents, the project fostered the development of innovative solutions by the generation that will be affected by political decisions for the longest time.

By the beginning of June, the Hirschmann grant holders came up with four different outputs: 

  • A music project about the process of disagreement and compromise and how these must be found in both music and politics.
  • A social media campaign about different forms and possibilities of political participation for people without the right to vote in Switzerland.
  • A blog post about increasing voter turnout by enhancing access to and visibility of multimedia resources.
  • A blog post about increasing voter turnout among young people through educational programmes or contact with politicians.

foraus would like to thank the Hirschmann foundation for their kind support for this project on the challenges of democracy in today’s world.