Recent constitutional decisions of the majority of the peoples and the cantons of Switzerland

by Thomas Fleiner

In Switzerland, any constitutional amendment can only enter into force when the double majority of the voters of Switzerland and the voters of the cantons have adopted the partial or the general revision of the constitution (Article 140 of the Swiss Constitution). Most constitutional revisions are proposed to the sovereign (majority of the national voters and of the cantonal voters) by the ordinary legislature that is a parliament with a national chamber and a chamber of the cantons. However, many constitutional votes are votes on popular initiatives. This political right of the voters to change the constitution by a particular sentenced formulated by the initiating committee has been introduced already in 1891 (see Article 138 and 139 of the actual constitution).
When the peoples submit to the parliament an initiative to amend the constitution the parliament can support the initiative with the recommendation to adopt the initiative to the sovereign. However, the legislature can also decide to adopt a counterproposal to the initiative. In this case, the committee of the people’s initiative can either withdraw from the initiative or maintain it and require that the sovereign have to decide on both proposals that is either to adopt the constitutional amendment proposed by the people’s initiative or to adopt the counterproposal of the parliament.
In the recent constitutional decisions of the sovereign of ninth of February, the sovereign decided on three constitutional amendments: Two proposals were popular initiatives, which the parliament asked the sovereign to reject, while one proposal has been adopted by the parliament with the recommendation to adopt the constitutional amendment. This proposal concerning the financial support of the public railways has initially been submitted as a popular initiative. The reaction of the parliament was to elaborate a counterproposal. Because the counterproposal contained mainly the ideas of the initiative, the committee of the popular initiative did withdraw from the initiative and support the parliamentary amendment. Finally, the sovereign has adopted this proposal with the majority of 62% yes against 38% no. Only the canton of Schwyz voted against this amendment1.
The amendment contains three different constitutional provisions. It requires the federation and the cantons to guarantee that the offer of the traffic on roads, railways, water and cable cars is sufficient. The federation has to take the main financial burden for the railways. In order to finance this infrastructure the constitution creates a special fond. Taxes for heavy traffic and a small percentage of the added value tax will finance this fond. The main reason, why the sovereign has accepted this provision is certainly the popularity of the railways in Switzerland.
Internationally most important was the vote of the sovereign concerning the initiative against the mass immigration. This popular initiative has been adopted by the peoples with the small majority of only 50.3 % against 49.7% with the majority of 12 cantons and 5 half cantons against eight and one half canton. The French speaking part of Switzerland as well as the town centers rejected the initiative, while the rural German speaking part and the Italian-speaking canton of the Ticino adopted it. The people of the Ticino adopted the initiative because frontier workers accepting lower salaries mostly threaten them.
The constitutional Article, which is now in force, is Article 121a. It has the important title Control of Immigration. In paragraph, one it says that Switzerland regulates immigration independently. In order to have a tool for such control the constitution introduces the quota system. The annual quotas should also include the frontier workers. They have to take into account the overall interests of the economy of the country. The quota system should also respect a priority for Swiss nationals according to the constitution.
With regard to new international treaties. this new article requires Switzerland not to adopt any international treaty, which contradicts this principle. With regard to the actual treaties with the EU and in particular the treaty concerning the freedom of movement the temporary provision of this new constitutional amendment requires that international treaties which contradict Article 121a of the constitution have to be re-negotiated2.
Switzerland with a population of 8 Million has actually some 23.3% of foreigners. Since January 2013 until November 2013, the Swiss population has increased by some 78’500 foreigners minus all Swiss, which did emigrate. These numbers may explain the main reason why one party could convince the small majority of the people to vote in favor of this initiative against the recommendations of the parliament, the federal council, the unions of workers, the economy and almost all other parties. In any case, the opponents of this initiative were not able to convince the majority that this initiative does not solve the problem of immigration but it will create a bunch of new problems.
There was a third initiative against the financial support of abortion by the health insurance. This initiative has been rejected by 68.9% no against 30.2% yes. One half-canton has accepted the initiative3.
The participation of the Swiss citizens to vote was over 55%. This is an exceptional high voting participation for Switzerland. It can only be explained by the fact that the content in particular of the vote concerning mass immigration induced many peoples who abstained usually from voting to use their right in particular to vote as a protest against the political establishment. One has to know, that the Swiss are usually asked to vote four times a year on a national issue. Cantonal and communal issues not included.

1. See
 2. See the full-text in German:
3. See

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