Total Recall, Swiss Style

The right to recall elected officials is well known in many American countries and US states, but less so in other parts of the world. However, six out of 26 states in Switzerland, do also know this popular right. But is very seldom used, as political scientist Uwe Serdült at the Centre for Democracy Studies Aarau (ZDA) underlines in this interview with swissinfo-journalist Patricia Islas.

Patricia Islas: People elsewhere in the world would dream about a citizens tool to recall governments, yet in Switzerland, the existing instrument is hardly ever used. Why is that so?

Uwe Serdült: It is a means of last resort that can be applied when all other control mechanisms fail. Recalling governing bodies by citizens began between the middle and end of the 19th century, in other words during the formation of the modern nation state, when Switzerland became the organised and peaceful country that we know today. After the right was introduced, other mechanisms followed, such as the referendum and the people´s initiative, which allowed a law to be stricken or to introduce a constitutional amendment, without having to dissolve a government or parliament. The efficiency of the justice system and various tools for accountability in public institutions were then added. In Switzerland today, cases involving politicians´ incompetence or corruption are resolved mainly through legal means, media pressure or internal reorganisation.

How is the right to recall implemented in Switzerland and how often has the tool been employed?

The right does not exist at federal level. Only six out of the 26 cantons regulate it. These are Bern, Schaffhausen, Solothurn, Thurgau, Uri and Ticino. Uri and Ticino also offers the right of recall at municipal levels. A minimum number of signatures is required - between 2% and 30% of the electorate - to lead to the removal of a parliament or the government, or both, without identifying precise individuals, thus distinguishing the process from those in other countries. If a majority of votes is achieved, the public body is dissolved and new members are elected, with mandates lasting until regular elections are called. There have only been a dozen attempts to activate the mechanism. Four times it came to a vote and only once, in 1862 it was accepted, in the canton of Aargau. The most recent examples occurred in Ticino, where the recall process was limited to the government, including once at cantonal level in 2008 and in 2011 at the municipal level (in Bellinzona).

The only successful recall vote in Switzerland occurred 154 years ago and dealt with an anti-Semitic issue.

Yes. Aargau´s parliament, which was liberal and Protestant, wanted to grant land legally to allow for the emancipation of Jews, who had only been allowed to settle in two poor, rural Catholic villages within the canton, in Endingen and Lengnau.

Several Catholic leaders, together with a few Protestant groups, launched a protest movement. Jewish homes were attacked and the revocation right was invoked. They had to collect 6,000 signatures. They obtained 9,000 in less than one month, and in July 1862, 63% of votes supported the termination of the parliament´s mandate. The government resigned and called new elections.

Recalls around the world

Switzerland was one of the first countries to recognise the right to recall a mandate. Today the right exists, according to different rules in several other countries, including the US, Germany, Poland, Peru, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Argentina and Venezuela (International IDEA offers a database around recall tools).

The six Swiss cantons, which provide for this tool of direct democracy are:
- Bern, since 1846, for government and parliament.
- Solothurn, since 1869, for government and parliament.
- Schaffhausen: since 1876 for government and parliament.
- Ticino: since 1892, for cantonal government and since 2011 for municipal governments.
- Uri, since 1915 for all cantonal and municipal elected bodies.

Aargau (1852-1980), Basel Country (1863-1984) and Lucerne (1975-2007) abolished the right. At the national level, however, the popular election and recall of the government do not exist. Since 1900, several people´s initiatives have unsuccessfully sought to allow for the election of the national government. The most recent, in 2013, promoted by the Swiss People´s Party, was rejected by 76% of the electorate.

The recall allowed a profound popular malaise to be put on trial amid a budding democratic process.

It is important to remember that the tool was used when memories of serious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants were still fresh. Unlike the situation before 1848, these opposing forces now clashed on an institutional level, and no longer on a battlefield. For a long time, there had been revolutions and radical changes, and the time had come to organise modern Switzerland. A few cantons had openly suggested that the right to revoke mandates be set up to avoid revolutions. It was a justification to avoid violence. The revocation right could be a security valve to channel popular discontent via a political institution, and within a political process.

Is the recall right disappearing within the Swiss context?

The historic trend appears to be so. Only six out of the nine cantons that originally adopted it still maintain the right. In the canton of Ticino, with three failed attempts to recall officials, and where the political elite sometimes becomes involved in fierce political disputes, the mechanism was extended to municipal levels. It appears that there still is a need to maintain the institution, especially on a local level. Certain recent scandals have shown that some citizens are demanding the mechanism in cantons that do not have it.

Given difficulties in the national parliament in recent years, for political parties to agree upon the composition of the seven-member cabinet, wouldn´t it make sense that citizens elect the government directly or recall it?

There already have been unsuccessful people´s initiatives to allow citizens – and not parliament – to elect the government. Theoretically, it could be possible that an initiative demand the right the recall the mandate of the cabinet, even if the election of the government by the parliament is maintained. Nonetheless, I do not believe that such a proposal would be backed in a vote. Several studies indicate that the consensus between the population and the government has diminished slightly, from 80% to approximately 65% in recent years. The level of agreement is still relatively high.

With our consensus-style politics – aimed at respecting linguistic and cultural diversity, as well as maintaining a balance between interests in urban and rural areas – I do not know if it would be right to leave the election, or revocation of the government, in the hands of the citizens. I think that this could provoke a major polarisation, or open cultural breaches that do not exist today.
Personally, I am opposed to it. The competence belongs to the parliament.

Why is it interesting to discuss the recall right in Switzerland?

A number of political experts elsewhere – such as in Peru, where thousands of elected authorities have been recalled - asked us how it worked in Switzerland. We then published the book entitled "The dose towards poison", on the situation in Latin America, the United States and Switzerland. The issue is of importance in other countries, such as Ecuador and Venezuela. Together with colleagues from Poland and Japan, we are currently preparing a book on recall in those countries.

Patricia Islas from our hosting media partner swissinfo.ch talked to Uwe Serdült, who is the vice-director at the Centre for Research on Direct Democracy (c2d) within the Centre for Democracy Studies Aarau at the University of Zurich. Together with Yanina Welp, he edited the volume "Dose towards poison: Analysis of term revocation in Latin America, the United States and Switzerland" (in Spanish), where he included an article on the Swiss example: "The history of a dormant institution: Legal norms and the practice of recall in Switzerland". The english version of this article (which also i available in German and Spanish) was translated by Paula Dupraz-Dobias. (Arnold Schwarzenegger was elected as Californian Governor after the 2003 recall vote, picture by Bruno Kaufmann)