Votes & Voices
Swiss Campaign Posters 1918–Today
Ever since the foundation of the federal state in 1848, the Swiss population has been actively involved in political decision-making through the rules of direct democracy. Popular initiatives and referendums form the basis of municipal, cantonal or federal plebiscites. Time and again, the issues at stake make feelings run high and lead to fierce ideological battles. Testimony to these disputes are campaign posters, which have sought to influence public opinion since the early 20th century. Clichés, undifferentiated simplifications, a repertoire of drastic motifs and catchy slogans correspond to the laws of the medium, whose aim is direct mass manipulation. Over time, however, many well-known artists and designers have also created posters that have imprinted themselves upon Switzerland’s collective visual memory and have become icons of Swiss poster art.
After the Second World War, widespread de-ideologization and new advertising strategies gradually calmed the previously heated mood. Yet besides the many harmless campaign posters committed to political correctness, just as many posters seen in today’s streets reject a consensus-oriented aesthetic and continue to spark political discussion.
This is illustrated by two posters at the beginning of the exhibition. To rally support against women’s suffrage, Otto Baumberger’s 1920 poster depicts a woman actively engaged in political events as a highly unattractive, wildly gesticulating hyena. The 2009 poster advocating a ban on minarets, which attracted widespread international attention, springs from the same conservative circles. Typecasting a Muslim woman veiled in a niqab as an enemy, this poster also accuses Islam of backwardness and a lack of female self-determination.
TheVotes & Voicesexhibition presents visual argumentation strategies and a pictorial rhetoric that have shaped Swiss campaign posters from 1918 to the present. As sensitive indicators of socio-political moods, and as valuable contemporary documents, the exhibits reflect not only the history of Swiss mentality but also global trends.
Referendums as an instrument of direct democracy
Referendums are held at all political levels in Switzerland (municipal, cantonal, federal). They are a central instrument of direct democracy and thus an important element of Switzerland’s concordant political system. Around half of all referendums worldwide are held in Switzerland.
Referendums enable the electorate to vote on bills based on popular initiatives or on political transactions submitted on the basis of a mandatory or optional referendum:
- Petitions calling for a referendum require 100,000 signatures demanding a constitutional amendment within 18 months. Petitions are initiated by citizens, interest groups and parties, though not by the federal government or parliament. Parliament reserves the right to draw up a counter-proposal.
- In mandatory referendums, the electorate decides on constitutional amendments to be adopted by parliament, on accession to collective security organisations or supranational communities, and on urgently declared federal laws lacking a constitutional basis and whose validity exceeds one year.
- In optional referendums, the electorate votes on a decree or directive enacted by parliament (e.g. federal laws, important international treaties). If requested by at least 50,000 voters or eight cantons within one hundred days of official publication, the bill already adopted will be subject to a referendum.
All Swiss nationals over 18 years of age are entitled to vote at federal level, irrespective of whether they are living in Switzerland or abroad when votes are cast. In certain cantons, foreigners may vote at municipal level and subject to certain conditions. Voting participation depends crucially on the content of a bill and averages around 45% at federal level.
The acceptance or rejection of a bill is decided by a simple majority of the votes cast. At federal level, cantonal results are also considered in petitions or mandatory referendums. In such votes, both the majority of all voters (popular majority) and the majority of cantons (majority of states) must agree to the adoption of a bill.
Since the foundation of the federal state in 1848, the Swiss electorate has been called to the ballot box to vote on 599 federal bills. 285 were accepted, 314 rejected. The proportion of rejected proposals is very high, especially in the case of petitions. Only 22 were accepted and 181 were rejected in this period.
Nevertheless, petitions represent an important impetus for political change in Switzerland’s direct democracy. Even the threat of such initiatives may suffice for the legislator to take action. It is no coincidence that the number of petitions has increased steadily since the 1980s: while only 75 initiatives were submitted in the first 132 years, 128 have been submitted in the last 35 years.