SWITZERLAND’S SNOW-CAPPED mountains and pistes are among the more picturesque victims of global warming. The Swiss government spent the past two years doing its part to save them (and to meet its obligations under the Paris climate accords) by coming up with a plan to cut carbon emissions. The aim was to reduce net emissions to zero by 2050 by raising energy taxes, encouraging renewable power and so forth. But on June 13th Swiss voters threw a spanner in the works, rejecting the government’s plan in a referendum by 52% to 48%. It was one of eight other issues put to a referendum so far this year. Among other proposals, voters rejected a national electronic ID and approved a “burqa ban” on facial coverings. The Swiss have the most pervasive system of referendums of any country in the world. How does it work (or does it)?

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Referendums are a form of “direct democracy”, in which citizens vote directly on policy questions rather than allowing elected delegates to decide (“representative democracy”). In Switzerland their use dates back roughly to the origins of the modern state in 1848, when the country’s relatively autonomous cantons were bound together into a federal republic. Unifying the cantons was difficult, with differences of language—French, German, Italian and Romansh—and religion. In 1847 Protestant factions defeated Catholic ones in a brief civil war. Several cantons began using referendums to approve laws, and in 1874 the system was introduced nationally in a new federal constitution. In effect, referendums were a concession to get a fissiparous population to countenance a modern central government.

There are three kinds of referendums under Swiss law. “Facultative” or “optional” referendums, such as the one on the climate plan, approve or reject laws that have already been passed by the government, and can be called by getting 50,000 citizens to sign a petition (or by any eight of the 26 canton governments). “Popular initiatives”, such as the burqa ban, are proposals to amend the constitution, and can be called with 100,000 signatures. “Mandatory” referendums are required for constitutional changes or to sign international treaties. To be adopted, a popular initiative must win both a majority of votes nationally and a majority of votes in a majority of the cantons. In most cases a referendum is only the start of a long process: the government must work out legislation to implement the proposals.

Many reformers have admired Swiss direct democracy and the popular legitimacy it confers. The American socialist physician, John Randolph Haynes, looked to Switzerland when he campaigned for a referendum system in California. The state adopted it in 1911 and has been plagued by the consequences ever since, hamstrung by ill-thought-out popular mandates to keep property taxes low and refuse services to undocumented immigrants. In Switzerland, too, it is increasingly difficult to reconcile direct democracy with running a small modern state in the middle of Europe. In 2014 citizens passed a referendum demanding limits on immigration, which would have violated the country’s treaties with the EU. After years of fruitless negotiation, the Swiss government settled for a modest employment preference for locals, and in a subsequent referendum voters rejected a proposal last year that sought tighter controls on immigration. Similarly, the rejection of the climate plan will simply force the government to design a new one. Eventually citizens may have to grudgingly accept a different version of the measures they tried to reject. That, too, is a kind of legitimacy.