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Ancient institution looks to the future

Keystone

The "Landsgemeinde", a traditional open-air assembly where citizens vote by a show of hands, has a future if it can adapt, a senior Glarus politician tells swissinfo.

This content was published on May 17, 2006 - 09:37

Senator Fritz Schiesser says the gathering – a democratic institution unique to Switzerland – gives citizens the chance to have their say in public and shape local politics.

Glarus is just one of two Swiss cantons where the Landsgemeinde has stood the test of time over nearly seven centuries.

Every year on the first Sunday in May up to 7,000 citizens meet in the town square around a wooden podium – the so-called stage – to settle the items on the long agenda.

The most controversial point this year was a proposal to reform the local administration in a bid to cut public spending and merge the canton's communes.

Eight Swiss cantons used to hold Landsgemeinden, the only still existing are the mountain region of Glarus and the rural canton Appenzell Inner Rhodes.

swissinfo: What does the Landsgemeinde mean to you as a politician and citizen of Glarus?

Fritz Schiesser: It is the highest democratic authority in the canton. No other authority can overrule the Landsgemeinde on cantonal matters. But of course it is different for the federal level.

The Landsgemeinde embodies the state of Glarus and this can be seen when people gather in the town square.

swissinfo: Only two open-air assemblies have survived. Are they an appropriate political institution for our times?

F.S.: I'm convinced that the Landsgemeinde can keep up with the times simply because no other form of direct democracy gives the citizen such an opportunity to have a say in politics and to shape decisions.

I think there could be serious problems for the future of the Landsgemeinde if a major incident were to sully the event, that is to say if things got out of hand at an assembly and decisions could not be taken.

Over the past few years the Landsgemeinde has always managed to find answers to the political questions and in a democratic style.

I think the authorities, including the town councils, face a bigger challenge than the Landsgemeinde. They have to prepare the canton for the future and to steer it through the 21st century. Just take the plans to merge the canton's 25 communes.

swissinfo: How does the Glarus gathering compare with the only other one in Appenzell Inner Rhodes?

F.S.: Our Landsgemeinde is probably a little bit less festive and solemn than the assembly in Appenzell. But it is at least equal if not superior when it comes to the possibilities for the individual citizen [to actively contribute to the political process].

The gathering in Glarus is also bigger than its counterpart in Appenzell and is therefore possibly more difficult to ensure that it runs smoothly.

swissinfo: What is the highlight of a Landsgemeinde for you personally?

F.S.: It's the moment when the citizens in the square raise their hands to swear an oath to respect the law and to remain committed to the state. Whether they all live up to it is another matter. But for me as well as many others, the oath is like pledging allegiance to the state.

swissinfo: Do you remember the first time you were at an open-air assembly?

F.S.: I started coming to the square as a boy. There was one occasion I can remember very well. I must have been about ten at the time and the mayor of our village was a candidate for a post in the cantonal government.

Unfortunately he lost to another candidate, and that was such a huge disappointment for me and my friends.

swissinfo: What impact has the Landsgemeinde had for your political career?

F.S.: Since early in my life I have been interested in politics and to keen to have a say in public matters. The Landsgemeinde is a key element in this process and it is part of your life.

I will never forget the day when I stood on the podium in the ring for the first time addressing several thousand people.

swissinfo-interview: Urs Geiser

In brief

Glarus is one of two Swiss cantons where citizens gather in an open-air assembly, known as Landsgemeinde.

On average up to 7,000 citizens take part in the assembly which traditionally takes place on the first Sunday in May, in a square in the town of Glarus.

Glarus is a mountain region in eastern Switzerland. There are about 25,000 residents over the age of 18 in the region who have the right to vote.

The region was a key manufacturing centre in the 19th century.

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Key facts

Fritz Schiesser (52) has been a senator for Glarus since 1990.
He has been a member of the Glarus cantonal parliament since 1985 and is president of a regional chapter of the centre-right Radical Party.
Schiesser is a lawyer by trade and lives in Glarus.

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