How the virus puts the Swiss political system to test

The Swiss parliament building decorated with the flags from the cantons on the occasion of Swiss National Day. The search for a balance of power is under negotiation. Keystone/Edi Engeler

News conferences and statements by politicians these days allow observers a privileged insight into the inner workings of the Swiss political system and the balance of power between the national and the regional (or cantonal) authorities.

This content was published on March 27, 2020 - 17:33

Ever since the national government began issuing orders to curb the spread of the coronavirus – gradually limiting the freedom of individuals, all but closing down public life – at the end of February, the differences of opinion between the Swiss government and several of the 26 cantons have become apparent.

Be it the closure of constructions sites and factories, ski resorts, creches, the limitations on major public events and private gatherings (from a maximum of 1,000 at the end of February to five on March 20), a curfew for elderly people or easing the rules on unemployment benefits:

Certainly, to an outside observer and notably the media, it came across as chaotic, prompting calls for strong leadership from the national authorities.

“No, there’s no stalemate,” Interior Minister Alain Berset said at a news conference, dismissing the allegations that the national government and the authorities in canton Ticino had not been able to resolve their differences over the application of national regulations at a local level.

Berset spent much time, trying to explain to journalists what policy principles the Swiss government applies and upholds.

“We have to remain united in difficult times like now. Differences of opinion have to be discussed between the players at the table,” he said. “What we need now is plenty of good will and pragmatism to find a solid solution.”

Slow but safe

There is no shortage of experts who have expressed alarm over the apparent tensions between the various levels of government. Others have criticised how slow and cumbersome the federalist system and the search for a consensus are.

Sociologist Katja Rust wants to speed up procedures by skipping the phase of consultations usually involving lengthy discussions, which would circumvent the traditional way of reaching a compromise.

“This strategy does not work in times of crises,” she said in an interview with newspapers of the Tamedia publishing house.

The question whether cantonal autonomy is a slowing down procedures is one thing, and the unanimous answer appears to be - yes, it does.

But the real issue is whether the slow pace necessarily produces less favourable results than a centralist, top-down system.

Both Andreas Ladner,External link political scientist at Lausanne University and political expert Claude LongchampExternal link, of  the GfS Bern research institute point out that central governments, notably in France and Britain, are not more efficient in handling crises.

Flexible and innovative

“Federalism produces adequate solutions, certainly in the long-term,” says Longchamp. “It is more flexible and innovative.”

Ladner adds that it is crucial how the players adhere to the federalist system and how the cantons cooperate among themselves and with the national government.

For Longchamp, federalism certainly has its downside. It makes strategic thinking very difficult, which is apparent in Switzerland’s troubled efforts to find a coherent policy on relations with the European Union, he argues.

Ladner for his part, points out that tensions between the national and the cantonal autonomy are part and parcel of Swiss politics, but the tension between the two has become more visible now.

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Legislation on environmental issues or policy reforms of drugs, for instance, were introduced via trials at the local level as part of a national solution that overruled cantonal autonomy.

Impact of the Covid-19 crisis

Despite some hiccups, Switzerland’s federalism, guaranteeing regional diversity and the inclusion of minorities, has stood the test during the current Covid-19 crisis.

No reason then for a major overhaul of the system, both experts agree.

Longchamp says the current crisis by no means spells the end of cantonal autonomy, but it could lead to a growing awareness of national responsibilities.

“Federalism will prevail because it is in Switzerland’s DNA,” he says, explaining federalism’s roots in the history of the cantons going back to the Middle Ages. It became a tenet of the political system of the modern Swiss state founded in 1848.

Some experts even argue that it is as important if not more important than the principle of direct democracy – the possibility of citizens’ participation in the process of political decision making.


There are sufficient examples to show that when the national government has moved to temporarily suspend or curb cantonal autonomy and parliament, it has not destroyed the federalist balance of power.

A federal tax introduced during the First World War is a remnant of the federal government asserting its sovereignty, and the period of authoritarian rule introduced during the Second World War lasted beyond 1945. It took several years before centralised power was reined in and parliament regained its constitutional right.

Pragmatism seems to have prevailed to a large extent in Swiss politics. It would therefore be no real surprise if the current tensions between cantons and the national government were to last.

So far, all the disputes over inconsistent implementation or violation of a national Covid-19 regulation by a cantonal or local authority have been resolved. But there is no guarantee that differences will not emerge again.

This is where another feature of Swiss politics comes in: consensus and compromise, albeit with a degree of political posturing during the search for an acceptable solution. Each side must be allowed to save face.

The plea for goodwill, pragmatism and unity by Interior Minister Berset was hardly a coincidence.

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