What keeps Switzerland together?


One of the marvels of federalism in Switzerland is its power to unify a country that has vast linguistic, religious and cultural divides.

This content was published on August 22, 2002 - 13:29

With so many differences Switzerland would seem to have little chance of holding together.

But Switzerland is united as today as it has ever been.

One reason for this cohesion, says Gregory Fossedal, title and author of Direct Democracy, is the system of direct democracy. It gives every Swiss citizen the right to call for a vote on any issue at any level - local, cantonal or national, provided they can collect enough signatures in support of their proposal.

Another reason lies in the powers devolved to the each of the country's 26 cantons, which have considerable freedom to interpret national law.

"Imagine living in a country where every single person was a member of parliament," Fossedal told swissinfo. "That's the kind of power direct democracy gives every Swiss citizen."

That would be seen as an exaggeration by some, but it illustrates the fact that Swiss citizens can get involved at any level of the political process.

Grassroots power

Direct democracy empowers people and involves them in the political decision-making process. The Swiss vote more often than anyone else in the world. They can expect to vote on national issues about four times a year and that gives them the sense, says Fossedal, that they have the power to influence politics at the highest level.

When votes on communal and cantonal issues are included, along with elections for local parliaments, it is clear, says Fossedal, that Switzerland has one of the most politically aware and active populations in the world.

"The Swiss do not just elect representatives to the national parliament once every four years and then forget about politics," says Hans Hirter, a political scientist at the University of Bern. "They are constantly involved [in politics] and have a strong sense of civic responsibility."

Hirter says Swiss federalism permits a far greater decentralisation of power than in many other countries. "Many decisions are made at a communal or cantonal level," he says. "The cantons are responsible for executing and adapting laws to suit their own needs and this too helps provide a sense of unity and empowerment."

Interpreting federal law

Until a national vote in June that will come into effect on October 1, abortion has been illegal in Switzerland. But regional health authorities have been responsible for interpreting the law and many Protestant and urban cantons have allowed terminations to take place.

It is an example, says Hirter, of the very pragmatic approach to federalism in Switzerland. Placing so much power in the hands of the cantons also leads to many innovations, particularly in the field of social policy.

"The drive to give drug addicts free medically controlled drugs came from cities such as Zurich and Bern," says Hirter. "They were more than ten years ahead of a national policy on the same issue.

"If you compare Switzerland to other federal countries such as Germany, you see how much more regional or cantonal autonomy there is. Hamburg tried for 15 years to introduce the same drugs policy as Zurich but was blocked by the national government."

Changing majorities

Both Fossedal and Hirter make the point that although decisions are made on the principle of majority rule, it is not always the same majority that decides.

"The fact that direct democracy can cut across so many cleavages means that maybe on one issue an Italian-speaker in Zurich will find a political alliance with someone from the Protestant minority in Zug," says Fossedal.

"The fact that people are involved in changing combinations on different issues helps bind everything together"

Fossedal says direct democracy is the single most important factor that sets Switzerland apart from other countries in which people have had much more trouble reconciling internal differences.

By Jonathan Summerton

federalism summary

Switzerland's special brand of federalism keeps the country together, despite cultural, linguistic and religious differences.

One reason for this is direct democracy, which gives Swiss citizens the power to call for votes on any issue.

Another reason is decentralisation of powers to the 26 cantons, which allows them to adapt laws to their own needs.

Direct democracy sets Switzerland apart from other countries.

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