Constitution and Democracy

Bundeshaus Bern, die ersten Eidgenossen. Photo/foto: TES.

A Short History of the Constitution

The old Confederation (Eidgenossenschaft) of thirteen cantons or Orte (situation 1513) did not yet have a Constitution or an agreement binding on all cantons. The members were: Appenzeller, Basel, Bern, Freiburg, Glarus, Lucerne, Schaffhausen, Schwyz, Solothurn, Unterwalden, Uri, Zug and Zurich. The Eidgenossenschaft was based on mutual treaties concluded between one or more cantons in a process of centuries.

The first treaties between what would only be called cantons three centuries later date back to the thirteenth century, even before the official date of foundation in 1291. The Eidgenossenschaft has been a process of state-building bottom up from the very beginning. More and more cities or Orte joined until 1513 because of shared economic, military and political interests.

An important moment was the conquest of Aargau from the Habsburgs in 1415. The cantons decided to rule the conquered  and subject area (Untertanengebiet) together ( Gemeine Herrschaft). The Tagsatzung, the general assembly of the cantons, was created for this purpose.

In 1460, Thurgau was also conquered, which meant another subject area for the Eidgenossenschaft. The Burgundian wars (1474-1477), the expansion over the St. Gotthard in the Italian territories (1512) and the conquest of Vaud (1536) led to the joint administration of even more territories.

The Swabian war (Schwabenkrieg or Engadinerkrieg) of 1499 led to the expansion of the Eidgenossenschaft with five new members until 1513. In addition, more and more regions and cities joined as allies (Verbündete ) or connected areas (zugewandte Orte).

The Freistaat St. Gallen, Graubünden, Valais, Geneva, Neuchàtel, but also cities in Germany and France (e.g. Rottweil, Besançon, Mulhouse, Strasbourg, Colmar).  Until 1515 (the Battle of Marignano), the Eidgenossenschaft was a military superpower with no political unity or Constitution in Central Europe.

However, the Eidgenossenschaft even survived the Reformation. This is an indication of the strong bond that existed despite the high level of religious strife and other differences. The Eidgenossenschaft without a Constitution survived mainly thanks to the constitutions, (shared) interests and wisdom of the Orte and cantons.

In Zurich, for example, the reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) was not immediately burned, but was heard by the city council. He even managed to convince them and Zurich became a Protestant city in 1525. The two (Catholic and Protestant) Appenzellers came into being after a referendum in 1597. Protestant Berne remained an ally of Catholic Solothurn and Freiburg.

Until 1798 the Eidgenossenchaft would function without a Constitution. From 1798-1803 the Helvetic Republic was a unitary state with a Constitution according to the French model and principles of unity, legal equality and fraternity.  The subjected areas became cantons (Thurgau, Aargau, Vaud, Tessin) or were lost (Valtellina).  However, the cantons no longer had independence in the unitary state but were merely administrative units.

The Swiss cantons, however, did not fit into the straitjacket of a unitary state. On 19 February 1803, the new (French) Constitution (the  Mediation Act) created a new Confederation of nineteen independent cantons (with the new cantons of St. Gallen and  Graubünden).  The federal government (Der Bund) had hardly any competences, however, only foreign policy (under French supervision).

After Napoleon’s defeat, the New Eidgenossenschaft and the Constitution of the twenty-two cantons (with Geneva, Neuchâtel and Valais as new cantons) came into being on 7 August 1815 by  the Bundesvertrag. The Bund, the federal level,  still had hardly any powers. The cantons were still sovereign states with their own constitutions.

The years 1815-1848 are an important period. The old (oligarchic) structures were back in power in most cantons. However, the ideals of popular sovereignty, (direct) democracy and referendums were unstoppable and received the support of the liberal bourgeoisie.

It caused tensions between and within the cantons, between federalists (confederation) and unionists (unitary state), old structures (ancien régime) and radical-liberal groups, and between Catholic and Protestant cantons. In this complicated situation, the Constitution of 1815 could not be reformed and a short civil war (Sonderbundskrieg) was the climax in 1847.

This escalation did, however, lead to the Constitution of 1848 (after approval by the compulsory referendum). The Constitution was amended one hundred and forty times until 2 000.

Every amendment must be submitted to the People in a mandatory referendum, whether it concerns the first major revision in 1874 (with the optional referendum), the revision of 1891 (People’s Initiative), the introduction of the system of voting system of proportionality (1918), women’s suffrage (1971), the new canton of Jura (1979) and  the major revision of 1999, which, after the referendum, came into force on 1 January 2000.

Most adaptations, however, relate to the granting of new powers to the federal level (der Bund) because of an increasing number of governmental tasks (e.g. in the field of the environment, social security, immigration, transport).

However, the foundations of the Constitution of 1848 have not changed. Switzerland is a confederal, highly decentralised democratic constitutional state where citizens at federal, cantonal and municipal level always have the last say and can control the political parties and their networks.

This unique Constitution, however, is not (or no longer) as hard as the granite of the mountains. Switzerland, as in previous centuries, is surrounded by a fundamentally undemocratic, centralised and monetary, and in other areas megalomaniacal superpower of totally different cultures, backgrounds and fiscal, economic and political systems without a (functioning) Constitution.

This European Union has no people, no trias politica, no (direct) democracy, no system of referendums and no adequate checks and balances and no well-considered policy-making. Most of its Member States are historically, culturally, linguistically and politically unrelated and are also (almost) bankrupt, corrupt or in the hands of local oligarchies.

The Eidgenossenschaft and its Constitution are a successful centuries-old Bottom-up project of cantons and the People. Since 1991, the European Union has become a megalomaniac political top-down project. Switzerland shows the maximum achievable in an alliance of four languages and cultures.

Belgium also shows how difficult it is to manage only two languages and cultures. The European Union will have more than thirty members is the foreseeable future.  Democracy can never be put into perspective, not even at European level.