Liestal, Regierungs- und Landratsgebäude. Foto/Photo: TES.

Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft

Nothing is forever, not even in Switzerland. The creation of the new canton of Jura in 1979, the choice of Moutier (canton of Bern) by referendum in 2021 to join the canton of Jura in 2026 or, for example, the mergers of municipalities

Switzerland is also the outcome of a process of centuries, as the new publication by François Walter (Text), Marco Zanoli (Maps), Historischer Atlas der Schweiz (Zurich, 2021) shows. The canton of Basel also has a similar history.

Canton of Basel

The Canton of Basel became a member of the Eidgenossenschaft or Confederation in 1501. The city of Basel was the most important political and economic municipality of the canton. An oligarchy of guilds and merchants governed the town and the Landschaft.

After the Reformation of 1527-1528, the last aristocratic families left the town or were absorbed into the bourgeoisie. The bishop and his chapter left for Porrentruy (Pruntrut in today’s canton of Jura). The bishop was also a prince in the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, hence the title prince-bishop and prince-bishopric.

However, he kept his property and estates, which extended into Alsace, southern Germany and the current cantons of Jura, Bern, Basel and Basel-Landschaft. This situation ended during the French invasion in 1792-1798 and the Congress of Vienna in 1815. The end of French rule marked the beginning of restoring the ancien régime of the Basel oligarchy.

Town Hall (Rathaus)

Canton of Basel-Landschaft

However, the old days did not return to the canton Basel. The towns, municipalities and farming communities of the Landschaft did not accept the political dominance of the urban oligarchy anymore.

The economic and demographic changes caused new realities. Firstly, almost twice as many people lived in the Landschaft than in Basel. Secondly, the Landschaft had become much more prosperous and self-confident since the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, partly due to the flourishing textile industry.

The population of the Landschaft demanded more participation in political decision-making. It caused disagreement with the canton’s government, which after 1815 was effectively back in the hands of the old ruling class from before 1798.

From 1830 onwards, the citizens of the Landschaft organised themselves, partly inspired by the uprising in Paris in that year. A referendum showed a majority in favour of a split. However, the government did not accept this outcome.

It caused the period of the “Basler Wirren” and armed interventions by the militia of the city of Basel. The inhabitants of the Landschaft adopted, following a referendum on 17 March 1832, a constitution for the new canton Basel-Landschaft (Baselbiet or Baselland)

Not all communes agreed, however. It was a complex situation. In fact, there was a kind of civil war within the Landschaft, as evidenced by a proclamation of 20 August 1831 from supporters of secession: “Jeder der zu Gunsten von Basel agiert oder Proklamationen verteilt, wird volgelfrei erklärt“.

The situation threatened to get out of hand with a new military expedition by Basel, which ended in defeat on 3 August 1833. The Tagzatzung, the meeting of the cantons, then intervened. On 26 August 1833, a large majority decided to split the canton into the cantons Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft. Liestal became the capital of the new canton and the seat of government and parliament (Landrat).

The new canton Basel-Stadt accepted the decision of the other cantons and adopted a new constitution on October 3, 1833.

The unification of the two cantons and referendums 

In 1863, the canton Basel-Landschaft (informally Baselbiet or Baselland) was one of the first cantons (except the cantons with a Landsgemeinde) to introduce direct democracy: the election of the government (Regierung) and the parliament (Landrat) by the citizens, the right to vote out a member of parliament at any time, the right of initiative (Initiative), and the obligatory referendum (obligatorisches Gesetzesreferendum) on new legislation.

One of the first referendums, held on 4 March 1864, abolished the “Niemals Beschluss” of reunifying the two cantons. From 1900, there was indeed a strong movement in the two cantons to achieve reunification.

A referendum in 1936 led to preparations for reunification. Then came the Second World War, and the momentum was lost. However, a new referendum in Basel-Landschaft in 1958 confirmed the wish of the majority to unify both cantons.

Two events thwarted this project: Basel-Landschaft was economically successful in the 1960s. The canton was even the economically most robust growing canton. The development reduced the inclination to merge with the relatively poorer canton of Basel-Stadt.

The second factor was the introduction of women’s suffrage in the canton in 1968. On 7 December 1969, women overwhelmingly voted against unification in the referendum for a unified canton Basel.

A new era? Eric Nussbaumer (SP), canton Basel-Landschaft, President of the Federal Council in 2024 (third from left) Eva Herzog (SP), canton Basel-Stadt, President of the Council of States in 2024 (fourth from left), on 6 December after their appointments. Beat Jans (SP), president of the canton’s government, fifth from left.

Cooperation and cantonal treaties

Although the cantons have been cooperating since this referendum in more and more areas, the citizens of Basel-Stadt rejected reunification in a new referendum in September 2014.

For example, the two cantons concluded agreements as sovereign republics regarding health care and education. The citizens in both cantons have the final say, however. The citizens of Basel-Stadt, for instance, rejected the merger of hospitals in a referendum, while the citizens of Basel-Landschaft voted in favour. Even the dates of Fasnacht differ, but there has never been a referendum on this issue.

(Source: R. Teuteberg, Basler Geschichte, Basel 1988).