The Swiss Militia System
5 April 2023
One of the essential characteristics of Swiss democracy is its militia system ( Milizsystem, système de milice). It means that the citizens make, form and supervise the state at all levels, the res republica.
The system is a centuries-old concept of the “Landsgemeinde” (the cantonal assembly) in the so-called Urschweiz, i.e. the cantons in central Switzerland.
Switzerland (die Schweiz ) derives its name from the canton of Schwyz. Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden concluded a treaty of cooperation around 1300. This covenant was confirmed by an oath (Eid), hence the name Eidgenossenschaft.
The (male) inhabitants had the last say in the Landsgemeinde. The (male) citizens voted by raising their hands on a square in the commune. (Nowadays, this only happens in the cantons of Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden).
The Landsgemeinde of Appenzell Innerrhoden. Photo: Living Traditions in Switzerland
The militia system is one of the pillars of Swiss democracy, in addition to direct democracy, federalism and the composition of the government on a broad and stable basis (Konkordanzsystem and Zauberformel).
Citizens actively participate in political decision-making in executive bodies at the local level, in the Confederation parliaments (in the National Council (Nationalrat) or the Council of States (Ständerat)), cantons and municipalities, and in numerous committees in municipalities, cantons and at the national level.
The parade of the Basel Tattoo, September 2022, with veterans of the highly respected militia army
This idea of participation is reflected in the Federal Constitution (Art. 6):
Individual and Social Responsibility. Each person assumes responsibility for him/herself and contributes according to his/her ability to fulfil the tasks in the state and society.
(Individuelle und gesellschaftliche Verantwortung. Jede Person nimmt Verantwortung für sich selber wahr und trägt nach ihren Kräften zur Bewältigung der Aufgaben in Staat und Gesellschaft bei.)
Militia work represents political participation and is done voluntarily. The work is unpaid, although participants receive an allowance. They (the participants) do not make a living from politics and are not professional politicians.
Militia work differs from voluntary work in associations, clubs, schools or organisations. Militia work is always a part-time political activity for the state (the Confederation, the canton or the municipality).
The militia system promotes and strengthens political participation at the federal level and in cantons and municipalities.
This culture of participation reduces the distance between the political elite and the citizens. The Citizens also come into contact with politics at an early stage.
The system also promotes the legitimacy of political decisions. The citizens are the politicians: there is less state bureaucracy and lower state expenses.
Geneva, September 2022
Citizens participate as volunteers or part-time municipal, cantonal or federal politicians. This involves a wide range of activities in governments, parliaments, councils and in other state organisations, such as the army.
Politicians at the federal, cantonal or municipal level are, in theory, part-time politicians. They often exercise another profession in addition to their political office.
The citizens have thus not delegated politics to a political caste, but they are the politicians. The fact that many politicians earn their income in politics does not detract from this principle.
However, it is increasingly difficult to find (qualified) candidates for political office, and the system is under pressure for various reasons, such as media attention and stress, individualisation, professionalisation, globalisation and individual hedonism in a prosperous country.
Geneva, September 2022
Advantages and disadvantages
The advantages of the system more than outweigh its disadvantages. First and foremost, the system promotes cohesion between the various social groups and social networks. Many politicians have the essential experience, knowledge and commitment. They do not belong to the political or bureaucratic establishment. The quality of politicians is often of a high level.
Citizens and media have a critical attitude towards the political and bureaucratic system. It is based on the view that the perfect state does not exist. For this reason, citizens take responsibility and participate in politics.
This critical attitude also exists in the media, concerning, among others, the European Union. The media are certainly not an echo of each other and the establishment. ‘Alternativlosigkeit’ has no place in the Swiss political system.
The age-old “Milizsystem” is not old-fashioned or outdated but very modern, particularly in today’s digital age. Citizens do not see the (central) government as an ‘enemy’ but as a democracy for and by the citizens. They are the government.
The second principle is decentralisation. The ‘Heimat’, ‘Ort’ and Canton are the most important references of citizens and not (abstract) geographical spaces and (utopian) ideologies.
It does not alter that the “Milizsystem” is under pressure. This res republica can only exist with the active participation of the citizens.
(Source: M. Freitag, P. Bundi, F. Witzig, Milizarbeit in der Schweiz, Basel 2019).
Bern, House of the Cantons