Glarus, Landsgemeinde. Foto: Glarus, Museum zur Landsgemeinde.

The Landsgemeinde of Glarus

History

The origins of the Landsgemeinde lie in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The first Landsgemeinde was mentioned in a document in Schwyz in 1294. The first mention in Glarus dates back to 1387.

It is no coincidence that this institution arose in the time that the Orte (the name cantons dates from the sixteenth century) Schwyz, Obwalden, Unterwalden, and Uri took an increasingly independent position towards the Habsburger Emperor and German Kings of the Holy Roman Empire,  and powerful abbeys (among others Einsiedeln, Engelberg and Säckingen).

The Landsgemeinde, however, finds its direct origin in settling disputes between and within the Orte and agreements on grazing land, trade and other economic topics. The free farmers organised themselves in the so-called Markgenossenschaften to manage common grazing land.

The opening of the Gotthard Pass in the years 1220-30 was also important.  Trade with northern Italy and its city republics increased dramatically. Perhaps these sovereign republics inspired the Orte, who participated directly in this trade and had access to Northern Italy.

Moreover, in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the Habsburg Emperor granted the Orte de facto independent territories, the Reichsunmittelbarkeit. Furthermore, the Emperor suffered one military defeat against the wayward Orte, starting with Morgaten in 1315.

The first documented Landsgemeinde of Glarus in 1387 was also the first Constitution of Glarus.

By the way, the term Landsgemeinde only appeared for the first time in the fifteenth century. In 1387, it refers to the “Gemeinde der Landleute”.

Voting rights were granted to all male citizens who had completed their military service (over the age of 14 or 16) and were residents of Glarus. The Constitution contained two important provisions: the principle of most votes counted, and the Landsgemeinde always had the last word. In other words, the individual citizens were the sovereign, not a few (powerful) families or functions.

Although the Landsgemeinde has serious shortcomings by today’s standards and the political reality, including vote-buying, was often more intractable, it was a unique institution in Europe. Nowhere else did individual citizens have the last word.

Tasks

The Landsgemeinde appointed the government, the mayor (Landammann), judges, tax collectors and other officials, was the legislator, concluded (international) treaties and decided on war and peace.

Reformation 1529

The Landsgemeinde proved its worth during the Reformation. While the rest of Europe was in flames, the citizens of Glarus in the Landsgemeinde decided in 1529 that both religions (Protestant and Catholic) were allowed.

The citizens and their parishes decided on their religion. The result was a predominantly Catholic northern part of the canton and a predominantly Protestant southern part. The Constitution in 1532 even incorporated the principle of religious freedom.

It was also unique in sixteenth-century Europe. Other cantons decided similarly. In Zurich, the government (Grosse Rat) voted to introduce the Protestant faith. In Appenzell, the citizens split into a Catholic Appenzell Innerrhoden and a Protestant Appenzell Ausserrhoden in 1597.

The Eidgenossenschaft as a whole (the thirteen cantons of 1501) did experience a few short religious military conflicts in 1529 and 1531 (the Kappeler Wars) and 1656 and 1712 (Villmerger Wars). Still, these were economically rather than religiously inspired. Moreover, they were mere trifles compared to the (civil) wars in the rest of Europe.

Of course, the emergence of two religions did lead to significant (personal) tensions, a catholic and a protestant baker or butcher, for example, the pillarisation, was also a reality. However, the political system kept the peace, which is the (unique) merit of the Landsgemeinde and its citizens.

1798-2021

The Landsgemeinde functioned until 1798, when the French occupiers created the Helvetic Republic (1798-1803). The Landsgemeinde was abolished.

It led to so much resistance in Glarus and the other 12 cantons that Napoleon 1803 reintroduced the Confederation (1803-1813) of sovereign cantons, including the Landsgemeinde Glarus, in the so-called Mediation Act.

The Landsgemeinde of Glarus has been functioning since 1815, and the current Swiss Confederation in 1848. Together with the Landsgemeinde of Appenzell Innerrhoden, it is the world’s last ‘largest parliament’.

Proceedings

Its functioning, symbolism, voting procedures (raising hands with ballot papers) and powers have not changed significantly. What has changed is the composition (with women since 1971) and the voting on many more tasks.

The Landsgemeinde meets on the first Sunday in May (except in this Coronation period, on 5 September 2021, with the obligation to wear a mask) in the so-called Ring on Landsgemeindeplatz. Between 6 000 and 9, 000 people are entitled to vote  (out of approximately 30 000 people citizens).

The schedule and topics are sent out well in advance. Those entitled to vote can request speaking time, propose changes, or introduce bills prepared and discussed before the Landsgemeinde takes place.

The citizens directly elect the government. The cantonal parliament (Landrat) has limited powers and is not a legislator. It is elected by direct suffrage.

All kinds of procedures precede the actual Landsgemeinde. The proposals and other items are precisely regulated in the so-called Traktanda (see: www.landsgemeinde.gl.ch).

Discussion

The Landsgemeinde not only enjoys (international and scientific) interest but is also the centre of attention regarding its functioning. advantages and disadvantages.

As is often the case, there is much to be said for both points of view. What is certain is that this institute must continue to adapt to social changes.

The most frequently cited shortcomings are the low participation rate (around 30% of those entitled to vote), the absence of secret ballots (), the complexity of the issues, the opportunity for ‘populists’ and the lack of expertise among citizens (the same objections are often used against the referendum), electronic voting or voting at the ballot box is much more effective and accessible, and representative democracy is a good alternative.

Some arguments have merit; others (populism, lack of expertise) do not.

The most heard argument for the Landsgemeinde is the public discussion and control of the government and the power of the citizens over the (Constitution) law, budget and policy. Once a year, politicians are called to account by the citizens in a public debate.

The citizens are the legislators and are directly involved in the political process. This political constellation does not have a caste of politicians and their officials. For example, in the Netherlands, only 1% of the citizens are political party members, but they decide.

Moreover, the citizens can only point to themselves because they make the decisions. They are the politicians. In practice, citizens provide factual arguments and submit well-founded proposals.

The speeches at the Landsgemeinde are always well-founded, and there is no place for the much-feared populism. Moreover, it is not just a matter of ‘yes’ or ‘no’. Participation in the (preceding) procedures and discussions in the media are just as relevant. The citizen is not as stupid as is often claimed, at least not in Glarus (and Switzerland).

Conclusion

The Landsgemeinde is under a magnifying glass in Glarus because of its valid disadvantages. However, the advantages still outweigh the disadvantages, and few consider abolishing it. Of course, only the Landsgemeinde can abolish the Landsgemeinde. A citizen submitted a request to this effect in 2009. Nobody spoke, not even the petitioner, and they unanimously rejected the proposal.

The sensible decision-making during the Reformation in 1529, Europe’s first social legislation in 1848 and 1864, the municipal mergers from 24 to 3 municipalities in 2006, the right to vote for 16-year-olds in 2007 and the election of the government by secret ballot show that it is not a relic from the past, but a living mechanism, with all its advantages and disadvantages.

The Landsgemeinde is not a folkloristic l’art pour l’art but a serious direct democratic institution and concept.

Das Wort ist frei, and the debate is open every first Sunday of May (5 September 2021).

(Source: L. Leuzinger, Ds Wort isch fri, Zurich 2018; www.landsgemeinde.gl.ch; Glarus, Museum zur Landsgemeinde).