The Landsgemeinde and Direct Democracy
23 March 2021
For a good understanding of the emergence and functioning of direct democracy in Switzerland a (historical) knowledge of the Landsgemeinde is indispensable.
This article is limited to a broad outline of the subject. It shows that the basis of Swiss direct democracy is centuries old. The political choice in the nineteenth century was the result of fierce discussions and profound controversies, however, the introduction of direct democracy was not self evident.
A Landsgemeinde cannot be translated literally. The medieval Landsgemeinde was a political organisation on a territory with far-reaching autonomy, self-government and direct democracy for the (male) citizens of the various communes. A canton or district in the current sense is probably the closest equivalent.
The Landsgemeinde was the sovereign of the sovereign and independent cantons.
The concept of direct democracy was and is unique in Europe and far beyond.
There were large and small Landsgemeinde. This political unit originated in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries in eight present-day cantons: Appenzell Innerrhoden, Appenzell Ausserrhoden (until 1597 Appenzell), Zug, Uri, Schwyz, Glarus, Obwalden and Nidwalden.
Furthermore, there are similar institutions in Graubünden (Gerichte) and in Valais (Zenden or Dizains).
In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, the Landsgemeinde was still (formally) part of the territory of the Lord, usually a count or an abbot. However, The House of Habsburg played an increasingly prominent role in this region.
The bailiff (Landvogt) represented the Lord. He governed the territory and on the (annual) assemblies (Landtage) spoke on behalf of the Lord.
Due to the difficult accessibility of central Switserland, the Landsgemeinde and the Ammann, the highest official of the Landsgemeinde, replaced the Bailiff and the authority of the Lord.
At the end of the thirteenth/beginning of the fourteenth century, the Landsgemeinde effectively exercised jurisdiction, legislation and administration in the cantons of Uri, Schwyz, Obwalden and Nidwalden. They are the so-called ‘Urkantone’ of the Federation.
They were in fact small farming and trading republics. The alliance of the first Eidgenossen (1291), the legend of William Tell, the battles against the Habsburgs (including Morgarten 1315 and Sempach 1386) and conflicts with other (Habsburg) cities in Switzerland, took place in this period.
The cantons also came into contact with the Italian republics on the other side of the Gotthard after the opening of the St. Gotthard pass (1230). Perhaps this was perhaps also a source of inspiration for the republican spirit in central Switserland.
Moreover, the Habsburg sovereign granted them the status of free imperial cities (Reichsunmittelbarkeit) in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries Uri in 1230, Schwyz in 1240, Obwalden and Nidwalden in 1309. They did not depend on interventions or authority of local rulers anymore.
Due to the distances, mountains and inaccessibility of these areas from October to April, they became and increasingly independent and acted accordingly.
The political concept of these autonomous republics was successful and was imitated by Zug (1376), Glarus (1387) and Appenzell (1387). The smallest republic in the world, the Freistaat Gersau, was also a Landsgemeinde from 1433 until 1798.
The Landsgemeinde was the highest judicial, legislative and executive power. The separation of powers did not yet exist, however.
The citizens elected the officials in direct elections or voted on the policies of the Landsgemeinde. These votes and elections took place annually or more frequently if necessary by the raising of hands.
The Landsgemeinde voted on peacekeeping, war and peace, negotiations and treaties, conflict management, granting citizenship to newcomers and many other subjects. The citizens were the sovereign.
Democracy in those days meant something different than it does today. A few powerful families ruled and corruption, bribery and other practices were common. However, the consent of the citizens of the Landsgemeinde was always required and the concept was unique.
The voters were male citizens from the age of 16 (sometimes from 14). This citizenship was strictly defined. Citizenship of a municipality or canton still plays a major role in the current electoral and social system in Switzerland.
As a de facto sovereign republic with direct democracy, the Landsgemeinde gained great prestige in and far beyond Switzerland. The Swiss Confederation grew to thirteen members in 1513 including allies (Zugewandte Orte) and conquered territories (Untertanengebiete/Gemeine Herrschaften).
The other cantons, Bern, Solothurn, Zurich, Basel and Schaffhausen did not have a Landsgemeinde and or direct democracy. An oligarchy or aristocracy of guilds and old families governed the cities.
Many European writers, statesmen, philosophers and travellers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were deeply impressed by this form of government and the absence of kings, princes and aristocrats. It was indeed unique.
However, the Landsgemeinde became really popular when Napoleon abolished it in 1798.
The unitary Helvetian Republic (1798-1803) was at odds with the centuries old concepts of self-governance by the cantons. The Act of Mediation (Mediationsakte/ Acte de Médiation) established the new Confederation (1803-1815) and sovereign cantons.
This Confederation was dissolved after the defeat of Napoleon in 1813. The new confederation of 22 sovereign cantons, including the Landsgemeinde, was founded in 1815.
The prestige of the Landsgemeinde and its direct democracy remained high after 1815. However, most of the 22 cantons of the Confederation of 1815 never had a Landsgemeinde or direct democracy. They were republics governed by an oligarchy or aristocracy of (old) families without direct democracy.
The so-called ‘Regeneration Movement’ of 1830 demanded and obtained direct democracy à la Landsgemeinde in more and more cantons and cities.
This led to a confrontation between the Ancien Régime and the (new) liberal bourgeoisie in the cities. The latter were inspired by the ideals of the French Revolution, the American Constitution (1786) and the Landsgemeinde.
The canton of Vaud was the first to introduce direct democracy in 1845; other cantons followed soon afterwards.
In 1848, the Constitution of the new Confederation introduced the first referendum: the compulsory referendum for constitutional amendments. After 1848, canton after canton introduced the optional referendum and/or the popular initiative.
This development led in 1874 to the introduction at federal level of the optional referendum (fakultatives Referendum) and in 1891 to the introduction of the popular initiative (Volksinitiatieve).
The cantons and municipalities also introduced these and other instruments of direct democracy in the cantonal and municipal constitutions.
The Landsgemeinde still functions in the traditional way in the cantons of Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden cantons. The other cantons introduced the secret ballot, although the system does still exists in a few districts.
However, the concept of direct democracy has not changed and is an indispensable, successful and fundamental element of the Swiss political system at municipal, cantonal and federal level.
This system is the result of a political choice in the 19th century by the cantons and the People, as founders of the Confederation and the Constitution of 1848.
The country and the majority of the citizens no longer want or can do without direct democracy and this highly decentralised Confederation. After all, the citizens are the politicians.
The concept of the Landsgemeinde and direct democracy is not old-fashioned, out-of-date or folklore, but modern, transparent, effective and a necessary concept of democracy.
(Source: Hans Stadler, “Landsgemeinde”, in: Historisches Lexikon der Schweiz (HLS), . Online: https://hls-dhs-dss.ch); Louis Carlen, “Die Landsgemeinde”, in: Andreas Auer (Hg.): Die Ursprünge der schweizerischen direkten Demokratie, 1996).