Constitution and Democracy

Bern, Bundeshaus. Foto/Photo: TES.

Politicians and the People

One of the most striking features of the political system of Switzerland is the absence of dominant politicians. Relatively few Swiss citizens know the name of their head of state or federal president.

That is not surprising. They are appointed for one year and always belong to the government of seven ministers. The head of state is the primus/prima inter pares. The Prime of First minister does not exist. All members of the government are equal.

A government of seven ministers, as laid down in the Constitution, is already unique and has remained unchanged since 1848.

The composition of the government is also exceptional. The four largest parties from the left and the right share the ministerial posts. New parties are not automatically given a place in the government after one or two successful elections but must prove themselves over a longer period. 

Direct democracy offers the citizens the opportunity to have the final say through the (mandatory or optional) referendum and the popular initiative.

Another aspect is the Militia system (Milizsystem/Le système de milice).

The members of the parliamentary representations are, in theory, part-time politicians, the militia system.  Although this system is under pressure, it shows the commitment of the citizens. 

The system guarantees a high degree of stability, legitimacy, continuity and the involvement of the citizens. The citizens are, in fact, the politicians and always have the last say.

The most important features of this system are federalism, the decentralised state organisation, direct democracy, the multicultural society, the electoral system, the formation of long-term coalitions and the participation of citizens, organisations and social partners bottom up.

Switzerland as we know it today was founded in 1848. The canton  of Jura was founded in 1979.

The twenty-six cantons are sovereign republics unless the Constitution transfers powers to the Federal level. The political life in the cantons and around 2 200 municipalties is often much more relevant for daily life issues.

The importance of direct democracy is not so much the day of voting. Direct democracy influences the whole political process, lengthy consultation procedures, compromises, it controls the madness of daily politics and ambitions of individual politicians and their (patronage) networks, and above all it provides legitimacy. The people are the sovereign and not the political parties and the politicians. 

The cantons and their different languages, cultures, religions and economic models thrive in this system.

Nevertheless, this system also has its weaknesses. It functions slowly and is complicated. It is difficult for other countries/organisations to imagine that citizens and their cantons can dispute European agreements and treaties.

There is always an alternative in the Swiss democratic model. The dogma of no-alternative (Alternativlosigkeit) does not exist.

The advantages of the Swiss democratic federal bottom-up system  far outweigh the disadvantages.

In a referendum on the abolition of the referendum, a vast majority of citizens will vote in favour of the referendum. No politician, minister or political party is willing, able or constitutionally entitled to ignore it.