Constitution and Democracy

Rathaus Gersau. Photo/foto: TES.

The Municipalities

Definition

Each canton is subdivided into municipalities. The area of a canton is the sum of these municipalities, just as Switzerland is the sum of the twenty-six cantons.

The cantons are also subdivided into districts that cover a number of municipalities. Unlike the municipalities, the districts are not derived from the Federal Constitution but only from the constitution of the cantons.

The municipalities have a modest place in the Constitution. Only Art. 50 recognises their existence. The cantons have full autonomy in setting up municipalities (Art. 50 (1)

The Confederation takes the autonomy of the municipalities into account when legislating and making decisions (Art. 50 (2). Cities and mountain areas occupy a special place in this respect (Art. 50 (3).

Organisation and powers

The organisation of municipalities differs from canton to canton. Switzerland has around 2 200 municipalities. The largest is Zürich  (c. 400 000 inhabitants), the smallest Corripo (canton of Tessin) with 20 inhabitants. Scuol (canton of Graubünden) is the largest municipality, Rivaz (Vaud) the smallest.

The municipalities do the tasks that the cantons do not perform, in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity by which the three layers of Swiss constitutional law function: federal, cantonal and municipal (Art. 3 and Art. 50 Federal Constitution).

In their constitutions, the cantons define their own legal personality, government, administration, democratic representation and election system. These are the creations of the cantons; as such, they enjoy the autonomy that each canton grants them.

Cantonal courts of law exist for disputes between municipalities and cantons. The Supreme Court (Bundesgericht) in Lausanne is the highest appeal body.

Local authorities may sometimes refer cases directly to the Supreme Court. Cantonal courts in two instances adjudicate disputes between citizens and municipalities.

The representation of the citizens

The essential democratic pillars of each municipality are direct democracy and the parliaments elected by the citizens  or the assembly of citizens.

Each cantonal constitution is based on the principle of subsidiarity and the final say of the citizens (direct democracy).

The assembly of citizens

The vast majority of municipalities do not have a parliament, but a citizens’ assembly. The names vary from canton to canton: Gemeindeversammlung, Bürgerversammlung, offene Dorfgemeinde, Assemblea communale in seduta pubblica, Conseil général, Urversammlung, Assemblée communale. These are the legislative and supreme bodies of the municipalities.

Assemblies meet several times a year, or at the request of citizens or the municipal government. At these meetings, an agenda is put to the vote. Decisions are taken on the basis of a majority vote by raising hands or (if requested) by a secret ballot vote.

The raising of hands originates from the medieval tradition of direct democracy in the communes, or Landsgemeinde. In the cantons Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden it is still the only method.

The larger municipalities cannot hold meetings for all citizens, but have a representative system in place. Everyone has the right to come and to vote, but in practice, as in any association, foundation or political organisation, only a small number of citizens actively participate.

Moreover, municipal law typically stipulates a secret ballot vote for essential decisions.

In most small(er) municipalities of German-speaking Switzerland and some French-speaking cantons, the citizens also elect the municipal government and the presidium.

Parliament

Nearly all larger towns and municipalities have a directly elected parliament or municipal council (Gemeindeparlament, Grosser Gemeinderat, Conseil général, Einwohnerrat, Consiglio comunale, Conseil communal, Generalrat, Conseil municipal).

In Neuchâtel and Geneva this is compulsory for all municipalities; in Vaud from 1 000 inhabitants, and in Tessin from 5 000 inhabitants or more.

The largest Swiss municipalities without a parliament are Solothurn and Rapperswil-Jona (canton St. Gall).

The municipal government

The municipal government (the executive) is also directly elected by the citizens. Its name varies from canton to canton: Stadtrat, Gemeinderat, administratiever Rat, Bezirksrat, Rat, Gemeindevorstand, Gemeindebehörde, Municipio, Municipalité, Conseil communal, Conseil adminitratif.

Smaller municipalities often delegate governmental powers to one elected citizen (Stadtpräsident, Gemeindepräsident, Gemeindeammam, Syndic, Maire, Sindaco).

The administration is as large as the municipality needs and the canton permits (Art. 50 (1).

The system of militia (Milizsystem) also applies to  elected officials or politicians at the municipal level.

Only some functions receive a salary, such as that of mayor in the larger municipalities or in the capacity of Stadtpräsident, Gemeindepräsident, Gemeindeammam, Syndic, Maire, Sindaco.