Constitution and Democracy

Rathaus Gersau. Photo/foto: TES.

The Municipalities

Each canton is divided 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 divided  into districts, covering 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. Art. 50 only recognises their existence. The cantons have full autonomy in setting them up Art. 50 (1). The Confederation takes the autonomy of the municipalities into account when legislating and taking decisions, Art. 50 (2). Cities and mountain areas occupy a special place in this respect, Art. 50 (3).

The organisation of municipalities differs from canton to canton.  Switzerland has around 2 100 municipalities. The largest is Zurich (around 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 perform the tasks that the cantons do not perform, the principle of subsidiarity (the three layers of Swiss constitutional law: federal level, cantons and municipalities (Art. 3 and Art. 50 Federal Constitution). The cantons define in their constitutions the legal personality, government, administration, democratic representation and election system. They are the creations of the cantons and have the autonomy that each canton gives 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 essential democratic pillars of each municipality are (direct) democracy and the parliaments  elected by the citizens (smallest number of municipalities) or the assembly of citizens.

Each cantonal constitution is based on the principle of subsidiarity and the last say of the citizens (direct democracy).  Apart from the direct democracy (various types of referendums), the local citizens have the right of initiative.

The vast majority of municipalities do not have a parliament, but an assembly of the citizens. The name varies from canton to canton: Gemeindeversammlung, Bürgerversammlung, offene Dorfgemeinde, Assemblea communale in seduta pubblica, Conseil général, Urversammlung, Assemblée communale. It is the legislative and supreme body of the municipality.

It meets 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 by a majority vote by raising the hands or by secret ballot if requested.

These meetings originate from the medieval tradition of direct democracy of the communes or Landsgemeinde. In the cantons Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden it is still the only method.

For the larger municipalities, not all citizens can meet in this way, but there is a representative system. Everyone has the right to come and vote, but in practice only a small number of active citizens participate, as in any association, foundation or political organisation.

Moreover, for essential decisions, municipal law usually stipulates a secret ballot vote. After all, the citizens are watching them by the eventual referendums.

The citizens also elect the municipal government and the praesidium. This is the situation in most small(er) municipalities in German-speaking Switzerland and some French-speaking cantons.

Almost 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 it is compulsory for all municipalities, in Vaud from 1 000 inhabitants and in Tessin from 5 000 inhabitants.

The largest Swiss municipalities without a parliament are Solothurn and Rapperswil-Jona (canton St. Gall). The city government, the executive, is directly elected by the citizens, the same principle as in the cantons. The names vary from canton to canton: Stadtrat, Gemeinderat, administratiever Rat, Bezirksrat, Rat, Gemeindevorstand, Gemeindebehörde, Municipio, Municipalité, Conseil communal, Conseil adminitratif.

Smaller municipalities often delegate the governmental tasks to an 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 Milizsystem is also the principle for etected officials or politicians at the municipal level. Only some functions, for example, mayor, are paid for in the larger municipalities or in his capacity of Stadtpräsident, Gemeindepräsident, Gemeindeammam, Syndic, Maire, Sindaco.