Constitution and Democracy

Map of the languages in Switzerland. Photo:Tschubby

The Oldest Federal Multilingual State

Switzerland is the second oldest federal-state after the United States of America. The federal constitution of 1848 was closely modelled on that of the USA (written in 1787). The cantons decided to delegate a part of their sovereignty to the federal level in 1848.

Most cantons have a long history, dating back to the middle ages. The canton of Jura (1979) is a twentieth-century creation, following a long historical path from the Prince-Bishopric of Basel (until 1792-98), the Napoleontic creations (1798-1813) and the canton of Bern (1815-1979).

The Swiss Confederation consists of 26 cantons. The cantons Geneva (Genève), Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel (Neuenburg) are French-speaking, Valais (Wallis), Berne (Bern), Fribourg (Freiburg) and Soleure (Solothurn) are bilingual, Ticino is Italian, Graubünden (Grisons) is trilingual (German-Romansh-Italian) and Aargau, Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Zürich, Schaffhausen, Thurgau, Appenzell Ausserrhoden and Appenzell innerrhoden, Sankt-Gallen, Nidwalden, Uri, Glarus, Lucerne, Obwalden, Züg, Schwyz are German-speaking.

The religious map is far more complicated and the catholic and protestant divisions are not related to the linguistic differentiation, although some are mainly catholic, while others have large protestant communities.

There are six semi-cantons. Obwalden and Nidwalden, protestant Appenzell Ausserrhoden and catholic Appenzell Innerrhoden (1597) and Basel-Stadt and Basel-Landschaft (1833). The semi-cantons have only one seat in de Council of States instead of two.

The 26 cantons have a high degree of independence. Each canton has its own constitution and its own parliament/assembly of citizens, government and courts.

about 2 200 communes exist at local level, the smallest political units of the country. The level of autonomy is determined by the individual cantons and vary from place to place.

How to rule such a divided country? The secret is not just the four-yearly direct election of the 200 members of the National Council (Nationalrat) and the 46 members of the Council of States (Ständerat).

The answer is decentralization, direct democracy, constitutional recognition of languages and cultures and transparent public discussions, encouraged by the system of grass-root referendums and popular initiatives. This concept apparently leads to good governance and commitment of the citizens. It is not the only reason for its (democratic) and multicultural success.

Switzerland is a small country with approximately 8 400 000 million inhabitants (from which about 20% foreigners). Good education, a well developed civil society and legal system, a broad range of media services, a longstanding democratic tradition, the absence of a dominant central political power and, sine qua non, a robust social, monetary and economic system.

The country is neither immune for, nor excluded from (global and European) challenges, as history shows, but the citizens are always there to check, check and double-check the federal, cantonal and local rulers and their follies, corruption and clientele systems.  (Source: The Swiss Confederation. A Brief Guide. Bern 2012).