Period IV newsletter

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 modeled on that of the USA. The cantons decided to elinquish part of their sovereignty to the central authorities in 1848.

Most cantons have a long history, dating back to the middle ages up to the nineteenth century, only the Jura (1979) is a twentieth century creation. There are 26 cantons at the moment. The cantons Geneva, Vaud, Jura and Neuchâtel are French- speaking, Valais, Fribourg and Solothurn are bilingual, Ticino is Italian, Graubünden is trilingual (German-Romansh-Italian) and Aargau, Baselstadt, Basellandschaft, 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.

How ro 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 49 members of the Council of States (Ständerat).  The answer rather seems to be decentralization, direct democracy,  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.

There are six semi-cantons. Obwalden and Nidwalden, protestant Appenzell Ausserrhoden and catholic Appenzell Innerrhoden (1597) and Baselstadt 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, government and courts. The direct democracy in the form of a cantonal peoples’ assembly still exist in Appenzell Innerrhoden and Glarus, in all the other cantons, the vote is only possible at the ballot box.

At local level exist about 2400 communes, the smallest political units of the country.  The communes’ level of autonomy is determined by the individual cantons  and vary from place to place.

Switzerland is a small country with ‘only’ eight million inhabitants (from which about 20% foreigners), but that is not the only reason of its (democratic) and multicultural success. High literacy, 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 the 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)