Constitution and Democracy

Albert Welti (1862-1912)/ Wilhelm Balmer (1865-1922), detail Fresko im Raum des Ständerats. Bild/Photo: TES.

The Swiss Council of States

Switzerland Is a divided country from a linguistic, religious, cultural and economic point of view. Nevertheless, the country functions rather well. Direct democracy, federalism and the electoral system are the pillars of its (economic, social and democratic) success and stability. In 1848, this was not self-evident when the new Constitution of the new Confederation was written, however.

The country emerged from a medieval alliance of (independent) German-speaking cantons. The (legendary) year 1291 and the month (1) August were accepted by the parliament in the nineteenth century as the founding date of the country. Between 1291 and 1848, however, many developments occurred to give the slogan unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno at the entrance of the Bundeshaus in Bern a real political meaning. Previous articles in the Swiss Spectator have dealt with this centuries-old process of state formation. This contribution focuses on a remarkable institution: the Council of States (Ständerat, Conseil d’États, Consiglio degli Stati or Cussegl dal Chantuns). This contribution is an introduction. Future editions will deal in more detail with various aspects, its weaknesses and strengths, working methods, composition and functioning.

This Council, also known in Switzerland as the Small or Second Chamber, guarantees federalism and the voice of the cantons and their inhabitants. This institute is not exceptional in Europe. Many countries have a chamber separate from the Great Chamber (or Commons), which in Switzerland is called Nationalrat, Conseil national, Consiglio nazionale or Cussegl nazional. What makes the Swiss variant unique in Europe, however, is its absolute legislative and political equivalence with the Commons. The Council has the right of initiative, is actively involved from the very beginning in each act of legislation, decision-making, budgetary process, supervises the federal institutions and must agree to every word and every letter, point and comma of each decision or federal law.

Decisions in the Council are taken by majority vote. The 46 seats for the 26 cantons are allocated to each canton by direct elections per canton. These elections take place every four years at the same time as the elections for the Commons. Only the canton of Appenzell Ausserrhoden votes at a different time. The elections are based on the (absolute) majority system (scrutin majoritaire/Majorzsystem). Only the cantons of Jura and Neuchâtel have a proportional system. The cantons of Basel-Stadt, Basel-Landschaft, Appenzell Innenrrhoden, Appenzell Ausserrhoden, Obwalden and Nidwalden have one seat, the other twenty cantons two seats. Every canton, regardless of population, faith, language or prosperity, has the same vote in the Council. That is the federal counterpart to the system of proportional distribution of the (two-hundred) seats in the Commons.

In 1848, the choice for this Council originated from the experience of the Sonderbundskrieg of 1847. This short war of, roughly speaking, urban ‘protestant liberal’ cantons against rural ‘catholic-conservative’ cantons led to the insight that there had to be a counterpart for the Commons and the nationwide proportional electoral system. The American Constitution of 1787 served as a model for the Council of Switzerland.

A problem for the Council, however, has always been the communication and cooperation between the cantons, which are so different and (historically) independent in many ways and aspects. The House of Cantons (Haus der Kantone, Maison des Cantons, Casa dei Cantoni, Chasa dals Chantus), see Swiss Spectator under Constitution and democracy) was established in 1993 to fill the gap, and with success.

In the current parliamentary system, the Council has become an indispensable institution for the democratic functioning of the country. This can not be said of each senate or Chambre de Réflexion in Europe. In this respect too, Switzerland is not so much a ‘Sonderfall’ as a well a democratic oasis in Europe.