Constitution and Democracy

Die 22 Vollkantone, 1900-1935. Bild/Photo: TES. Sammlung Landesmuseum Zürich

The Swiss Milizsystem

One of the essential foundations of Swiss democracy is the Milizsystem. In a few words, it means that the citizens make, form and supervise the state, the res republica. This system is a centuries-old concept of the so-called Urschweiz, the mountain cantons in central Switzerland.

Switzerland (die Schweiz ) even derives its name from the canton of Schwyz, together with Uri and Unterwalden the first cantons to ally in the period around 1300. This covenant was confirmed with an oath. The Eidgenossenschaft was born. The (male) inhabitants had the last word in the Landsgemeinde in these cantons in direct-democratic procedures on a square in the municipality. (Nowadays only in the cantons of Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden).

What started on a local level in these cantons resulted in the Milizsystem in a process that lasted for centuries. In this system, citizens take part in the public task at municipal, cantonal or federal levels against (relatively) low fees or voluntarily. It involves a wide range of activities, in parliaments or (local) councils and numerous other organisations in education, the army, the fire brigade or the executive.

Politicians at the federal, cantonal or municipal level are, in theory, part-time politicians, who often exercise another profession in addition to their political office. The state calls the citizen to assume public duties, and the citizen then controls the exercise by direct democracy.

The citizens have not delegated politics to a political caste, but are the politicians themselves. The fact that many politicians actually earn their income in politics does not detract from this principle. However, it is increasingly difficult to find (qualified) candidates for political office, and the system is under pressure for other reasons, such as media attention and stress, individualisation, professionalisation, globalisation and an individual hedonism in a prosperous country.

However, the advantages of the system more than outweigh the disadvantages. First and foremost, the system promotes cohesion between the various social groups and social networks. Many politicians have essential experience, knowledge and commitment and are not the product of the political or bureaucratic establishment. The quality of politicians is often of a high level.

Moreover, citizens and media have a critical attitude towards the political and bureaucratic system. It is based on the view that the perfect state does not exist. For this reason, the citizens take responsibility and participate in politics. This critical attitude also exists in the media, among others concerning the European Union and other (megalomaniac) projects. The media are certainly not an echo of each other and the establishment, as is the case in other countries, such as the Netherlands.

‘Alternativlosigkeit’ also has no place in Switzerland’s political system. (European) politicians (or ECB) who talk in these terms are committing a coup d ‘état on democracy. Politicians often conceal their failures at the national level with ‘alternativeless’ European and international initiatives. The Great and New European is born. Where have we heard that before?

The age-old Milizsystem is not old-fashioned or outdated but very modern, in particular in the digital age. The citizens do not see the (central) government as an ‘enemy’ but as a democracy of the citizens. They are the government. The second principle is decentralisation. The ‘Heimat’, ‘Ort’ and Canton are the most important frames of references  of citizens and not (abstract) geographical spaces and (utopian) ideologies.

It does not alter the fact that the Milizsystem is under pressure. This res republica can only exist with the active participation of the citizens. The future will tell.