Constitution and Democracy

Bern, Bundeshaus, Geschichte der Schweiz, 1291-1815. Bild/Photo: TES.

The True and well-functioning Democracy

One of the most striking features of the political system of Switzerland is the absence of dominant politicians. Relatively few people know the name of their head of state or Prime Minister. That is not surprising, as they are only appointed for one year from the government team of seven ministers. The head of state is the primus inter pares. A government of seven ministers, as laid down in the Constitution, is already unique and has remained unchanged since 1848. Its composition is also exceptional. The four largest parties share the ministerial posts. New parties are not automatically given a place in the government after one or two victories, but must first prove themselves. 

Besides, direct democracy offers all citizens the opportunity to have their say through the (compulsory or optional) referendum and the popular initiative. A further aspect is the Militia system. The members of the parliamentary representations are, in theory, not professional politicians, but part-time politicians. Although this system is under more pressure, it shows the commitment of the citizens. This system guarantees a high degree of stability, legitimacy, continuity and the involvement of the citizens. The citizens are, in fact, the politicians and always have the last say.

The most important features of this system are federalism, and decentralised state organisation, direct democracy, the traditionally multicultural society, the electoral system, the formation of long-term coalitions, the militia system and the significant participation of citizens and social partners bottom up.

Switzerland came into being in the process of many centuries. The national holiday on 1 August is more symbolic than historically correct. In the year 1291, the three cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, according to legend, formed an alliance for cooperation, which was confirmed by an oath (Eid). Hence the name Eidgenossenschaft. During the French occupation (1798-1813), the cantons, twenty-two in 1814 became Switzerland, confirmed by the Constitution of 1848. The twenty-five (half) cantons, Jura became the twenty-sixth canton only in 1979, are still mostly independent republics, unless the Constitution transfers powers to the Federation. Bern, the (government) capital, is for many people what Brussels is to the European Union. The political life in the cantons is often much more important than the federal level. 

The importance of direct democracy is not so much the day of the vote itself. Direct democracy influences the whole political process, lengthy consultation procedures, compromises, it controls the madness of daily politics and ambitions of individual politicians and their (patronage) networks, and above all it provides legitimacy. The people are the sovereign and not the political parties. 

The cantons and their different languages, cultures, religions and economic models thrive in this system. Nevertheless, this system also has its weaknesses. It functions slowly and is complicated, and it is difficult for other countries/organisations to imagine that direct democracy can block agreements and treaties. In an increasingly complex and international world, it is also questionable whether seven ministries can still manage the task. Of course, the seven departments have experienced a considerable increase in competences and tasks, especially since 1945. Still, the creation of a new federal ministry requires a constitutional amendment and therefore a referendum. 

However, the advantages far outweigh the disadvantages. In a referendum on the abolition of the referendum, a vast majority would vote for the referendum and no politician, minister or political party would be able or constitutionally entitled to ignore it. In this respect, democracy in the Netherlands is more like an archaic oligarchic system.