Constitution and Democracy

Bern, Bundeshaus. Photo/Foto: TES.

Why Swiss democracy functions relatively well

The political system of Switzerland is considered a particular case among modern democracies because of its multitude of languages, relatively independent cantons, and historical development.

The political system

These circumstances have led to the emergence of a political system characterized by far-reaching federalism, a direct democracy, a striving for compromise, the participation of the citizens (militia system),  and the horizontal and vertical power-sharing at the federal, cantonal, and municipal levels.

In no other country in the world do citizens and cantons have such a significant and direct influence on the federal political decision-making level as in Switzerland! The state does not have a presidential system, nor a straight forward parliamentary system with proportional representation.

The federal political system is structured as follows: the National Council (Nationalrat, Conseil fédéral, 200 seats) is based on the votes of Swiss citizens aged 18 or older and proportional representation.

Parliament

The Council of States (Ständerat, Conseil d’Etats, 46 seats) represents the 26 cantons and is elected by the citizens per canton. Both institutions (the National Council and the Council of States) form the parliament (Bundesversammlung). The latter chooses the executive for the four-year government.the government.

The absolute majority applies to both the Council of States and the National Council.

Government

The seven members of the government are elected for a four-year term with the broadest possible approval by the parliament.

The consensus starts at the top: the government always acts as a political unity (even if a member disagrees) and represents the biggest parties of the parliament (Konkordanzsystem).

Discussion and consultation within the government continues as long as it takes to reach agreement on a position (even if there is agreement to disagree). The outcome is presented to the Parliament, which has the final say.

Each member of the government heads a federal department (of which there are seven), and one member acts as head of state (Bundespräsident(in) for one-year term. The parliament also elects the Federal Chancellor.

The People

As one of the first Republican (male) democracies in Europe, and as the first modern federal state, Switzerland already played a pioneering role in the nineteenth century (although the participation of women was introduced only in 1971).

Direct control by the citizens, the so-called direct democracy, plays a crucial role in the Swiss system.  In times of globalisation and Europeanisation, the importance of the nation-state has diminished in view of the transfer of powers.

This also leads to fewer opportunities for citizens and local authorities to exert their influence: legitimacy decreases and the proportion of dissatisfied, politically disillusioned and protesting voters increases.

Conclusion

Direct democracy does not guarantee the right or desired results (for the establishment), but the system never fails. The establishment respects direct democracy, contrary to other systems on the Continent because the People are the politicians.

There is relatively little corruption. The economy is innovative, competitive and international. The Swiss system is not perfect, but the country respects its citizens and the rule of law.

The Swiss may not be “le peuple le plus heureux du monde” (Jean-Jacques Rousseau, 1762 or the United Nations, 2015), but the system and institutions function rather well. (Source: A. Vatter, Das politische System der Schweiz, Baden-Baden, 2016).