Swiss Political System

Landsgemeinde_Glarus_2006Landsgemeinde, or assembly, of the Canton of Glarus, on 7 May 2006, Switzerland.

An introduction by the authors

When in 1848 the Swiss federation was founded, it faced problems similar to those of many young democracies today: The nation state was weak, the economy poor. The societies of the 25 cantons had no common history. They were divided by cleavages of different religions and languages. The Swiss constitution was the compromise between protagonists of a central state and its opponents who had a past of belligerent conflict.

Some 160 years later, Switzerland is prosperous. Cleavages between religions have cooled out. In contrast to many countries in Europe and beyond, multilinguism has not led to discrimination of minorities, and the country is known for its political stability. One could say that this success is the product of political institutions. Switzerland is a paradigmatic case of political integration. Its democracy is different from others: The state has been developed bottom up. Federalism brings the state closer to the people, has kept the central government small and guarantees utmost autonomy for its 25 cantons. Power sharing between the major political parties – instead of majoritarian rule- gives minorities an effective voice and has led to their social integration. Direct democracy in the form of referenda and popular initiatives makes political elites more sensitive for the preferences and needs of the people. The e-book “Swiss Political System” explains how these elements work together, not without mentioning critical aspects and challenges.

Federalism, political power sharing and direct democracy, the main features of the Swiss system, attract increasing interest of academics, politicians and media abroad. Federalism and decentralisation, especially, seem to be an effective institutional device to strengthen regional autonomy and responsibility, at the same time making political institutions more effective. It would be misleading, however, to take Swiss federalism as a “model” for others. First, federalism and decentralisation can serve different objectives, and are perceived in different ways from country to country. Second, institutions are to be embedded in the specific political culture of a country, can therefore play a different role for citizens and their polity. There is not one idea of federalism, but federalisms that each have to grow on the cultural heritage of a specific political society.

Nevertheless, we invite the readers of this e-book to share with us the account on the history and the functioning of the Swiss political institutions. We hope that the living experience of Swiss democracy may be inspiring and encouraging for others. In this sense, Swiss democracy is not a model for export but a subject of dialogue.

Wolf Linder and Andrea Iff

Swiss Political System (e-book):



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