Born from an alliance between the three original cantons Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, Switzerland took more than seven centuries to become today’s confederation of 26 cantons. Besides the federation and the cantons, the 2,715 municipalities represent a third political plane. On each of those three planes, the Swiss people possess extensive co-determination rights.
Approximately 40 per cent of referenda held worldwide between 1900 and 2000 took place in Switzerland. Another of Switzerland’s peculiarities is its multilingualism. Approximately 64 per cent of the Swiss population speaks German, 20 per cent French, six per cent Italian and 0.5 per cent Romansh. Of course, other languages are spoken, but they are not considered national languages.
Such linguistic and cultural diversity calls for a federally organized community as it is represented by the Swiss Confederation.
Switzerland has a federalist structure. By constitution, the federation has authority in such areas as foreign and security policy, customs and finance, national legislation and defence. Responsibilities that are not expressly federal fall into the competency of the cantons. Roughly, those are the areas of public health, education and culture. Each canton has its own constitution, parliament, government and courts. The municipalities carry the responsibilities handed down to them by the federation or the canton, such as the population register or civil defence.
There is hardly another country where the population has such extensive co-determination rights as in Switzerland. On the federal plane, the Swiss have the following political rights: They elect members of parliament, which consists of two houses with equal rights: the National Council and the Council of States. The National Council consists of 200 members. They are elected depending on the population of each of the 26 cantons, which represent the constituencies. That procedure assures a proportional representation of the entire Swiss population in the National Council. In contrast, the Council of States consists of two representatives per canton, elected by the people. Each canton being represented equally in this house, regardless of its population, even the smaller cantons are given a voice on the federal level.
The government (Federal Council) and highest court of the country (Federal Court) are elected by the parliament. Furthermore, voters can decide on specific issues by way of referendum or initiative approximately four times per year. All amendments of the constitution as well as membership to certain international organizations are submitted to referendum. In such cases, a national election is held.
Such proposals must be accepted by a double majority: the majority of the country’s voters (popular majority) on the one hand and the majority of the cantons on the other hand. Revised or new laws and similar decisions by the parliament as well as certain international treaties are only submitted to an optional vote (that is if requested by a minimum of 50,000 voters). Such proposals are accepted by a simple popular majority. Finally, a constitutional amendment can also be put to a national vote by way of a popular initiative. Such a proposal requires a minimum of 100,000 voters. The population possesses similar co-determination rights on the cantonal and municipal levels.
The “Landsgemeinde” of the Glarus and Appenzell-Innerrhoden cantons have extensive co-determination rights. The “Landsgemeinde” consists of the voters. Any voter can submit a proposal, and the votes are public.
Switzerland has four “national languages:” German, French, Italian and Romansh. This quadrilingualism assures a cultural and formal equality between the four linguistic communities. It is not only a declaration of intent, but also a commitment to preserving those four languages; as such, it is a fundamental trait of the Swiss Confederation.
Consequently, Swiss language policy pursues the goals of strengthening quadrilingualism, consolidating inner cohesion, promoting multilingualism and conserving the two smaller Italian and Romansh language groups, in particular.
Communication between the federation and the population takes place in one of the three “official languages” (German, French and Italian) and in Romansh for people of that language. For the purpose of official communications, this obligates federal authorities to handle petitions or requests in the same language that they were submitted. Federal publications, including decrees, are to be made in German, French and Italian.
Federal decrees are published in Romansh only if they are of special significance. On the internet and on letterheads, meanwhile, the federation always presents itself in all four national languages. Finally, the constitution prescribes that the linguistic areas be represented appropriately in government elections. Similar guidelines exist for the federal court and the staff of the federal administration.
What do federalism, direct democracy and multilingualism represent for Switzerland as an economic location? I am convinced that those principles render the location of Switzerland more attractive. Federalism, for example, leads to decentralized structures, politics for the people and, thus, also easy access to the authorities. The democratic co-determination rights give citizens the opportunity to participate in decisions on key issues, which promotes a more efficient control of politics, particularly public finances. The interests of affected cantons, associations and citizens are quickly recognized and addressed. The multilingualism allows the various linguistic communities to preserve their identities. In combination with the early inclusion of affected entities and the precautions in favour of regional minorities, it leads to political stability in Switzerland, which is equally beneficial to both its economy and its population.
Corina Casanova studied and obtained a doctorate in law and became a licensed lawyer in 1984. She then practised law and was active as a delegate of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Later, she worked for the federal parliamentary services and the confederate department of foreign affairs. In 2005, she became Vice-Chancellor, and since 2008, she has been Chancellor of the Confederation.