Direct Democracy In Switzerland Ch. 6-10

By Gregory Fossedal
6. Executives Branch

Unusual though they are, most Swiss political institutions can be 
readily categorized. Many laws are made using a device employed 
elsewhere only occasionally: direct democracy. The army, with few 
exceptions, has universal male service. The courts are businesslike; 
the society, if we may use a much-abused term, multicultural; the 
press, low-key; and the businesses are even more businesslike than the 

The Swiss executive is equally distinctive, but harder to 
characterize. It is corporate in nature. Most executive decisions are 
rendered by an executive council of seven members. There is a 
president, who chairs the meetings of the council and acts on its 
behalf in certain cases where a single authority may be needed. Yet a 
visiting king or queen is normally met at a reception by all seven 
members of the council. The president serves only a one-year term, 
elected by the others but normally in an informal (but not mandatory) 
rotation with the others. Even as such, he or she takes practically no 
actions, at least of a policy nature, as president. Rather, the seven-
member board acts as one body. The votes are confidential and each 
member, regardless of his vote, is expected to stand by and indeed 
energetically defend the decision of the group.

At any meeting of the council, then - about once a week in modern 
times - the president is looking at a group of former and future 
presidents, and they look at him as a former and future energy 
minister, secretary of state, or other officer in one of "their" 
administrations. Conveniently, there are precisely seven ministries, 
each one filled by one member of the council: The president and vice-
president continue to run one of the ministries during their term. 
When asked recently what would happen if the Swiss decided they needed 
eight cabinet agencies or, say, ten council members, a Swiss diplomat 
smiled at me and said, "Right now, we have seven councilors and seven 
ministries, so it works rather well." Thus, the cabinet reshufflings 
are among the most frequent in the modern world, rivaling Italyor 
Russia. But they take place on a schedule, every December, and with 
many of the changes preordained. The Swiss executive branch is a 
little bit chaos, a little bit minuet.

One might say that "the Swiss have no chief executive," as political 
scientist Oswald Sigg has written. At the least, one is reminded of 
the scene in Monty Python's "Holy Grail" in which the peasant Dennis 
attempts to explain the workings of his "anarcho-syndicalist commune," 
with its quaint aroma of nineteenth-century socialism. King Arthur, 
befuddled and increasingly impatient, keeps asking, "But where is your 
Members of the executive council are not chosen directly by the people 
- here the Swiss system departs from its usual populism - but by the 
two houses of parliament meeting in joint session. The parliament may 
choose anyone it likes under the constitution for the executive 
council and thus, as a future president. In practice, though, the 
matter is more complicated. Under an unwritten arrangement going back 
many decades, the "magic formula," a series of guidelines for 
selection that work somewhat like a quota - and somewhat not like a 
quota. For instance, it is thought desirable to have at least one 
person on the seven-member council to represent one of the three 
national languages: Italian, French, and Swiss. As well, each of the 
three largest cantons - Zürich, Berne, and Vaud - normally receives a 
representative. On the other hand, no canton is to enjoy two residents 
on the Federal Council - again by practice and tradition, but not by 
legal requirement.

Furthermore, each of the four largest parties customarily has an 
assigned number of seats: two seats for the Radical Democrats (which 
is actually a centrist or center-left party), two for the Christian 
Democrats, two for the Social Democrats, and one for Swiss People's 
Party. None of this is a matter of constitutional or even legal 
formula, though. Most of this web of understandings is not even 
written down, except in the sense that it has been discussed much 
since evolving - parts of the agreement, such as the need for a 
balance of languages, going back to 1848.

The formula for the parties has inhered since 1959, despite the ebb 
and flow of certain parties since. At the start, it probably 
underrepresented the Christian Democrats and Radical Democrats; it may 
now over-represent them.

During the replacement of two federal councilors in 1999, which it was 
my privilege to attend by invitation of the parliament, there was much 
speculation in the galleries about the possibility that the Radicals 
(the equivalent of the Christian Democrats in Europe, the Tories in 
England, or the Republicans in the U.S.) might lose one of their 
traditional seats. Ultimately the party held onto its seats, in part 
by the device of nominating two young women to fill the two posts. The 
Swiss are no less eager than others to advance qualified women to such 
posts, given their desire to be and to appear to be fair on questions 
of gender. The Swiss, indeed, may be more keen to do so, as women were 
only given the vote in national elections in 1971. In any case, the 
magic formula was clearly under stress, but this time, it held.

It is a measure of the discipline of the Swiss voters and their 
politicians that such an arrangement could long endure even were it a 
binding, legal contract. Here, we are talking only about a handshake, 
a verbal promise, that has been honored by dozens of politicians over 
four decades.

Not only the composition of the Federal Council, but also its 
workings, are remarkable. The members meet in a "respectful, even 
collegial manner," according to Kurt Furgler, a distinguished former 
Federal Council member and the former president of Switzerland. "I 
cannot tell you we did not disagree, or that the disagreements were 
not, on rare occasions, highly unpleasant. But they were no worse, and 
probably better, than the other political bodies and meetings I have 
been a part of." We must remember that this particular arrangement 
would seem to be a highly combustible one. This "cabinet" does not 
consist of members of a single party nor does it have such a party or 
even unified philosophy at the core. The cabinet members were not 
appointed by the president; there is no person or even unified office 
to whom they owe their loyalty. Instead we find members of four 
competing parties, covering a wide portion of the ideological spectrum 
- with linguistic, religious, and other differences thrown in for good 
measure. It would seem, on the surface, to be as much a very exclusive 
senate, or council of lords, as an executive.

After reaching its decisions and voting (in private) on the results, 
the members of the Federal Council join in supporting and explaining 
the policy to the public as one body. They do not take sides against 
one another regarding a decision thus made. Naturally nuances of 
difference may emerge when discussing ongoing issues and problems, but 
even these are rare and are carried on in a constructive, not a 
bitterly partisan, tone. There would be little to gain from this, 
since the next election will not cause a revolution in the composition 
of the executive, and there is little need for it, since policies that 
are not in line with the popular will are inevitably overturned or 
adjusted anyway.

Only a few times have the voting results from a national council 
meeting leaked out in the press - generally close decisions on a 4-3 
vote, on highly sensitive issues such as genetic research, abortion, 
and welfare reform. The editors of the major Swiss papers who met with 
me said that they have never spiked a story with such information out 
of sheer patriotism, but neither do they press their reporters to come 
up with such stories.

"We respect the government's right to have a confidential 
conversation," as Konrad Stamm, the editor of Der Bund, one of the 
oldest and most distinguished papers, put it, "as they respect our 
right to have a confidential conversation here. And it is after all 
our government, the government of Switzerland."

This spirit on the part of the Swiss press - which is more vigorous 
than the press in America or Britain with respect to discussing policy 
issues, but far less interested in reporting on political conflict and 
personal scandal - is one of many special factors that make the 
executive-by-committee system workable for Switzerland, but arguably 
not for the United States, at least under present conditions. It is 
hard to imagine such a convention being respected in the U.S. media, 
particularly for the executive branch, though something like it is 
extended to other institutions, such as the Supreme Court.

One obvious danger comes in time of crisis. Without a unified 
executive, who is to rally the country? The proverbial horse designed 
in committee is known for its unworkability; but it might be added 
that such a horse may also take forever to be produced. This was the 
Swiss experience during the French Revolution, when the hapless 
Vorort1 proved unable to mount even a serious resistance to the French 
invasion. The weakness of such structures is also historically evident 
from the experience of the United States during its Revolutionary War 
and the Articles of Confederation.

A review of the system in times of need provides only ambiguous 
evidence regarding the institution's functionality, since many factors 
other than the executive itself are at work at such times. From this 
review, however, we can derive some general principles regarding the 
dangers and advantages of this "non-chief executive."

Switzerland has had few domestic crises since the Sonderbund War, 
itself suggestive, perhaps, that public order and democracy at least 
can be reconciled without a powerful, unitary chief of state. Even so, 
some episodes of national turmoil suggest themselves for review. Among 
the notable domestic crises are the national strike (Switzerland's 
last) of 1918, the coming of the Great Depression in 1929, the Jura 
uprisings of 1960-1978, and the cantonal and city fiscal crisis 
(Geneva, Zürich, Lausanne) of the 1990s. Episodes of a foreign or 
military nature include the dispute with Prussia over Neuchatel in 
1856-1857, World War II, and the government's handling of accusations 
that Swiss banks or political institutions are tainted by an 
association with the Nazi Holocaust.

Switzerland's national strike involved elements of both a domestic 
crisis and a foreign intervention. Domestic factors were foremost. 
Though not a combatant, Switzerland suffered economically during the 
war like most countries, and by 1918, shortages were becoming acute. 
Also like the combatants, Switzerland had been forced to adopt a "war 
economy." Switzerland was neutral, but an occupation by Germany or 
even the Allies was possible. Hence the Swiss had to maintain states 
of readiness and training, diverting resources to the prevention of 
war even as others were doing to fight it. The end of war, however, 
did not bring a return to "normalcy," as U.S. presidential candidate 
Warren G. Harding complained in 1920. Wartime tax rates remained in 
place, and partial rationing schemes were in effect.

At the same time the strike was not a matter of spontaneous 
combustion. It was supported and encouraged by Communist Russia. 
Having just left Switzerland in April of 1917 and taken power in the 
November revolution, Lenin was interested in weakening the position of 
capitalist countries abroad, if for Executives no other reason than to 
give him a respite to consolidate his new regime in Russia. Despite 
the falling out between Lenin and some of the leading Swiss 
Communists, whom Lenin deemed too bourgeois, the Russian Comintern did 
its best to encourage the movement in Switzerland, as in Germany and 
other European countries after the war.

This could have been, arguably was, a crisis d'etat. As in Kerensky's 
Russia, Switzerland's institutions seemed hapless and decentralized. 
There was - in a sense, never is - a strong national political leader. 
It is hard to see, given the absence of a president with the powers 
usually accorded one, who could persuade radicals to temper their 
demands, and elites to grant some - let alone have the clout to make 
such a solution stick with both sides grumbling.

What the council did was to work with the natural forces of 
decentralization and consensus building within the labor movement and 
a country as a whole. Another way of saying this was, it divided and 

On the first day of the strike - November 11, 1918 - members of the 
federal council met with several of the leading labor representatives 
to listen to their demands. This meeting included the radicals, but 
was aimed more at the moderates, some of whom - such as the Action 
Committee in Olten - had already issued a proclamation stating their 
demands. Most were unexceptionable, and none of the demands by the 
moderates involved circumventing the democratic process. Among the 
chief demands of the moderates was establishment of a forty-eight-hour 
work week; the retirement of the national debt by a tax on capital; 
introduction of labor conscription; passage of a public works program; 
and the reformulation of the National Council by a proportional 
system. At the same time, some forces in the labor movement - Fritz 
Brupbacker, co-editor of the Revoluzzer - were more frankly extreme 
and insisted that only a takeover of the government by dictatorship of 
the proletariat would suffice.

Having shown that it would listen to all sides and collaborate with 
the nonextremists, the council, on the afternoon of November 11th, 
also called out the police and the militia. The council members issued 
a stern statement indicating that no violence would be tolerated. 
Members of the Soviet legation in Bern, which had been collaborating 
with the most extreme pockets of discontent, were escorted out of the 
country under heavy guard. Leading members of the parliament 
commenting in the press indicated a willingness to legislate many of 
the demands in the nine-point statement issued by the moderates, but 
not while under the implicit threat of mass disorder and even 

On the morning of November 12th, some labor leaders began to split off 
from the more radical elements. The radicals, nervously sensing the 
defections, pushed for more aggressive action in the street. But by 
now the partial military mobilization was complete; in Bern and 
Zürich, the streets filled with uniforms. Small incidents took place 
but the perpetrators were detained immediately.

Meanwhile, the Federal Council had convened an extraordinary session 
of the parliament, with both chambers convened as one body. Parliament 
stood firmly behind the Federal Council, repeating its willingness in 
a near-unanimous resolution to enact much of the labor agenda, but 
only once had the strike been called off. That evening, the leaders of 
the radical wing of the strike organizers, including the executive 
secretariat of the Social Democratic Party, surrendered themselves at 
the Federal Council. The next day they capitulated to the council's 
demand that they call off the strike. In a sense, their action was 
irrelevant; the strike was dissolving anyway as the rank-and-file 
workers and peasants read in their newspapers that many of their 
demands would be met, and that more extreme leaders were under arrest. 
By the afternoon of November 13, parliament was debating some of the 
action items. As E. Bonjour, H.S. Offler, and G.R. Potter wrote in A 
Short History of Switzerland,

"…the most serious constitutional crisis of the war had been overcome. 
Work was resumed immediately almost everywhere. Proceedings against 
the strike leaders led to sentences of imprisonment varying from four 
weeks to six months. But reforms were carried out which the Socialist 
minority had demanded in vain both before and during the war."

Naturally the crisis had its particular heroes and antagonists. The 
most active member of the National Council during the national strike 
was Felix Calonder, who, appropriately enough, was serving his (only) 
term as president in 1918. Calonder was a popular, no-nonsense 
politician from Graubünden - hearty, Alpine country. He was an 
advocate of some of the things the socialists and the unions were 
demanding, having for many years advocated expansion of highway and 
railway systems for the southeast. He was also a thoughtful student of 
politics who wrote a university thesis on Swiss neutrality and the 
challenges to it. Among those he saw, ironically, were troubles 
arising out of Switzerland's status as a refugee haven - a practice 
that brought angry intervention from Metternich and the right in the 
nineteenth century. An army major, he had no qualms about crushing the 
strike, if need be.

It was Calonder who devised the somewhat curious order for the 
strikers to disband. The terse ultimatum carried little by way of 
legal justification nor, really, any explanation of what would happen 
if the order was disobeyed. It was, however, effective, especially 
coming from and in the name of the Bundesrat. Troops marched through 
the streets of Bern and Zürich in horseback and on foot with mobile 
artillery in tow. All the while parliament was in session, glancing 
approvingly at the government's carrot and stick. Fortunately for 
Switzerland, the strategy worked, and so Calonder can go the way of 
the other great Swiss presidents - remembered with a few pages in 
specialty biographies.

Calonder also made the wise tactical decision, in his opening speech 
to the special session of parliament, to separate the methods of the 
strikers from the economic policies they sought. Many of the latter 
could be discussed, he suggested; a sentiment in line with the 
members. But the "Swiss democracy" was not negotiable and it was not 
going to overturn itself. After the strike had wound down, Calonder 
went back to parliament, informing his colleagues and the country that 
the "free and proud" Swiss could now come together because "their 
democracy" stood tall.

It is tempting to dramatize Calonder's role, to present him as the man 
who rose to the occasion and dominated events. To do this, however, 
would be to misunderstand what he did and what the office allowed him 
to do - the nature of the Swiss presidency. Calonder took advantage of 
the opportunities available, yes, and in that sense deserves much 
credit. But he could have done little or none of this without the 
backing of his fellow executives and most of parliament, including 
some who simply wanted the strike crushed and others whose sympathies 
were more leftist. It was the fact of a rough consensus by those 
groups that made his actions so powerful.

Was the Swiss presidency responsible for producing this consensus? One 
could hardly say it was the sole or primary cause. At the very least, 
though, the corporate executive did not prevent such a consensus from 
forming. Calonder had enough tools to spur the system, particularly 
because he wisely mobilized the other arms of the government - 
parliament and the council. The seven-member council is one of a 
number of republican features that cause a broad array of politicians, 
private institutions, and citizens to instinctively rally at such 
times of crisis.

Today this phenomenon is called a "culture of political consensus." It 
results, in a positive sense, from the referendum process, from 
decentralized decision-making, and other such practices. But in a 
negative way, the capacity is nourished by the lack of men or women of 
great charisma and sweeping powers. When the people rally behind such 
a government at such times, it is all the more powerful, for there is 
less manipulation and Caeserism than with other democracies, and more 
of spontaneous and broad-based popular initiative.

Switzerland recovered faster, and more solidly, from the war - without 
the Versailles hangover that was to vex Germany and weaken France and 
Britain over the next generation. In Southern Germany, for example, 
the post-war strikes were one of a number of grievances against the 
economic dislocations aided and in some cases caused by Versailles. 
Thousands of young men, returning from the war to find the jobs all 
taken and their sacrifices in vain, took to political and paramilitary 
agitation as the logical solution - burning with hatred for the 
conspiracy of Bolshevists, intellectuals, and Jews. One of the young 
men was a corporal and former Austrian living in Munich: Adolph 

In Switzerland, no such passions developed because the labor movement 
was confronted in an orderly, reasonable fashion - and parts of its 
economic program adopted. As in 1848, the revolution seemed to come 
early to Switzerland, but was also dealt with more swiftly and more 

In the long term, the council's handling of the national strike was 
the basis for a kind of concordat between labor and capital and 
management that has brought more than eighty years of harmony. 
Although there were signal advances in this harmony in 1947 and again 
in 1959, the national strike of 1918 and the reform legislation that 
followed were the starting point.

>From 1918 through 1998, Switzerland suffered a total of less than 800 
strikes with a total of 1.2 million man hours lost. On a per capita 
basis, this is less than one-fifth the average of the United States or 
Germany, and still smaller compared to Italy and Great Britain. Yet 
industrial wages - whether in spite of or because of this labor 
harmony - are the highest in the developed world.

The Depression speaks less clearly to the ability of Switzerland's 
executives to handle a crisis, but it is by no means entirely 
unfavorable. Every government in the world did something to try to 
combat the joblessness and lowered volume of production that seemed to 
afflict, at least in part, every developed economy in the world. 
Switzerland was no exception, with public works programs and a program 
of expanded training for workers in the trades. The Swiss effort was 
small potatoes - the total of special public works and increases in 
transfer payments was less than one percent of gross national product 
- compared to the ambitious New Deal in America, the socialist program 
in France, and the aggressive industrial subsidies in Italy and Nazi 
Germany. Officials also devalued the franc to put prices for 
Switzerland's key exports back on a par with international 
competitors. Thanks to a combination of labor discipline and skill in 
calculating the initial magnitude of the devaluation, the device 
seemed to work: Inflation blipped up by a few percentage points, but 
was acceptable, and employment remained strong.

At the height of the Depression, while Franklin Roosevelt was speaking 
of a nation "one third" in economic distress, the Swiss suffered a 
maximum unemployment rate of 4.2 percent. This compares favorably to 
rates of 20 percent and more common in the industrial countries. Swiss 
output was flat for four years, but this compared to plunges of 10 
percent per year or more in England, Germany, and the United States.

"Switzerland," as one economist observed, "never had the New Deal." If 
we remember that the New Deal was advanced as a practical stopgap 
measure, a way to "do something" rather than merely mouthing 
platitudes about supply and demand, then the relative Swiss torpidity 
can be seen as excusable, as the crisis never reached the dimensions 
it did elsewhere. Free-market economists would argue that the decision 
not to launch vast spending programs actually aided the country's 
economic recovery. At the worst, one can say that Executives during 
economic crises in both 1918 and 1929-1933, Switzerland's diffused 
executive in no way hampered the government from taking steps that 
produced one of the most dynamic economies in the world during the 
pre-war 1930s.

"The first thought of a Swiss," as President Furgler commented, "is 
not, Met us go to the federal government for this,' but rather, 'let's 
bring it up at the town council.' And even when you are at the 
national level, it is not, 'what can the president do about it?' but 
rather, 'what do we need to do about it?' The 'we' includes the 
president, but does not orbit about him in the way it does in the U.S. 
system." This is certainly visible in the domestic-economic crises 
that the institution has had to deal with.

Crises of a foreign or military nature offer perhaps more of an acid 
test of the executive's ability. In the case for the U.S. Constitution 
made in The Federalist, much effort goes into defending the power of 
the federal government and of the presidency in particular. Most of 
the arguments over the president's authority have to do with the 
necessity of having a unified command for dealing with foreign 
antagonists swiftly and, at times, secretly. Switzerland lacks 
America's size and its oceanic buffer from the European powers. Hence 
its need for such a president would appear even more acute.

Switzerland has not had its neutrality tested by full-scale war on its 
soil since the French occupation. At least several times, however, it 
faced imminent and substantial danger of an assault from the German 
army. These took place during the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, 
and World War II. In addition, Switzerland faced challenges to its 
territory or opportunities to regain territories that were taken from 
it wrongfully. These disputes centered on Neuchatel, the Valtellina, 
and the Savoy. Switzerland's record of achieving what might be called 
its objective in these crises, as Table 6.1 (on the next page) 
suggests, is mixed.

Switzerland's inability to regain territory it long held, and valued 
defensively, in Valtellina - on the southern approaches to the 
Gotthard - is not a light failing. Had the Swiss simply sent in a few 
troops, as they might have in 1813 as well, there would have been 
little European resistance. Switzerland had never ceded the justice of 
the area's seizure after the war against Napoleon; it had only 
prudently declined to start a war over the matter. The people of the 
district wished overwhelmingly to be reaffiliated with Switzerland.

Imagine that a critical piece of Ohio or New York - say, the Hudson 
River approach to New York City or the railroads East of Chicago - had 
been seized by a foreign power or proclaimed itself an independent 
kingdom. If after some years events forced the interloper to abandon 
his ridiculous claim and withdraw his forces, the U.S. would be 
expected to gather itself and reclaim what had always been rightfully 
its own. If it could not it would stand indicted for at least a 
certain lack of alertness. This may sound petty or even jingoistic, 
but we should consider that the U.S. Civil War was begun by just

Table 6.1
Military Crises and the Swiss Executive

Crisis Outcome and Assessment

Neuchatel 1856-57

Neuchatel canton declares itself independent of its ancient ties to 
Prussia. The German states mobilize an estimated 125,000 troops and 
prepare for war. The Swiss Federal Council remains unyielding toward 
Prussia despite the daunting military force arrayed against them. 
Neuchatel remains an independent Swiss canton as Prussia backs down.

Assessment: It is unlikely a U.S.-style presidency could have handled 
the affair better.

Franco-Prussian War 1870-71

Bismarck's Germany crushes the French army; Napoleon III abdicates; 
100,000 French troops flee to Switzerland. Swiss mobilize promptly 
against both the threat of a French escape in force and a German 
attack against the French troops. The Swiss allow the French sanctuary 
as internees but only after they completely disarm. They also spurn 
German pressure to turn the French armies over to them as prisoners.

Assessment: Probably no advantage or disadvantage to Switzerland's 
executive structure.

World War I 1914-18

Assessment: Executive structure weakened Swiss war-fighting capability 
marginally. Note though, that a stronger executive might have led 
Switzerland to enter the war on behalf of Germany in 1914, or of 
France thereafter. The stubborn slowness of executive by committee 
works against prompt change and foreign intrigue for both good and 

World War II 1939-45

Virtually alone among the countries of Europe, Switzerland stands free 
and democratic against the Fascist domination of Europe.

Assessment: Executive structure works marginally to Switzerland's 
advantage in rallying the country for a long resistance to the Nazis 
(see discussions in Chaps. 17 and 18).

such a dispute, and over a smaller piece of property than the 
Valtellina: Fort Sumter. On the other hand, this is the extent of the 
flaw: That in this case the diffuse executive branch of the Swiss 
government was unable to move promptly in response to a legitimate 
opportunity. In the behavior of nations and their institutions, there 
are worse possible tendencies.

Prussia's threats over Neuchatel (1856-1857) and Bismarck's demand for 
the surrender of French troops (1870) are interesting because they 
predated a constitutional change in which the federal government 
consolidated more control over the Swiss military. One of the 
arguments in the constitutional debate of 1874 in favor of slightly 
increasing the power of the central government, and greatly 
consolidating the military, was the need to counteract the growing 
German threat to the North. Yet even before these fixes, the Swiss 
were able to resist German pressure. Swiss institutions may have 
played a role.

It may help to note that the Swiss have a time-honored method of 
preparing for war, one used more in anticipation of German aggression 
than for any other country: the election of a general-in-chief to 
command the armed forces. This is done for the simple practical reason 
that once war threatens there is a need to organize the Swiss 
military, consisting normally of some 200 to 300 officers, for a 
different sort of activity, and to rally the country behind a strong 
commander. Military efficiency too requires someone to make the 
decisions. The Swiss, always suspicious of concentrations of power, 
prefer not to have such a commanding figure during peacetime. Hence 
there is no general-in-chief, indeed normally no Swiss general, except 
in time of war, and one must be chosen to meet the crisis. Naturally, 
the Swiss method of appointing such a person is to hold an election; 
in this case, before parliament.

The point is not that this method necessarily produces the best 
military mind, or fails to. The important thing to notice is the drama 
of the event - a kind of public sacrament in which the state, this 
most democratic of states, prepares for the ultimate act of statehood: 
the defense of the homeland. This ceremony, and the political act it 
represents, has an important impact on the ability of the Swiss to 
prepare for war with a ferocity that goes against some conceptions of 

In the Franco-Prussian War, the man chosen was Johannes Herzog of 
Aarau, the capital city of the canton of Aargau. Herzog was a 
participant in the Sonderbund War and a trusted associate of the 
victorious General Dufour, who would later head the Red Cross. It was 
Herzog, of course, who had to prepare the army to repulse first a 
French incursion (or simply a disorganized retreat) while being ready, 
possibly within a few hours, to deal with the pursuing Germans. Herzog 
set the tough terms that probably helped save the French from the 
tender mercies of Bismarck. No one who saw the thorough disarmament of 
the French could claim that Switzerland had violated its neutrality. 
And the British, not to mention the French and the Russians, were 
watching with concern to make sure the rising power of unified Germany 
did not get out of hand.

'The head of the Swiss army in wartime is a very powerful man," a 
former Swiss official who engaged in economic planning during the 
1940s comments. Henri Guisan, the Swiss commander-in-chief during 
World War II, "had only to ask for materials and he had them." This 
was not because Guisan could legally compel compliance. Rather, the 
emergency itself provided the man in such a position with the 
authority he needs.

In effect, in time of war the Swiss elect a commander-in-chief, 
something closer to the American or European conception of a head of 
state, though still subordinate of course to the civil authorities. 
The man holding this position enjoys a tremendous prestige and, by 
virtue not of enumerated functions but of moral suasion, tremendous 
powers. As one of only four Swiss generals ever to serve, this 
commander immediately becomes a figure of history. His role and his 
function are precisely tailored to the emergency. He assumes his 
office on the day of his election, and he ceases to occupy it as soon 
as the crisis is over. Without intending to - at least, there is no 
evidence of this intention either from the 1848 or 1874 constitutional 
debates - the Swiss effectively created a way to have something like a 
presidential system, but only in times of need. To the extent that 
this device works, it enables the Swiss to enjoy the best of both 
worlds - in times of peace, a weak executive, incapable of becoming a 
tyrant; in time of need, a strong leader.

The Swiss defensive efforts in World War II are discussed in a 
separate chapter in Switzerland's role in that war, which became the 
source of controversy in the late 1990s. For our discussion of the 
workability of the executive, it is enough to note that Switzerland's 
exertions were remarkable, and suggest no weakness of institutional 
capability. Well before most other countries had begun to act, 
Switzerland began a series of what are probably the most extensive 
series of hidden fortifications in the world. More important, perhaps, 
Guisan understood the need of military men, especially Swiss, to have 
a true sense of idealism about their duties. One of his first acts 
after his election was to gather his top officers on the Rütli to 
repeat the oath of 1291. At his urging, the federal council more than 
once issued a declaration of neutrality that was so tenacious one 
could easily mistake them for a declaration of war. The declarations 
proclaimed that Switzerland would never surrender its neutrality to 
"any" attacker - there was only one real possibility - and go to some 
length to assure the people that, even if Switzerland was attacked and 
they heard that a surrender had taken place, it could not be true. By 
foreclosing any surrender option, Guisan not only encouraged the Swiss 
public and soldiers to prepare for fierce battle; he also signaled the 
Germans that any attack would cost many lives and would never lead to 
the kind of easy capitulation seen in France, Czechoslovakia, and 
other victims of Nazism. Guisan thereby raised the cost the Germans 
perceived they would have to pay to occupy Switzerland - and thus 
helped persuade even the mighty Wehrmacht that this was one country 
not worth attacking.

If the Swiss executive is highly flexible, of course, this is due not 
only to its own design but to other factors and institutions in the 
political culture. One is the nature of the army. Being a citizens' 
army, it reaches deep into the roots of the populace. Every third 
Swiss maintains a firearm at home, ready for duty in case of attack - 
usually within twenty-four hours. This type of army is extremely 
tenacious and ready; as Machiavelli observed, the Swiss fight "like no 
army since that of the Roman Republic" when defending their home. Yet, 
it is instinctively defensive; hence, the Swiss response to 
opportunities in the mid-nineteenth century. Until the great engine 
for the defense of the country is engaged, Switzerland moves at the 
deliberate pace to which its republican institutions are suited.

Similar factors are at play with the Swiss presidency during 
peacetime. It might not be too much to say that the Swiss presidency 
could never function were it not for the support of a whole battery of 
other institutions, and popular habits of mind, that enable this 
counter-intuitive executive by committee to function. Among these are 
the weakness of the other branches of government and of government as 
a whole. Members of the parliament and the judiciary, as we will see, 
are not highly paid, have tiny staffs, and, while certainly respected, 
are without the semiroyal privileges that one sees for a United States 
Senator or Supreme Court Justice. Hence the Swiss executive, while 
seeming trivial compared to chief executives in America, France, or 
even Germany or Britain, is not nearly so overshadowed compared to 
Switzerland's people's parliament and its efficient but simple 
justices. Likewise, the decentralized nature of authority - 
Switzerland's federalism - means that a less potent executive is less 
necessary. Switzerland has no great bureaucracy to buck and kick 
against the policies desired by the government.

On the negative side, there is less potential for nuisance to attract 
the vain and the ambitious. "We do not have enough spoils," as a 
member of the Swiss civil service told me, "to have a 'spoils system.
'" As well, of course, since the executive branch is always headed by 
seven persons from four very different parties, the opportunities for 
favoritism are even smaller.

A more positive way of viewing the interaction of Swiss federalism 
with its minimalist executive is to understand that in Switzerland 
federalism does not merely mean a division of power in which cantons 
or even communities enjoy significant sovereignty and responsibility. 
Swiss federalism stretches down to the individual who sits on the 
school board, or helps run the library - largely volunteer activities 
in all but the largest Swiss communities. If we view the body politic 
as an actual body, this means that the muscles and the capillaries and 
the lungs of the Swiss system are constantly exercising and 
invigorating themselves. The Swiss executive draws on a more united, 
energetic body than other executives, whose people are less informed. 
The Swiss vote more, volunteer more - in short, they govern more. 
Hence they are more fitted and ready to unite behind their chief 
executive, divided though it is politically, whenever the times 
demand. And since the greatest strength of modern democratic chief 
executives is to thus channel the people's vitality - "to focus 
attention and set the agenda," as Doris Kearns Goodwin puts it - the 
Swiss executive, in this sense, is one of the strongest in the world. 
When the executive - or the parliament or the courts - propose to act 
in accord with the popular wisdom, they automatically marshal an army 
of true citizens to their side, and can overwhelm any other branch 
that might oppose. (All the branches of the Swiss government are 
habituated to following the people's wisdom.)

Thus a more proper understanding of Swiss federalism lies in comparing 
not just the relative powers of the branches and levels of government 
in the abstract, but their capacity for action with popular support, 
popular indifference, and against popular opposition. With popular 
support, any branch of the Swiss government can accomplish nearly 
anything, for at every level there is the recourse to the ballot box. 
With popular opposition, almost nothing can be done. Only in the 
middle band, in the cases where the people are relatively indifferent, 
do the powers as such come very far into play, and in these cases by 
their very nature there is little need for a strong executive.

This combination has the additional benefit of rendering the Swiss 
relatively difficult to sway with sudden arguments, demagogic appeals, 
and slanted versions of the facts. Having never had a king or queen, 
they refuse to have a pseudo-king or Caesar to attempt to seduce or 
bully them. "Switzerland," as Lenin grumbled after living in the 
country for many years, "is the worst ground for the revolution."

Today, Switzerland faces no crises comparable to the Great Depression 
or World Wars. Paradoxically, however, many Swiss wonder if the 
institution of the corporate presidency may require mending.

The controversy over Switzerland's relations with Nazi Germany during 
World War II, for example, hit the Swiss hard. The Swiss were not 
prepared for the kind of international opprobrium heaped on them. Many 
Swiss still remember the sacrifices made during the war to keep Hitler 
out. When international press, and even the U.S. government, began 
focusing attention on dormant banking accounts, the Swiss wondered why 
no one mentioned the considerable resources they spent, and the 
dangers they accepted, in harboring more than 50,000 allied internees 
and nearly as many civilian refugees - many of them Jews or resistance 
leaders - from Germany, France, Poland, and elsewhere.

The Swiss wondered why their own government could not be more 
vigorous, in a double sense. First, why hadn't the authorities simply 
forced the Swiss banks to resolve the issue of the dormant accounts 
years ago? And second, why did its leaders seem powerless now to place 
Switzerland's sins of omission in context with her great humanitarian 
exertions? Naturally, much of this frustration found its object in the 
executive, particularly Flavio Cotti, now retired from the federal 
council, who served as president and foreign minister during the 
critical year of 1998.

In many ways, the Swiss had an easier time opposing Hitler than they 
do dealing with the Holocaust issue. Moral and physical threats cannot 
cow them; but confronting a complex series of factual issues, wrapped 
up in the bitterness and rage sewn by the Hitler genocide, are hard to 
come to grips with, let alone combat. This is a job for a national 
leader and communicator with both toughness and sensitivity, in the 
mold of a Ronald Reagan or Bill Clinton, and the Swiss model does not 
place politicians of this nature in the council.

Traveling in Switzerland in 1998 and 1999, an American was often 
engaged in discussions about the U.S. president. The Swiss were not 
much interested in Clinton's amours and other behavior per se; much 
less so than Americans and most Europeans. They were intrigued by the 
response of our political institutions in launching the country's 
second impeachment trial in its history. And if they understood the 
idea of a free people having a king-like president in the abstract, 
they certainly had a hard time "feeling it in their bones."

This was brought home to me during a visit to the Ticino in early 
1999, during the Senate impeachment debate. My train stopped at 
Bellinzona, where a beautiful castle, Castelgrande, nestled between 
the river and the grassy slopes and ridges along the southern Alps, 
virtually compelled me to stop.

Some men at a cafe up the street were drinking a delicious type of 
"Russian hot chocolate" with liquor in it and, being unusually 
expansive for Swiss, invited me to join. We quickly came to discuss my 
reason for being in the Ticino, and thence, politics. The eldest of 
the three men, clearly the sort of leader of the group and not by 
chance the best German speaker, held forth on various issues from the 
World War II controversy to the recent appearance of Herr Blocher, a 
parliamentarian who is, roughly, Switzerland's Pat Buchanan in 
ideological terms, though a more powerful figure for having been 
elected to office many times and having led successful efforts on a 
number of referenda.

Eventually, here in the heart of the world's oldest democracy, our 
discussion of the great issues moved to the Lewinsky affair. The other 
two men brightened considerably at the shift of the conversation, 
either because there were some proper nouns they recognized - "Monica" 
was all one had to say in even the most remote village of Switzerland 
- or because there was an opening to talk about sex; probably both.

After soliciting my prediction on the impeachment question - which was 
that Clinton would not be thrown out of office - the two men settled 
down into a discussion of their likes and dislikes for various 
American presidents. Kennedy, Reagan, and Carter were the popular 

During this part of the conversation, the older man seemed not to be 
listening. He was frowning and deliberating, as if thinking through 
something he wanted to say just right, or working out a math problem. 
Finally he looked up and raised his thick, Brezhnevian eyebrows and 
announced his findings: "Such a thing just would not be possible in 
Switzerland - not even a part of it."

His companions looked at one another and me, a little confused. One of 
them took a drink from his mug and smiled, confident that there would 
be some punch line. The other one crossed himself - it seemed to be a 
gently mocking indication that his older friend, the conclusion-
drawer, was a fairly orthodox Catholic and was making a point about 
the state of morals. That was my thought, too - especially from the 
earlier parts of the conversation, on the American television 
programming and its excesses, and from my rusty German, it seemed to 
me that he was trying to make a point about the sexual intrigue. It 
was either that "such a thing" wasn't possible because the Swiss had 
higher standards for their public officials, or that "such a thing" 
wasn't possible because there just wouldn't be such a fuss about 
consensual relationships.

Not sure what he was trying to say but not wanting to appear dense, 
the fellow next to me asked "why?" in Italian. The older gentleman 
smiled with satisfaction, as if having foreseen the query and, 
speaking to me in German, said "because so much power" could never be 
concentrated in one man. The Clinton-Lewinsky affair wasn't possible 
not only because a Swiss would probably not suffer from such hubris, 
but because the Swiss republic wouldn't place a man in a position to 
be so tempted by power. Nor would it have brought a young woman like 
Monica Lewinsky into the kind of hero worship that is made possible by 
such concentrations of power in one personality - this was my thought, 
but it was in the spirit of what the old man was saying. He nodded. 
"Not even a part of it."

One of the colleagues joined in. "This castle," he said, gesturing at 
the massive and largely undisturbed Castelgrande, "is not the rule but 
the exception." And he was right, both in the narrow and the broader 
sense. The Swiss probably have sacked more castles in their country, 
and tolerated fewer lords, than any other country of Europe. Where men 
and women are citizens, there cannot be lords and tyrants.

"Not even a part of it," the old man smiled, and leaned back.

Indeed, from the time of President Clinton's 1998 denial (January) to 
admission (August) and impeachment vote in House (December) was 
virtually one year. That is a full term in office for the Swiss 

The Swiss constitution makes no provision for impeachment procedures. 
It was not thought necessary. This is not because Swiss human nature 
is better than others, or that the Swiss vainly imagine it to be so. 
It is because the nature of the office is different - less given to 
abuse in the first place, and more easily corrected when there is 

It is difficult to picture this institution of a mixed presidency 
functioning in almost any place other than Switzerland. Therein may 
lie one index of just how successful its institutions are.


The Vorort was a precursor to the Swiss corporate presidency from 1848 
to the present. The Vorort moved from city to city as the site of the 
Diet meetings, and hence the "capitol" of Switzerland itself moved. 
The Vorort was little more than a kind of secretariat to the Diet, 
though from time to time its members were able to distinguish 
themselves in diplomatic assignments. Among these was Charles Pictet 
de Rochemond, who helped negotiate European recognition of the value 
of Swiss neutrality at the Congress of Vienna.

 7. Judiciary

"The judiciary in Switzerland," writes James Bryce, "is a less 
important part of the machinery of federal government than it is in 
the United States or in the Australian Commonwealth, and may therefore 
be briefly dealt with." (1)

This is certainly true in literal terms. The Swiss constitution grants 
the judiciary few powers, and these have not been expanded - neither 
by chance nor by legal cunning.

Yet the same initial observation might be made about the federal 
judiciary in Germany, France, or the United States. Their stated 
powers are few; their constitutional role, limited; their dependence 
upon the other branches of government, almost total. In these other 
cases, however, the role of judges and of the federal judges in 
particular have grown substantially since the foundation of those 

In Switzerland, by contrast, some combination of causes has rendered 
the judiciary restrained not only on paper, but in practice; the Swiss 
high court is limited not only in de jure, but in de facto terms. It 
is therefore worth some attention in its own right, and a useful tool 
for understanding the "machinery of government."

Housed in a comfortable but nonpalatial set of offices in Lausanne - 
the Swiss emphasis on keeping the government divided and diversified - 
the Swiss Supreme Court operates like few other federal appeals courts 
in the world. The Swiss allowed me to visit during public hours and 
even use the law library for research. There was the usual lack of 
fuss, fanfare, and bureaucracy: No metal detectors, no demand for i.d. 
papers. Both the chief of staff for the president of the court and two 
of the justices came through the library or cafeteria during my 
afternoon in Lausanne, and were happy to strike up a conversation 
about comparative legal systems. This air of informality in the halls 
of government is all the more striking in Switzerland because of the 
greater formality of the Swiss in general compared to Americans and 
even, in recent years, many Britons. The justices come and go with no 
formal robes and do not even appear to wear them in many Swiss courts, 
although there was no opportunity for me to see the federal court in 

At a lounge up the street with a TV set, several Swiss lawyers - they 
did not seem to be professional staff or justices from the court, but 
in Switzerland, it is hard to tell - occasionally would gather to 
watch portions of the U.S. impeachment hearings. During one of the 
down times, a commentator began to discuss the elaborate robe tailored 
for the occasion for Justice Rhenquist. The Swiss thought it was 
mildly ridiculous but, perhaps out of deference to the obvious 
American nearby, did not go on about it for very long.

The Swiss federal court matches this spirit in its operations. There 
are thirty-nine justices on the federal court, another thirty-nine 
alternates and extraordinary alternates, and eighteen justices and 
alternates at the federal insurance court. The federal court is 
further broken down into nine divisions with particular specialties: 
there is a court for hearing criminal appeals, a court for disputes 
between the cantons, and others. The court as a whole handles about 4,
000 cases per year. Justices are not given to long speeches or written 
opinions. "The parliament and ultimately the people write the laws and 
the constitution," a staff member who works with justice Nordmann-
Zimmerman told me, "which frees our justices to decide particular 
cases. There is not a need for detailed instructions from our court on 
constitutional issues; Switzerland is a democracy."

By way of an overview, Table 7.1 compares some of the salient features 
of the Swiss judiciary with those of several other countries.

The combination of a large number of justices and the division of 
cases by type, as well as the limited powers of the court, have the 
effect of rendering it far less ambitious than many other federal 
courts. There is no striving upward, little calculation as to how to 
make great pronouncements or innovations in the law. The Swiss federal 
court is about deciding cases. This, in turn, has an impact on what 
sort of person seeks nomination to the federal court. It is certainly 
not coveted by the most brilliant attorneys as a kind of cap to their 
careers or an opportunity to make history.

Some of the persons nominated to the court, in fact, are not even 
attorneys but members of parliament, businessmen, and other 
professionals. It is not that these nonlawyers predominate; they 
constitute normally six to ten of the thirty-five to thirty-nine 
justices (much of the time, several seats are vacant). Their presence, 
however, has a leavening effect on the court, and the mere fact that 
there are some is a reminder to the attorneys who predominate that the 
law is meant to serve people from different walks of life. Ideas and 
concepts from outside the legal profession are able to make a regular 
entry, and thus help a little bit to prevent the high court from 
becoming an aloof oligarchy trapped in certain legal orthodoxies.

The sheer number of justices, as well, helps reinforce the idea of 
public service and, if you will, judicial humility. A body of some 
sixty persons, with

Table 7.1
Supreme Courts Compared

Switzerland, France, Germany, U.S.

Number of justices - 54*, 11, 11, 9

Justices nominated by - legislature, president, prime minister, 

Justices approved by - legislature, legislature, legislature, 2/3 of 

Length of term - six years, life, life, life

Percent of judges who are attorneys(+) - less than 80%, more than 90%, 
more than 90%, 100%

Power to declare local laws void - yes**, yes, yes, yes

Power to declare federal laws void*** - no, (yes), (yes), yes

Source: Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, "Supreme courts compared," 
Research Memorandum, 1999, copyright AdTI, all rights reserved.

* - Thirty-nine justices on the federal court and members of the 
federal insurance court. Does not include thirty-nine "extraordinary" 
alternate justices for the main court or nine for the insurance court, 
which would bring the total to 92.

** - This power is used more sparingly in Switzerland than in the 
other countries; see chapter 13.

+ - From last fifty justices for U.S. and Switzerland; current members 
of German and French courts.

*** - French and German justices have rights of judicial review but it 
is more recent and less sweeping than the American use of the 

more frequent turnover, does not develop into the same sort of cozy 
clique as a body of a dozen or so persons typically serving thirty 
years or more on the bench. (Although it is rare for the justices to 
be rejected in seeking a reappointment, it does happen. As well, it 
happens frequently that a justice will stand down after two or three 
terms. The position does not carry the almost lord-like prestige of a 
position in other supreme courts, and the pay is at the same low level 
the Swiss extend to all public servants.)

The spirit of this supreme court was summed up for me by a Swiss 
attorney, Dr. iur. Wilhelm Boner, who studied comparative law at 
Tulane University in the U.S. before returning to his native canton of 
Aargau to practice law. Asked to review some of the more famous or 
important Swiss supreme court decisions, Boner said, "It is possible 
to name some, but it would be misleading if you mean 'great cases' in 
the sense of Marbury vs. Madison or Dred Scott. Our federal court does 
not exist to produce those sort of rulings, but to settle individual 

Likewise, the Swiss judges are denied the lifetime tenure that is 
accorded supreme court justices in most other developed democracies. 
They are not, however, subject to frequent partisan campaigns or 
bitter denunciation. In fact, by virtue of the number of court 
members, and the fact that they are not nominated for life, the 
nomination debates tend to be far more civilized than those commonly 
seen in the United States or Great Britain. Nor are the justices 
"lobbied" or pressured during their early years as they pursue 
reelection. Reelection is more or less assumed for good behavior; it 
is extremely likely. It is not, however, automatic. More than 95 
percent of the justices who seek reappointment after six years receive 
it. But that 5 percent possibility is all that is needed to 
concentrate the mind of the justices. And the fact that most justices 
receive reelection does not alter the fact that they must periodically 
receive it.

The result is a judiciary much more attuned to the attitudes and 
wisdom, but also the whims, of the people. In other countries this 
might have proven a dangerous mix. In Switzerland it has not, both 
because of the limited powers of the judiciary and the relative 
conservatism - in the sense of having an aversion to radical 
innovations - of the Swiss people.

The most important difference between the Swiss high court and others, 
however, is its want of the power, common in Western countries, to 
void federal laws on constitutional grounds. As Bryce writes,

The Swiss Tribunal cannot declare any Federal law or part of a law to 
be invalid as infringing some provision of the Federal Constitution...
.This principle does not commend itself to American lawyers.

This power has evolved in some countries, such as the U.S., where it 
was not specifically enumerated in the constitution. More recent 
constitutions have often tended to grant the authority explicitly, and 
some (such as Russia) even provide for a kind of judiciary veto - the 
opportunity to pass on the constitutionality of statues before there 
is an actual case in controversy, or even before the laws have taken 
effect. Why is it that in Switzerland the justices of the federal 
court have been so restrained?

Swiss federalism is a partial answer, but not satisfactory. Other 
countries enjoy various degrees of federalism, but regardless, have 
found irresistible the march of legal authorities to judicial 
constitutional review. Federalism can cut both ways, moreover. In the 
United States, judicial review was established in Marbury in what on 
the surface was an act of judicial restraint. The Dred Scott decision 
enforcing slave-holder rights even in nonslave states was put forward 
- whether fairly or not - as a matter of states' rights.

The culture of republicanism - the ethic of keeping powers small, 
ambitions in check - likewise is a part of the answer, but seems 
unsatisfying. Chance or necessity normally puts someone in a position 
to expand the powers of an office or institution, and human nature 
being what it is, some occupant eventually embraces the opportunity. 
As well, this consideration too often makes it necessary for the 
judiciary to exert power on its own, in order to block a greater 
accumulation or abuse of power by another. If the Supreme Court of the 
United States has acted with a heavy hand in matters such as Dred 
Scott, it has also blocked abuses of powers by Presidents Richard 
Nixon, William Clinton, and others, and been a bulwark for defending 
individual rights of all sorts against federal intrusions.

Another partial explanation can be seen if we look at the Swiss legal 
system from the bottom up. It is essentially a cantonal affair - 
recall that the twenty-three cantons each set their own rules for both 
civil and criminal procedure. Although there is increasing 
harmonization, there are limits to this, and the legal culture is 
still based on law firms doing the bulk of their business by canton or 
on a canton-by-canton basis. As well, Switzerland has a number of 
provisions that discourage professionals from thinking of legal 
practice as a way to amass great wealth or fame. There is a loser-pays 
provision for lawsuits: If Smith brings an action against Jones, and 
Smith loses the case, he not only does not receive judgment, but must 
pay Jones's reasonable attorney's fees. This discourages attorneys 
from rolling the dice and filing numerous lawsuits for large amounts 
on the hopes of cashing in on one or two big awards. It also toughens 
the attitude of defendants in such lawsuits; they know that if they 
can persuade the judge they have committed no grave harm to the 
opposing party, their costs in having to prove this will be partially 

As well, the Swiss mindset of Willensnation, its position as a 
potential gatekeeper, plays a role. The Swiss know that their position 
depends on providing the services of an honest broker if they are to 
be a trading, transportation, and communications hub. If its Swiss 
legal system were a capricious thing, given to change at the whim of 
judges or manipulation by highly skilled attorneys, Switzerland would 
be like a vending machine center which can't reliably offer change. 
Angry customers would turn away, or even kick the machines, and 
business would decline. All nations, of course, pay these costs when 
their legal system is unwieldy or their currency unstable, or any of 
several other vagaries. The Swiss, however, being so small, so 
strategically located, and so dependent on foreign trade, are acutely 
aware of these tradeoffs. This has helped restrain them in all manner 
of behavior.

To understand why the federal courts have almost no authority to void 
federal law and only limited authority to void cantonal statutes, it 
is helpful to remember who may: the people. This right to review laws, 
and change the constitution itself, is in use continuously throughout 
Switzerland. Thus the concept that a particular body would be 
necessary to protect the constitution is somewhat alien. To do so 
would be to protect the people from the people, the constitution from 
its authors. Of course, Swiss professionals engaged in international 
business, especially those familiar with the United States, understand 
the concept of judicial review as practiced here and in some European 
countries. Even for them, though, the notion is regarded as somewhat 
confused - and troublesome. For working-class Swiss, one must explain 
the doctrine many times to get it across, and even then one has the 
feeling that the concept is regarded as somewhat antidemocratic.

In the United States, there is much debate among legal scholars about 
what the "original intent of the framers" was regarding this or that 
clause - or even, whether this matter has relevance. In Switzerland, 
to a much greater extent, the "framers" are still alive and they are 
not a particular group of men, but all the citizens. There is no need 
to perform highly speculative debates about what they meant; and if an 
error is made, it is easily corrected by those same authors 

A more positive way of putting this is to say that Switzerland has a 
Supreme Court for constitutional review - but it is the voters.


1. This chapter is concerned wholly with the Swiss federal court, its 
functioning, and especially its constitutional role. For a related 
discussion of the Swiss legal system at the cantonal and local levels, 
for civil and criminal law, see Chap. 13.

 8 Parliament

At a glance, the Swiss parliament appears ill suited to govern any 
country, let alone one with the administrative, linguistic, and 
economic complexities of Switzerland.

Its members are numerous, and therefore, less remarkable as a group. 
For every million Swiss citizens, there are about forty members of the 
lower house of parliament; for every one million Americans, two 
members of Congress. This tends to reduce the prestige surrounding a 
citizen's holding seat in the legislature in Bern and also, by sheer 
rules of arithmetic, reduces the level of erudition of the group that 
is able to secure election closer to the societal mean. Most of the 
members are not particularly smooth in either appearance or speech.

"The debates," as Bryce noted in the 1920s, "are practical but not 
particularly distinguished." During a dozen or so sessions in the fall 
of 1998 and spring of 1999, one observed perhaps a quarter of the male 
members in well-cut suits of wool or some other natural material; 
about half in synthetics and knits with bad ties and shoes; and 
perhaps a quarter in blue jeans, corduroy-jacket combinations, 
sweaters, and the like.

It's common to talk with a Swiss for more than an hour - and in my 
case, most conversations quickly reached the subject of the political 
economy and culture - only to happen upon the fact that one's 
counterpart was a member of the national or cantonal legislature. In 
two long luncheon meetings, Franz Muheim never mentioned that he had 
been a member of the Swiss Senate from Uri. The "Who's Who" of 
Switzerland lists only a fraction of the current members of the two 
chambers; in America or Europe, only a tiny number of members (or even 
former members) would be so omitted. Asked to name a single important 
bill from Swiss history, such as "the Jackson Amendment," "Glass-
Steagal," or "Kemp Roth," most Swiss, even the well read, cannot do 

Switzerland's legislature meets four times a year for a period of 
three weeks, so the individual and collective expertise of its members 
on any issue are highly limited. Debates in the chamber are competent 
and businesslike, but seldom stirring or memorable, or even 
particularly clever or media grabbing like those in the U.S. Congress 
or House of Commons. The deliberations of the two chambers bear a 
faint resemblance to the pace and logistics of a meeting of the United 
Nations General Assembly. Although most members have some competence 
in two or more of the country's four official languages, some do not, 
and by law, individuals at such proceedings have a right to speak in 
any of the country's three official tongues.

As a whole, the body is respected, even revered. The Swiss make 
occasional jokes about their parliament, particularly the lack of 
special qualification or expertise by some of its members, or the 
presence of "so many lawyers," though in fact there are fewer 
attorneys than in most democratic assemblies. But the comments are of 
a "gentle wit," as Beatrice puts it in Shakespeare's Much Ado About 
Nothing, "stimulating without harming." Toward the individual members, 
in general, there is a tremendous affection. Visiting with a 
parliamentarian in his or her home town, one generally observes that 
they are known and liked. It is not the power worship or respect that 
would be given to a British MP, still less to a United States Senator. 
There is, however, a familial affection.

"We have to like the parliament, in a sense," as a newspaper editor 
told me, "because our parliament is us." It reflects, more than any 
other parliament, the people who elect it, and it enacts - especially 
given the many popular checks on it - laws that are closer to the 
heart and spirit of its people than in any other nation. For an 
individual, achieving a seat in the lower or even upper chamber is not 
on the level of distinction of other Western democracies. Members and 
former members make no fuss about their titles, and normally are not 
addressed as such. A Swiss who was a member of parliament and has a 
Ph.D. is nearly always referred to as "Doctor" - not "Congressman" or 
"Senator." When one Swiss person describes the achievements of another 
who spent some years in the legislature, it is not uncommon for them 
to completely omit the fact of their having served there - not by way 
of demeaning the body or the person's service there, but simply 
because it is not necessarily considered as important as their 
achievements in their business, their community, and their family. The 
reciprocal result, however, is that the Swiss feel perhaps less 
alienated from their politicians than the voters of any other country.

The election rules that produce these parliaments are also a mass of 
seeming contradictions. There are no federal term limits (at least one 
canton has a ten-year cap), and members enjoy a very high rate of 
reelection. Yet they generally step down after a period of ten or so 
years, being taken up with other pursuits. In many Western countries, 
the pattern is the opposite: Many politicians loudly proclaim the 
virtues of limited terms, yet decline to step down themselves after 
years in office.

The Swiss spend little on campaigns. For a seat in the national 
legislature, they consider any amount over $50,000 spent by one 
candidate to be excessive, and this invisible ceiling is punctured 
only rarely. For the cantonal legislatures, $5,000 or less per 
candidate is the norm. This compares to races in the millions for the 
U.S. Congress and state legislatures. Yet Switzerland has no limits on 
how much a candidate can spend, and none either on how much an 
individual can give to a candidate. Despite the seeming opportunities 
offered for even a small amount of money to influence the political 
system, the Swiss are plagued by few of the scandals and corruption 
that plague Washington, London, or Tokyo. In the early 1980s, a member 
of the federal counsel, the Swiss executive, was caught up in a 
financial scandal. She had alerted her husband to a pending 
investigation of a company on whose board he sat. The call in which 
she did so was leaked to the press. She resigned quietly in a manner 
of days.

"It is free," James Bryce wrote in Modern Democracies, "from even the 
suspicion of being used for private gain." The statement remains true 
today. Yet there are few checks of the type that in more corrupt 
states are deemed essential merely to restrain marginally the force of 
legislative malfeasance. Swiss members of the Congress fill out no 
forms disclosing their income and holdings, and release no tax 
records. Even their campaign spending is a private affair. Candidates 
normally (as a practice, not a legal requirement) report totals to the 
party but not the public. Nor are such figures leaked to journalists.

"There would not be a great need for those types of ethics laws here," 
as Hugo Bütler, the editor of the Neue Zürcher Zeitung commented, 
"because any question of corruption could immediately be remedied by 
the people," a reference to the referendum system, "and because there 
is a general respect for the parliament and its members as honest and 
just. For the Swiss, the parliament is us, a reflection of the people 
themselves." For that reason, it is difficult to quantify certain 
activities for comparison to other countries.

The Swiss have no federal term-limits on legislative seats, and 
although the turnover rate in the legislature is relatively low, they 
have few complaints about the difficulty of removing an occasional 
member who does not perform. "Our members of parliament tend to get 
reelected because they do a good job," as Christian Kuoni, a leading 
businessman, put it. "If they were not liked, people would not vote 
for them."

Who are the legislators, and how do they work? More than one-fifth are 
women: forty-four of 200 members in the lower chamber in 1998, and 
eight out of forty-six in the upper chamber. The most common 
profession among these members is lawyers, but this is true of only 
about one-third of the members, as opposed to half or more in a 
typical Western congress or parliament. A number of business 
executives serve, more than 15 percent in fact. This is down from 
perhaps more than a third in, say, the 1960s, owing both to the 
increasing demands of parliament and of business. A number of union 
leaders, teachers, doctors, and housewives also serve.

This diversity of professions has a number of important impacts. 
Naturally, the debates and discussion of the Swiss assembly are less 
precise and correct legally than one might expect among the more 
specialized legislatures of other developed countries. This renders 
the whole tone and art of governing somewhat rougher, less precise, 
and less bureaucratic - with advantages and disadvantages. Combined 
with the fact that there are six or seven parties represented, as well 
as the fact that Swiss's highly federalist structure refers many 
issues down to the cantonal and even communal level, the result is 
that a meeting of the Swiss assembly often has the feel of a city 
council. The discussions on the floor and in the chamber have the 
flavor, not of a separate society of persons all expert in the 
business of lawmaking, but of professionals and workers from different 
fields, all with different kinds of expertise. There is here more than 
any other legislature the sense less of a separate clique or society, 
and more of a chance assemblage of different persons, and a slice of 
the broader society at large.

During one session, the presiding officer of the Senate happened to 
notice an acquaintance up in the galleries. Without any great 
disruption in the proceedings, he called for one of his colleagues, a 
woman, to please take the chair, walked out the back of the room, and 
within a few seconds was up in the visitor's gallery to deliver a 
little briefing to his friends. Just as seamlessly, when the debate 
suddenly neared completion and it was time for a vote on a series of 
amendments, he got up and left.

The proceedings that day, by the way, were not some trivial vote on a 
nonbinding resolution or the like. (There are very few such 
resolutions in the Swiss parliament, by the way. "We have too much 
work to do in the time we have," as a member explained to me matter-
of-factly in the outer chamber.) In fact, the Swiss were in the midst 
of a fiscal crisis. "All we have to do is cut a few billion francs," 
Carlo Schmid, a respected Senator from Appenzell, explained. Then 
again, this amounted to about 5 percent of the Swiss budget. Amounts 
of that sort have been sufficient to bring down parliamentary 
governments in other Western democracies and, at the very least, to 
produce a great outcry in the United States, with bitter discussions 
lasting until the wee hours of December 30. The Swiss, who in ten days 
were about to choose two new federal council members - in effect, two 
future presidents, and one-third of their executive branch - wrapped 
the whole discussion up in a few days, voted, and closed the budget 
gap with little fuss or fanfare.

The Swiss chambers thus operate in an atmosphere of relaxed 
seriousness. They form a true popular assembly, a people's parliament, 
which reflects and embodies the basic character of the nation itself. 
Much of this, as has been observed, flows from the broader political 
system that empowers popular wisdom. But there are particular rules 
and policies that play their role as well, operating themselves 
consistent with the broader political structure. It would be wrong to 
think that merely by copying these minor provisions, one would achieve 
the same spirit; but it would be equally wrong to ignore the 
democratic-republican spirit that pervades the Swiss legislature.

Approaching the Bundeshaus, a building of worn stones in the Georgian 
style that backs to a view of the River Aare, one sees indications 
almost immediately that this is a special kind of legislature. A 
public parking lot, no more than fifty feet from the main entrance, 
bustles with the cars of citizens. Up a simple set of stairs is a set 
of huge, beautiful double doors. Members of parliament come and go, 
leaving an outsider to wonder where the entrance is for "visitors" or 
the "general public." But here there is no great sociological gulf 
between the people and their representatives. "The entrance," explains 
a somewhat bemused woman in French, "is here," pointing to the obvious 
door a few feet in front of us.

Entering the parliament one sometimes encounters not a single guard 
(there are guards, but they often sit unobtrusively in one of two 
entry chambers to the side). There are no metal detectors or briefcase 
scanners. A group of two or three nice ladies, approximately forty to 
sixty years of age, generally approve your pass for the day. Usually, 
if one is going in to visit with a member of parliament, the 
parliamentary member will come down to meet the visitor. Up two broad 
flights of stairs - no special elevators for members - and one passes 
through a long, old-fashioned-type communal press room with big wooden 
tables and ample seating, but no special desks belonging to individual 

Behind the press room was a wide, semicircular hallway, perhaps thirty 
feet wide and 200 long. Every fifteen feet or so on the inner side of 
the arc was a door feeding into one of the two legislative chambers. 
This archway served as a kind of grand lobby for members to hold 
meetings, make telephone calls (usually on a cell phone), and conduct 
other business. It was also, however, the office for most of the 
members. The typical parliamentarian has only a shared desk in this 
outer commons area, or at best, a cubbyhole at his party's office 
nearby. There are no paid staff, no special barber shops for members. 
Members generally eat in a cafeteria along with other members, 
visitors, and employees from the library and other government offices 
housed at the Bundeshaus.

As we sat in the cafeteria one morning, two members nominated for the 
federal council (the seven-member presidency) walked in. They were 
treated with respect, and a certain notoriety, but there was nothing 
out of the ordinary. In fact, they addressed several nonmembers of 
parliament by name, and carried on a conversation with them about the 
issue being debated that morning in the Senate. As in Swiss courts, in 
the great Swiss corporations, or on a Swiss sidewalk, there is a low-
key absence of officiousness, and a constant emphasis on building a 
popular consensus.

This absence of pomp is not merely symbolic, and does not merely 
effect chance conversations or relationships in a cafeteria. The 
nature of the system helps promote this relaxed atmosphere among 
legislators. After all, there is little chance of sneaking any 
important measure into Swiss law by dint of a clever evasion or a raw-
power parliamentary maneuver. There are too many checks. Policies are 
changed by people, elections are constant.

Senator Pat Moynihan once described the error of many Americans in 
thinking its legislators work by the "consent of the governed." In 
fact, as Moynihan aptly noted, they operate as they wish unless the 
people object. The same theme is woven through the memoirs of the late 
Tip O'Neill, Man of the House. The distinction is critical. As 
elections take place once every two years for the House, and every six 
for the Senate, there are few opportunities to object. And these are 
diluted by the fact that each member will have cast hundreds of votes. 
The voters, then, consent not directly to the thousands of small acts 
a government will commit, but to an amalgamated track record, a great 
average, for their own representative.

Among the Swiss parliamentarians, there is a kind of despair about the 
utility or possibility of manipulating other elites for political 
gain: What would be the point? That "despair," of course, is another 
way of saying, healthy respect for and orientation toward the people. 
Politics, then, is less tactical, more substantive. There are, 
interestingly, fewer appeals to "the people," and still less to 
opinion polls, than in a typical Western democratic assembly. In 
these, the regular citation of the people shows in a certain way that 
the people are taken into account, but also, that their voice will not 
automatically be heard. For many votes and issues, the people will 
never have a direct voice; hence their voice must be leveraged, 
inferred, or "brought into the discussion." In the Swiss assembly, 
there is a constant, pervasive knowledge that on anything 
controversial, the people will, willy-nilly, have the final say 
anyway. They are no more cited or appealed to than the air we breathe; 
they are simply there.

As for opinion polls in particular, there are remarkably few of them, 
and the Swiss of all walks of life hold them in contempt. "Polls 
reflect what men and women think when they are telephoned late at 
night and asked to spout off an opinion about something they may have 
no influence over," as one parliamentarian put it. "It is not the same 
as when you ask citizens to decide what the country will do: Then 
there is an informed choice, made in a serious and deliberative 

The parliamentary bodies also appear - based on attending some eight 
to ten sessions, over a period of several months, and reviewing press 
accounts of the proceedings going back a century - to be significantly 
less partisan. Debates are no less lively as to the ideas and 
principles involved, but less rancorous and accusative regarding 
alleged matters of personal or party bias. This probably has less to 
do with any of the particular legislators, or even the rules directly 
affecting the chamber, than with the general "spirit of the laws" 
which results from the Swiss system of direct democracy and culture of 

In many democracies, the way one changes policies - often, the only 
way for major changes - is to win an election and with it a "mandate." 
The losing party is thus expelled from office, and begins its effort 
as the minority to defeat its opponent. Even where the individuals in 
this system are highly public spirited - as they usually are - the 
system itself brings them into constant conflict. There are many gains 
to be had by enmeshing this opponent in a scandal, or finding a way to 
neutralize that opponent with a clever parliamentary device. And, such 
change by realignment, with winner-take-all implications, tends to 
take place only periodically. To "lose the Congress," as the 
Republicans did in 1954 or the Democrats in 1994 in the United States, 
typically means at least five to ten years in the wilderness, and 
usually longer.

In the Swiss system, with so many controversial issues being referred 
to the people, there are many ways to achieve change without a single 
office holder losing his or her seat. The gains of defeating another 
party, particularly if it is by dint of some merely clever device of 
communications or investigative skill, are correspondingly minor. The 
popular orientation does not eliminate the competition over ideas; 
indeed, it heightens it. It tends to make party and personality a 
smaller factor, however. In the Swiss system, to gain such a minor 
advantage, even in the short run, would be roughly as important as 
winning the right to speak first or last in a debate or to sit on the 
right or left side of the room in the legislature. Such matters may 
matter, but in a world of finite time and resources, they are not what 
a prudent statesman spends his energy on.

Respect is obvious when listening to the Swiss people talk about their 
legislature, particularly as part of the broader system of government. 
Even more noticeable, however, is the respect of the lawmakers for the 
Swiss people. A Western politician who is defeated at the polls or who 
simply cannot get a particular message he desires passed into law will 
instinctively blame some flaw in the system, the people, or even the 
press - drawing any conclusion, almost, except the one that their 
initial idea itself was flawed. "We didn't do a good job of 
communicating what we wanted to do with this bill," is a common 
explanation. "Our message didn't get out," usually because of the 
"special interests." Sometimes the low opinion of the voters is stated 
straightforwardly, as in Senator Jack Danforth's 1984 proclamation 
that "the problem with this congress is that it is too responsive to 
the will of the people." Normally it is couched in more indirect 
terms, but the underlying assumption that the voters cannot sort out 
the demagogic appeals of others remains.

Swiss politicians take aim more often not at the messenger or their 
opponents, but at themselves. Andreas Gross is a well-known member of 
parliament and an author. He came to prominence by sponsoring an 
initiative to abolish the Swiss militia system of near-universal male 
service. If anything, one would expect an articulate and cosmopolitan 
member of parliament like Gross to have a certain stubbornness about 
admitting a mistake, and a great facility to explain how his ideas had 
only been thwarted by the Rich, the Military, the Press, or some other 
cadre. Instead, when asked what he thought of the initiative system 
given its rejection of his proposal some years ago, Gross said simply, 
"It is a good system - the best anyone has found. The people rejected 
our initiative, and therefore, it was wrong." When this happens, Gross 
continued, "you have to look at your own proposal again, see where you 
may have gone wrong."

Parliament's special character and reputation are partly the results 
of social factors and mores that can only be created through indirect 
measures over much time. Others, however, are the result of policy. 
These are not necessarily deliberate: The constitutional debates of 
1848 and 1874, for example, give little evidence that the Swiss 
framers were setting out to produce these effects. They are, 
nevertheless, real results traceable of the acts of statesmen - not 
merely volcanoes or lightning bolts or other natural accidents.

One such effect is the result of the pay for members of the Swiss 
parliament, which is low compared to the rest of the developed world - 
as Table 8.1 indicates. The austere salaries are mirrored, or even 
exceeded, by the lean staff and perk structure. In the United States, 
even a junior member of Congress typically enjoys staff, office, and 
other privileges in the amount of $800,000 and up. This does not count 
the huge resources available to him directly through the ability to 
compel work by dozens of congressional agencies. Even in France and 
Germany, where the measurable legislative structure is more lean due 
to the parliamentary nature of the government, staff budgets dwarf 
those of the Swiss. The government provides no separate office to 
speak of, and no personal staff. The typical Swiss parliamentarian 
shares an

Table 8.1
Salaries for Legislators (ECU per month)

Switzerland 2800
UK 5400
Netherlands 5200
Greece 5000
France 5450
Denmark 4950
Belgium 5600
Austria 8500
Germany 6300
United States 7250

Source: Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, from OECD data, 1998.

office, if that, at the party office within the capital. His cubbyhole 
resembles that of a congressional staffer in the United States.

One obvious impact of this low pay, in combination with the related 
factors mentioned, is that the Swiss regard service in that body as a 
real sacrifice. It is not as though the pay is so high in other 
legislatures that the money involved becomes a powerful magnet, 
drawing the most talented and ambitious to compete for the money 
involved. But neither, in combination with all the power and perks 
that attend to a position in the French or British parliament, or the 
American house or senate, can anyone pretend that membership there is 
anything but a boon to most of the members.

The impacts of this policy, or tendency, toward low pay for the 
members of parliament are not merely a matter of avoiding certain ills 
(e.g., reducing the lust to hold such office among the merely 
ambitious). It has positive effects as well. The notion that service 
in parliament is an act of citizenship has created a tolerant attitude 
among most employers toward the service of their members in that body. 
This, also combined with other factors - such as the campaign 
financing restraint - enables the Swiss parliament to achieve a much 
broader cross section of professional, racial, and cultural 
representation. It is important to note that Switzerland has moved 
somewhat in the direction of a more professional parliament and other 
functions of government in the last twenty-five years, a change some 
bemoan as insufficient, and some as having gone too far already. A 
mild reaction against this trend has set in. It is possible that the 
1990s were a high-water mark of the professional politician, just as 
it is possible the trend will continue.

The citizen system has also probably played a role in the facility 
with which women have been able to move so quickly into the political 
structure in Switzerland. (Their presence is all the more remarkable 
if we recall that women did not even win the vote until a 1971 
referendum.) "As a housewife on a farm, I have hardly enough time for 
the responsibilities in the legislature," as a member of the St. 
Gallen cantonal legislature told me. (The legislature meets ten weeks 
a year, about the same as the national parliament in Bern, but there 
are committee meetings and mountains of reading.)

The vast majority of parliamentarians keep their regular jobs, whether 
as homemaker or wage earner, at least to some extent, during the forty 
weeks of the year they are not in session. The result would be a 
conflict-of-interest nightmare under the extensive ethics-protection 
law common in other democracies. This disadvantage is compensated, 
however, by the culture of no-nonsense work that results. The Swiss 
parliament consists of citizens who live not with separate members' 
pension and health plans, special entrances and parking places and 
other perks, but will in fact be back at their workplace living under 
the laws they have created within a few weeks.

The Swiss system of government literally "by the people," from the 
community volunteers up to the national parliament, has not proven 
immune to erosion. The lament of François Loeb, a member of parliament 
who owns a prosperous department store chain, is typical: "I am able 
to maintain my business and take an active part in the assembly 
because my business is in good enough shape for me to be absent from 
time to time, and to delegate work to a competent staff. Not all the 
members are in that position, which means that their work in the 
parliament or their business must suffer, or both." Loeb worries that 
service in the parliament may become affordable only to the privileged 
in the future. So far, however, the Swiss penchant for moderation in 
campaign expenditures has helped prevent the legislature from becoming 
an aristocracy. The sons of former presidents and congressmen have 
fared better in the American electoral system with its spending and 
contribution limits than they have in Switzerland with its relatively 
lax rules, but public austerity. Anywhere the threat of a 
concentration of power raises its head, especially a political one, 
the Swiss instinctively react to bring matters under control.

There is a cost to the Swiss practice of giving scant economic support 
to its lawmakers. This was visible during visits to parliament in 1998 
and 1999, as several of the more impressive members felt compelled to 
return to their private profession or business. The result is to 
deprive the Swiss people of the experience and intelligence of some of 
its more capable public servants. This turnover, on the other hand, 
has positive aspects. It enlivens the two chambers with periodic 
infusions of new energy. The impact, in combination with other 
factors, is to simulate something of the results sought by the device 
of term limits in some countries but without the imposition of a 
direct elite veto upon the man or woman who would otherwise be 
selected by the people.

Nearly as important as the parliament's lean budget is its limited 
calendar, which works in combination with these other matters to 
preserve the deliberate amateur quality of the legislature. Meeting 
only ten to twelve weeks a year, the legislators have little excuse to 
avoid centering their lives in their home district and, lacking the 
resources for the most part, only a few of them are able to become 
full-time socialites in Bern.

Likewise, the sheer numerousness of the representatives, in relative 
terms, helps keep the body from degenerating into arrogance. At 240 
members with seven million people, the Swiss ratio of representation 
is the equivalent of a U.S. Congress expanded from its present 
membership of 535 to some 18,000. This is not a trivial effect. It 
renders the entire system more accessible, and thus reinforces the 
objective of maintaining a people's government that so many other 
Swiss institutions also strive to preserve. By diffusing power, it 
renders the legislature less vulnerable to manipulation, whether by 
wealth, particular interests in the press, or by other pressures.

"There is almost no lobbying," Bryce wrote, and this remains largely 
true today. One strives to find listings of firms even resembling 
lobbyists in the Bern telephone directory. Associations of employers 
and labor unions, industries, environmentalists, and other groups 
exist but bear little resemblance to their counterparts in Washington, 
D.C. Many of these offices did not even employ a single full-time 
lobbyist, where their U.S. or European counterpart would typically 
have a whole battery of them. The sheer size of Switzerland, to be 
sure, plays a role in this, as does its relatively small federal 
government. Wary of the dangers of power and privilege, Jean-Jaques 
Rousseau, the French philosopher who proudly signed most of his 
manuscripts "a citizen of Geneva," once suggested that republics move 
their capital periodically - disrupting the cozy inertia and special 
relationships that tend to build up in any governing city. The 
combined policies of the Swiss toward their legislature have some of 
the impact of that, at less cost.

Underlying all these effects, of course, is the system of initiative 
and referendum that affects the Swiss political economy, and in a 
sense the whole culture, so broadly. This system is often described, 
even by the Swiss, as a kind of negative check upon the other 
political institutions. It is certainly that. It is, however, more 
than that. It creates a spiritual bond, and a sense of responsibility 
by the people - turning them all, in effect, into part-time 
legislators since in their many votes each year they wind up 
functioning in precisely that manner.

In the Swiss parliament, the influence of direct democracy can be seen 
by a whole sociology of popular orientation. Each member of the 
assembly thinks of himself as a teacher, and a teacher of the whole 
nation of citizens. No teacher who holds his pupils in contempt will 
succeed, or even stay long on the job; hence the pedagogical impulse, 
healthy and strong to begin with, is reinforced. As well, a teacher 
with any wisdom soon realizes he has much to learn from his pupils. 
The instruction is no longer one way - particularly when the classroom 
is an intelligent one like the Swiss people, and the teacher a humble, 
part-time instructor who thinks himself a citizen, not a sovereign.

Thus, to attempt to transplant merely the policies that directly 
govern "parliament" itself, such as campaign finance or pay and staff 
provisions, to other democracies, might produce disappointing results 
if done without establishing some kind of initiative and referendum 
system, or other arrangements that would emulate its effects. One can 
make an excellent case for reforming the U.S. or the European 
legislatures even if only by means of some of those narrower measures. 
They would not, however, work in exactly the same way as in 
Switzerland, for there, every political relationship is subtly changed 
by the system of direct democracy.

It may be that the other democracies, given how far their institutions 
are from this populist faith in the wisdom of the electorate, must 
limit themselves to cruder measures. Or that to reach a state of 
refinement as great as the Swiss model, that they would have to pass 
through intermediary stages in which the faculty of popular voting and 
control could be built up gradually.

In a sense, the roots go deeper even than the practice of national and 
cantonal referendum. The Swiss institution of direct democracy, after 
all, stretches back over time, and at the same time is brought forward 
in the continuation of the ancient popular assemblies.

Carlo Schmid-Sutter, who has served in the national senate, has a 
grasp on the Swiss conception when he describes the Landsgemeinde as 
"the incarnation of the state, the place where all the citizens come 
together to act as a community." No representative assembly, however 
virtuous, can ever exactly capture that sensation. The Swiss, though, 
have achieved an unusually close approximation, in their parliament of 

 9. Referendum

"You don't believe in direct democracy unless you believe in it when 
you don't like the results."  - Andreas Gross

Referenda came into widespread use during the French Revolution. These 
are not the most auspicious roots for a political device.(1)

The French held votes on taxes, church-run schools, and other issues 
in the 1790s, and these spread to Switzerland and other occupied 
territories in a sporadic fashion in the late eighteenth and early 
nineteenth centuries. In fact, the French conducted a referendum on a 
proposed Swiss constitution in 1802. After it was voted down, 
Napoleon, who understood something of the special Swiss temperament, 
wisely drafted a substantially different "mediation" constitution of 
1803, consulting personally with a number of Swiss to ensure its 

In the plebescites in Revolutionary France, votes often resembled 
those 98 to 1 or better affairs known in the North Korean legislature 
or the Cuban vote on Fidel Castro's newest five-year plan. Taken in 
the spur of the moment, with little real debate or presentation of 
alternatives, these plebescites revealed scarcely any of the 
deliberate sense of the people. They had all the seriousness and 
thoughtfulness of an opinion poll taken over the telephone, and gave 
to "plebiscitory democracy" the bad name it still has for many today.

In Switzerland, by contrast, even during the French occupation, 
matters were different. Though the French constitution was rejected, 
for example, the margin was not huge. This was an indication that to 
the voters, the constitution itself was not that bad. There was bound 
to be a certain rejection of anything French at that point; the 
interesting fact is that it was so small. Debate on issues in the 
characteristically incisive Swiss press was in many ways more lively 
than that tolerated within France itself. Not surprisingly the 
constitution, when imposed, did much better than the previous French 
efforts, largely by returning a measure of the country's customary 

Once ensconsed in the Swiss mind, the referendum proved a difficult 
habit to shake. It is a tool of government very much in the spirit of 
the country's tradition. Switzerland has always had referendum and 
initiative of a sort. Its community democracies allowed citizens to 
meet and make laws directly. Only the form of the referendum, which 
allowed voters over a wide area to participate by casting a ballot, 
was different than the ancient Lands gemeinde.

And the referendum was, in many ways, an improvement. Popular 
assemblies require the transportation of a number of people for an 
entire day; they are becoming logistically difficult to hold once a 
year even for the small cantons. A referendum ballot can be cast in a 
few minutes at polling places dispersed throughout the district for 
convenience. This becomes an important advantage if one needs to hold 
follow up votes or discussions, say if one method of dealing with a 
problem is rejected, but the people wish to consider others. Because 
of this advantage in holding discussions seriatim, separated by an 
interval of weeks or months, the referendum is more amenable to a 
deliberative process. Popular assemblies, by contrast, must be 
carefully managed to avoid becoming a chaotic shouting match. And if 
they are managed too carefully, they may stifle the very process of 
give and take by the people they are meant to spur.

The long occupation by France, followed by the imposition of the 
constitution of 1815 by Austria, Russia, and the other powers, had 
given the Swiss a bellyful of foreign influence. But there were 
benign, even positive aspects of the French influx as well. It spurred 
a desire for equality among the people - and in Switzerland, with its 
traditions of self-reliance and economic opportunity, the emphasis was 
on legal and political equality, more than equality of economic 
result. Naturally the two intertwined and interrelated. The French 
occupation, and even its hated constitution, had proclaimed 
Switzerland "one Helvetic Republic." This had been the dream of 
classic liberal thinkers in Switzerland for some time. When the 
occupation ended, its imposition by the French did too, but the desire 
for a true Swiss nation did not.

When pressures such as these cannot be satisfied as to their direct 
object, they tend to move into secondary or "next-best" reforms. Like 
steam, they seek some crack through which to escape. In Switzerland in 
the 1820s, there was little hope of a Swiss nation, let alone a 
national political reform that would give the people direct and equal 
access to the law-making authority. At this time, the unicameral Diet 
still was merely a congress of cantons. Any ideas, any national 
reforms, had to pass through the sometimes undemocratic structures of 
the individual cantons to become law; and even then they would have 
only whatever force each canton decided to give them.

Naturally the reform forces turned, then, to the cantons. Some cantons 
were under no pressure, because the laws were already made directly by 
the people in assembly, such as Appenzell, Uri, Unterwalden, Glarus, 
and of course the ancient democracy of Schwyz. Others, though - 
notably Bern, Zürich, Basel, and even Luzern - had no such tradition, 
and their representative democracy still had a substantially feudal 
character, with a large number of seats on the ruling council passing 
down by family. In Zürich, for example, the people were represented, 
but through the ancient labor guilds, who had their quota of seats 
among the old families. Bern resisted democratization in the sixteenth 
century, acceded somewhat in the seventeenth, and attempted to revert 
in the eighteenth century, as did the independent state, now a canton, 
of Geneva.

In 1830, events across Europe gave the democracy movement in 
Switzerland an assist. Poland, Spain, and southern Germany were in 
turmoil, a foreshadowing perhaps of the deeper unrest to occur in 
1848. In Zürich, Bern, Thurgau, Fribourg, Luzern, Ticino, and Vaud, 
popular gatherings demanded greater voting rights. In general the 
demonstrations were not violent. They were called Landsgemeinde and 
modeled after them - political reformers cleverly simply convening 
these meetings to pass statutes that perhaps had no legal force, but 
had moral authority, and suggested the need for popular inclusion. 
Coinciding with the rewriting of many cantonal constitutions, the 
meetings had an impact. St. Gallen established a right for citizens to 
review and reject all laws in 1831. Zürich and Bern both not only 
opened up their council elections, but enacted a series of legal and 
political reforms that were approved in consultative referenda from 
1832 to 1834. Every canton but Fribourg had established some type of 
direct popular legislative review by 1845, at which point the onset of 
deep divisions over the religious question put such secular concerns 
on temporary hold.

As the procedure spread, it produced forebodings of doom among some. 
"We are governed no better and now no differently than the hill 
people," a Zürich patriarch moaned in 1836. James Fennimore Cooper 
visited Switzerland during this transition to cantonal, referendum and 
reported on a heated discussion of the referendum's spread that took 
place in a Brienz pub: "An Englishman at a nearby table began to cry 
out against the growing democracy of the cantons ... 'instead of one 
tyrant, they will now have many.' " Some of the shrewder members of 
the political class in the aristocratic cantons, however, saw the 
referendum as a co-opting device. Like some capitalists over 
Roosevelt's New Deal in economics, they may have calculated that a 
prudent concession to popular opinion was better than a revolution. 
Still others, of course, were staunch believers in the new creed. 
There was the peasant leader Joseph Leu of Luzern. An orthodox 
Catholic, Leu fought to have the Jesuits reinstated in the Luzern 
schools. But he also opposed the ruling families on political reform 
issues, and was a major force for the cantonal referendum.

Cantonal adoption of referendum was not enough to put to rest the 
feelings of religious enmity; no mere political device was enough for 
that. It was, however, available as soon as the Sonderbund War ended - 
as both a healing device and a means of establishing the legitimacy 
(or lack of it, if it failed) of the new constitution. Although there 
had been little experience with the device per se on a cantonal level, 
there was a consensus among the men writing the constitution in 1847 
and 1848 that the referendum would prove a highly useful device for 
legitimizing their new structure of government - and therefore, 
warranted to be retained as a permanent part of the design. Evidently, 
the people had little objection to being consulted about the 
constitution initially, or about its provision by which they would be 
consulted periodically.

On September 12, 1848, the Swiss voted on the new constitution with 
its referendum provision, 145,584 in favor, 54,320 against. It was, 
fittingly, the first national referendum as such by a sovereign 

As the referendum was working its way through the cantons and up to 
the federal constitution, a related but separate concept began to take 
hold - one perhaps even more important in its effects. This was the 
process of "initiative," by which citizens could bring their own 
proposals for new laws or constitutional provisions to a direct vote 
of the people. In canton Vaud (1845), any citizen obtaining 8,000 
signatures on his proposal could put the matter to a referendum. From 
1848 to 1860, the cantons of Geneva and Zürich added initiative. While 
the referendum offers the people an important veto on the acts of the 
legislature, the initiative allows them to force issues or ideas onto 
the agenda that their political elites might prefer to ignore. The one 
is a check and a brake; the other, a safety valve or a guarantee of 
access. Although this right was not in the federal constitution of 
1848, the provisions for referendum were expanded in the new 
constitution of 1874. (This second vote followed rejection of a draft 
proposed in 1872 by foes of initiative and referendum.)

Finally in 1891, the right of initiative for changes to the federal 
constitution was approved by 60 percent of the voters and eighteen of 
the twenty-two (full) cantons. As a check against caprice, the 
constitutional referendum has always required approval by both the 
majority of the voters and a majority of the cantons.

At the federal level, there are three basic types of direct voting by 
the Swiss. This chapter does not label each one as such each time it 
discusses one or the other, but it is important to know that they 
exist and are distinct. As Wolf Linder defines these in Swiss 

  First, all proposals for constitutional amendments and important 
international treaties are subject to an obligatory referendum. This 
requires a double majority of the Swiss people and the cantons.... 
Second, most parliamentary acts are subject to an optional referendum. 
In such cases a parliamentary decision becomes law unless 50,000 
citizens, within 90 days, demand the holding of popular vote. [In this 
case] a simple majority of the people decides whether the bill is 
approved or rejected.... Since the obligatory referendum refers to 
constitutional amendments and the optional referendum to ordinary 
legislation, the two instruments are often distinguished as the 
"constitutional" referendum and the "legislative" referendum.... The 
popular initiative: 100,000 citizens can, by signing a formal 
proposition, demand a constitutional amendment as well as propose the 
alteration or removal of an existing provision. .. As with 
constitutional changes, acceptance requires majorities of both 
individual voters and the cantons.(Italics added.)

Table 9.1 lists some of the more important uses of the referendum 
power by the Swiss over the last century and a half. This need hardly 
be reviewed line by line by the casual reader. It is worth skimming, 
however, for items of interest. The text that follows will refer back 
to items in the table and to other Swiss referendum votes.

Looking at this 150-year history, the most important characteristic is 
probably something one does not see. There does not appear to have 
been a single crise de regime caused by the initiative or referendum 

This is saying a great deal, because one can certainly point to cases 
where the device helped defuse or prevent a crisis. That there are 
sometimes advantages in the most democratic approach is clear from the 
very premises of democracy itself. The case against this has always 
been based on the idea that, as a practical matter, it would lead to 
disaster or, over the long term, decay. Yet in Switzerland, there seem 
to be no gross errors, no irresponsible flights into the risky or the 

Opponents of the process, such as the great Swiss statesman Alfred 
Escher, had predicted a proliferation of ill-advised schemes that 
seemed likely to help the common people, but that ultimately were 
based on fad, envy, or greed. Perhaps even worse, Escher feared that 
the system would be corruptive - the process would become a cycle of 
passionate, demagogic appeals, fueling political extremism, and 
feeding back into still more extreme leadership. In these fears, 
Escher was solidly in line with the thinking of the Western political 
tradition, which from Plato to Rousseau feared democracy would end in 
envy by the poor, rule by the worst, and, ultimately, despotism. That 
pub Englishman who complained about Switzerland falling under "many 
dictators" anticipated by almost a half century an 1872 editorial in 
the Neue Zürcher Zeiting predicting a "tyranny of the many" or 
"dictatorship of the majority." This was exactly the possibility that 
American statesmen worked hard to prevent in setting up the U.S. 
Constitution of 1787. As a result, they carefully filtered any 
influence of public opinion through representatives and intermediary 
institutions, slowing it and making it more "deliberative" through the 
restraints of the constitution.

Perhaps the largest disruption of elite expectations through the 
referendum process took place in recent years when the Swiss rejected 
full political and economic integration into the European Union. One 
can argue the merits of this case either way. Even many proponents 
have the expectation, as investor and respected trade negotiator David 
de Pury put it, that "in the end, the referendum process will probably 
improve the terms on which Switzerland

Table 9.1
Direct Democracy in Switzerland

Proposal or initiative and thumbnail description or background.

Popular vote yes-no (percent)
Canton vote yes-no (absolute #)

(Where no cantonal vote total is given, the measure had already passed 
the parliament and therefore needed only popular approval. Where 
popular vote conflicts with canton vote, results are underlined)

Constitutional revision
(1848 - yes) 73-27, 15.5-6.5
See discussion in Chap. 5.

Jewish immigration
(1866 - yes) 53-47, 12.5-9.5
Provided for establishment of Jewish immigrants with political rights 
and religious freedom. One of the only such laws in Europe prior to 

Constitutional revision
(1872 - no) 49-51, 9-13
This draft would have virtually eliminated referendum and was narrowly 

Constitutional revision (1874 - yes) 63-37, 14.5-7.5
New draft includes referendum, consolidates federal military and 
foreign policy.

Bank note monopoly for the state (1880 - no) 31-69, 4-18
Ultimately approved in 1891 after several rewrites.

Popular initiative
(1891  - yes) 60-40, 18-4
No longer limited to opposing laws they do not want, Swiss citizens 
could now propose constitutional laws they do want.

"Aufnahme des Schächtverbotes "
(1893 - yes) 60-40, 11.5-10.5
The first "initiative," regarding the butchering of animals.

Establish Bundesbank
(1897 - no) 44-56
One of many proposals on central bank establishment and management 
rejected by the Swiss voters.

Right to work
(1894 - no) 18-82, 0-22
Legislation limiting ability of trade unions to compel membership.

Proportional voting for Nationalrat
(1910 - no) 48-52, 12-10
Later approved (1918). Also a rare case of the cantons supporting an 
initiative, the popular vote having been against.

Proportional voting for Nationalrat
(1918 - yes) 67-33, 19.5-2.5
One of the demands of workers in the national strike - see Chap. 6, 
"Executives Branch."

Join League of Nations
(1919 - yes)
A tentative step from pure neutrality - regretted when the Swiss see 
the weak reaction to Italy's 1935 war on Ethiopia.

Expansion of employee rights
(1920 - no) 49-51
Measure passed by parliament after the national strike, overturned by 
the voters. Elements of the proposal were later (1950s) adopted in 
legislation that was not challenged.

New customs duties
(1923 - no) 27-63, .5-21.5
Postwar yearnings for a "return to normalcy."

Military training, building program
(1935 - yes) 54-46
Principally to counter the Nazi threat. Note the year: At this time, 
Britain, France, and the United States all were rapidly reducing their 
defense establishments.

Establish Romansch as a national language
(1938 - yes) 92-8, 22-0
One of several 1930s measures designed in part to solidify Swiss 
identity as separate from Germany. "Our diversity of people and 
language is a strength," a member of the national council said in 
advocating the measure - a pointed allusion to Nazi theories of racial 
and linguistic "purity."

Reduce "facultative" referendum
(1938 - no) 15-85, 0-22
As war neared, Swiss leaders felt hampered by the possibility needed 
laws would be overturned. Several national leaders organized an 
initiative to temporarily undo this string. Swiss voters strongly 
rejected this notion. This may have been one factor (among many) in 
stiffening the resistance of Swiss elites to the Nazis. Some 
historians argue this deprived Swiss leaders (if they ever had such 
inclinations) of the possibility of yielding to Hitlerian threats as 
others did.

Overturn military training law
(1940 - no) 44-56
Attempt to block wartime training measures, increased drilling levels 
that had been approved by parliament.

Increase power, discretion of national bank
(1949 - no) 38-62, 11.5-20.5
Helped force a resolution of the Swiss financial crisis in 1950 that 
put the country in postwar recovery - see next item.

Finance package for 1951-1954
(1950 - yes) 69-31, 20-2
Followed the rejection of the government's austerity-minded budget and 
monetary plans of 1948-49. Coinciding with the start of the Marshall 
Plan and monetary reform in Switzerland and most of Europe (Germany 
1948, Britain 1951), this helped launch the postwar Wirtschaftswunder.

Consumer protection law
(1955 - no) 50-49, 7-15
Would have been one of the earliest such statutes in the world. Also a 
rare case of popular support for an initiative (albeit narrow) being 
overturned by the canton vote.

44-hour work week
(1958 - yes) 60-40, 20.5-1.5
1976 effort to reduce the work week further was defeated.

Voting rights for women
(1959 - no) 38-62, 0-22
Passed in 1971.

Raise daily stipend for Nationalrat
(1962 - no) 32-68
Swiss officials continue to be among the lowest paid in the world in 
absolute terms, and are still lower measured against per capita 

Forbid atomic weaponry to Swiss army
(1962 - no) 21-79, 4-18
Supporters tried again with a more limited restriction in 1963, but 
failed (see next item).

Right of referendum before any decision to equip the army with atomic 
(1963 - no) 38-62, 4.5-17.5
The Swiss do not necessarily want nuclear weapons in their armed 
forces, but neither do they want to hamstring their leaders in a time 
of national emergency. One of many cases in which the referendum power 
declined to expand itself.

Liquor tax, other measures to fund efforts to combat alcoholism
(1966 - no) 23-77, n.a.
A rare case of tax or regulatory increase proposal coming from the 
initiative process.

Tobacco tax (1968 - no) 48-52
Many of the parliamentary decisions overturned by "facultative" 
referendum have involved tax increases.

Voting rights for women
(1971 - yes) 66-34, 15.5-6.5
See discussions in text.

Agreement with European Common Market
(1972 - yes) 73-27, 22-0
Regarded by some observers as relentlessly isolationist regarding 
international organizations, the Swiss voter in fact has a mixed, 
eclectic record.

New convents, Jesuits allowed
(1973 - yes) 55-45, 16.5-5.5
The vote ends a century and a half of official anti-Catholicism in the 
federal constitution.

Against "over-foreignization"
(1974 - no) 35-65, 0-22
Second of a series of measures to reduce immigration. All were 
defeated as one pro-immigration measure in 1981.

40-hour work week
(1976 - no) 22-78, 0-22
"We do not mind working only 40 hours a week," a worker told the Tages 
Anzeiger, "we just don't think it should be mandatory."

Civil service as a replacement for military duty by religious and 
ethical objectors
(1977 - no) 38-62, 0-22
Similar measure was rejected in 1984.

Against over-foreignization
(1977 - no) 29-71, 0-22
Proposal to further restrict immigration.

Value added tax
(1977 - no) 40-60, 1-21
Rejected several times; ultimately passed.

Rent control
(1977 - no) 42-58, 2-20
Other measures to protect tenants, approved by parliament and much 
less extreme, were approved in the 1970s.

Establish tight, federal air pollution limits
(1977 - no) 39-61, 1.5-20.5
Later measures for less extreme limits, administered by the cantons, 
were not challenged.

Legalize abortion nationally
(1978 - no) 31-69, 5.5-17.5
"Right to life" initiative to make abortion illegal on a national 
basis also failed, in 1985. Abortion continues to be a concern of the 

Vote needed to build highways
(1978 - no) 49-51, 9-14
Note that the Swiss abstained from making its politicians obtain its 
permission for each proposed national highway.

Creation of canton of Jura
(1978 - yes) 82-18, 22-0
Swiss culture of consensus defuses a long-simmering dispute. Jura's 
desire to be independent of Bern had spawned the creation of a 
terrorist "liberation army" that killed dozens during the 1960s. 
Interestingly, more than eighty percent of Bernese voters supported 
the initiative.

Create federal security police force
(1978 - no) 44-56
Proposed specialized, central police forces to protect against 
terrorism, Soviet espionage, and other threats. The Swiss feared such 
a move undermined federalism and was a slight but real step toward a 
police state.

Lower retirement age for social security
(1978 - no) 21-79, 0-22
Would have provided state pension benefits to men at age 60 (instead 
of 65) and 58 for women (instead of 62).

Value-added tax
(1979 - no) 35-65, 0-23
One of several taxes or regulatory initiatives rejected but ultimately 
passed if political leaders made a persistent case of its necessity. 
Stronger rejection than in 1977 was in sympathy with global move 
towards lower taxation rates.

Abolish state support for religion
(1980 - no) 21-79, 0-23
Would have established U.S.-style "separation of church and state," 
preventing cantons from using tax dollars to support religion, 
blocking religious teaching in state schools.

Seatbelts mandatory
(1980 - yes) 52-48, 13-10
Also requires helmet for motorcycle riders. This was a challenge to a 
law already passed by parliament. Initial surveys suggested 
overwhelming support for overturning the law, but the politicians 
convinced the people.

Immigration liberalization bill
(1981 - no) 14-85, 0-23
Would have eased restrictive limitations on guest workers, providing a 
right to remain in Switzerland even for guest workers no longer 

Equal rights for men and women
(1981 - yes) 60-40, 15.5-7.5
Similar in language to failed U.S. Equal Rights Amendment.

"Verhinderung missbräuchlicher Preise"
(1982 - yes) 56-44, 17-6
One of the few initiatives to pass in the last 50 years, a consumer 
protection vote against corporate cartels.

Civil service as a replacement for military duty by religious and 
ethical objectors (1984 - no) 36-64, 0-23
A similar measure later passed.

Loosen banking protections
(1984 - no) 27-73
One of many incremental erosions of bank secrecy protections passed in 
1934. All were defeated except those having to do with drug dealers 
and other alleged international criminals.

"Right to life" - outlaw abortion
(1985 - no) 37-69, 5.5-17.5
Left cantons free to legalize or continue to restrict abortion. 1978 
measure to legalize abortion nationally also defeated.

Join United Nations
(1986 - no) 24-76, 0-23
The Swiss do not hesitate to involve themselves in good works 
internationally (the Red Cross) but are chary of any involvement in 
organizations that might compromise their neutrality.

Abolish the army
(1989 - no) 36-64, 1.5-21.5
See comments of Andreas Gross in chapter 8.

Join International Monetary Fund
(1992 - yes) 56-44
Swiss concerns about neutrality are lower regarding fundamentally 
commercial or monetary organizations. Even so the country did not join 
the IMF for a half century after its founding (1943-44.)

Full entry into the European Economic Area
(1992 - no) 49.7-50.3, 7-16
Swiss leaders immediately set about negotiating a series of bilateral 
treaties simulating entry for trade and other policies, completed in 
1999. Political union is a live issue for the future, likely to arise 
again in the 2002-2003 range.

Ban purchase of U.S. F-18 fighter
(1993 - no)43-57, 4-18

Increase value added tax
(1995 - yes)
Brought the Swiss closer in line with European Union countries, but 
not yet "harmonized."

Approve new (consolidated) constitution
(1999-yes) 59-41, 13-9
Substantively, the constitution was essentially a more tightly worded 
version of the old constitution, designed to convert various secular 
measures into laws and reduce the constitution's length. Late in the 
process, a lively debate ensued about the meaning of various phrases 
in the preamble, such as commitments to international law, but the 
draft still passed. (See chapter 5.)

Restrict foreign-born share of population
(2000-no) 36-64, 0-23
Most recent in a series of generally moderate, pro-immigration votes 
by the Swiss.

enters the EU, and the period of discussion and education that will go 
on will be beneficial to us. We will enter on much more solid ground 
than if we had not gone through this process, troublesome though it is 
to some." Whether the decision was wise or ill advised, however, it 
clearly was no Armageddon for the Swiss political economy. After an 
initial slump, the stock market and currency soared in the years 
following Swiss rejection of the proposal.

On foreign affairs, there has been a lively debate as well. 
Periodically the Swiss voter blocks the desire of its leaders to join 
an international organization (such as the United Nations) or take 
other actions that might incrementally impinge upon traditional Swiss 
neutrality. There is strong agreement among both leaders and the 
people that the neutrality policy is wise. But what does neutrality 
mean? Here there is much back and forth, as the Swiss sometimes choose 
to join in international organizations, and sometimes they do not. 
Even questions primarily "about" other subjects, such as environmental 
policy, often have reference back to neutrality.

Insofar as we can draw any general conclusions about the process and 
foreign policy, it is that the voters guard Swiss neutrality but are 
willing to allow for an activist version of it if they hear a 
sustained, intelligent case. Thus, over time, the voters acceded to 
Swiss entry into the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and 
various European economic organizations.1

They may well someday join the emerging European state and the United 
Nations, but the people require more convincing.

Domestic policy reveals more of the tendencies of the referendum. It 
is also, numerically, the more common theatre of action for the 
referendum - depending on how one classifies such matters as military 
service, domestic issues comprise about 85 percent to 95 percent of 
the material of popular votes since 1848. We can divide these still 
further into subject categories as follows:

- taxes and spending (about 20 percent of all Swiss domestic issues);

- other economic issues, e.g., central bank management, social welfare 
programs, and others (15 percent);

- political reform (about 20 percent - the fairly well-tuned Swiss 
machine is constantly checking its own oil);

- procedural matters - "the government may finance its capital budget 
over seventeen years instead of fifteen years," the cantons must 
provide environmental reviews - (about 15 percent);

- social-moral issues such as abortion, the prohibition of absinthe, 
decriminalization of the Jesuit Order (15 percent ); and

- eclectic matters, such as the vivisection of animals, or outlawing 
cars one Sunday of each month (10 to 15 percent).

On largely administrative issues, the Swiss have proven amenable, even 
facilitative. This becomes less so in proportion as any given proposal 
is seen as being not merely technical, but having broader 
implications. A good example would be initiatives regarding the 
military organization, male service, and other such matters. The Swiss 
have readily supported expansion of military capability when the 
country is under threat, as in the 1930s, and offered no resistance to 
increased drilling and other sacrifices during World War I and World 
War II. They have turned down a number of proposals for changes in 
military service, including some rather minor ones, however, 
apparently viewing this as a kind of moral issue and something sacred 
to Swiss citizenship. And they voted no on a proposal to weaken the 
facultative referendum during World War II - as if aware that, while 
they would never stand in the way of a legitimate necessity, they 
nevertheless wanted their leaders to operate under the knowledge that 
arbitrary actions could still easily be challenged.

The referendum power is even, in a sense, self-denying. Far from 
grasping for power, the people have periodically denied it to 
themselves - if, again, the matter is one they deem best handled by 
their politicians. In the 1960s, the Swiss even turned down efforts to 
require prior consent by referendum on nuclear weapons, and in the 
1970s, rejected a similar proposal that would have made it easier to 
use the process to block highway construction projects. It is not that 
the Swiss, who are generally pro-environment, care nothing the state 
of their roads or the communities they go through. Indeed, one of the 
major controversies in Switzerland in the 1990s concerned how to 
control the large, smoke trucks that pass through the country between 
Germany, France, Italy, and Mediterranean Europe. Rather, the Swiss 
have a capacity for self-denial and prudent forbearance, even where 
their own power is concerned.

This characteristic is, in part, especially Swiss - tied up with the 
concept of neutrality, of a self-conscious inability to influence 
certain great affairs, and a positive desire not to try. The 
sensibility is also, however, the product of institutions. It can be 
imitated by others, and inculcated by the right set of political 

Always interesting, and in fact also instructive, are the somewhat 
off-beat proposals that occasionally come up for a vote. Most of these 
are placed on the ballot through the initiative process, which allows 
any citizen to bring a constitutional amendment before the country, 
provided he can collect sufficient signatures to show some serious 
level of support.(2) Only rarely do such measures - such as 1977's 
proposed prohibition of automobiles on the second Sunday of every 
month - pass.

One is tempted to dismiss them as insignificant, and in direct 
legislative terms they are. They may also illustrate, however, that 
some of the system's most important impacts may be indirect or unseen. 
The power to bring a strongly felt proposal on to the national agenda, 
and have it debated in the press and voted on by the people, is an 
important one, and one the Swiss cherish. It defuses passions, and 
gives the angry and the enthusiastic an outlet for their energies. 
"Many of the people who worked on our initiative," as Andreas Gross 
put it, "became active in politics or in the society in other ways. 
Even though we were defeated, they were not alienated." A movement 
that has its measure rejected by Congress or vetoed by the president 
is likely to feel they were thwarted unfairly, that the will of the 
people was twisted by lobbyists and slick communicators. The Swiss 
whose initiative does not pass may feel some of this anger, but knows 
that his case has been judged directly by the people. He may feel he 
has helped educate the society, and probably has: All the articles 
about immigration policy in the Swiss press, while they have not 
enabled anti-immigration measures to pass, have provided information 
that the proponents are eager to see disseminated. The educational 
process works in both directions, too. Often the movements that 
propound radical ideas are able to refine or moderate their positions 
and become more effective. Politicians who misread the popular mood, 
meanwhile, can go back to their office and rethink their approach.

And those who persist in the process do frequently prevail. The 
"radical" cause of women's suffrage, rejected many times in 
Switzerland, did pass in 1971. Consumer protection legislation, 
defeated in 1955, became law several years later, and a significant 
extension of the legislation by parliament in the 1970s was ultimately 
approved when challenged by a facultative referendum.

The sheer volume of initiatives and referenda can tell us something 
about the state of Swiss affairs, and has offered information to all 
Swiss politicians who were intelligent enough to pay attention. In the 
1970s, for instance, there was a sudden flurry of initiative making 
and referendum challenges - more than triple the average number of 
votes seen in other decades of the twentieth century. Putting aside 
the substance and the results of all this activity, it certainly 
suggests a restlessness on the part of the people and a preoccupation 
to improve the performance of their institutions. The Swiss do not 
lightly rouse themselves to such activity; they are happy to pay the 
price of citizen's government, but not looking for needless 
opportunities to fill up their evenings with political meetings. A 
large number of the proposals were environmental in nature - to block 
nuclear power, limit automobile emissions, and the like. Yet even 
though most of these were turned down, they helped produce policy 
changes in the 1980s that enacted some of the laws sought by the 
initial activists. Unable to persuade the people directly to adopt all 
their proposals, the environmentalists nevertheless generated a large 
discussion in the public and the press, and the parliament, reflecting 
this slow change in attitude, adjusted.

There are, finally, all the cases in which the initiatives and 
referendum process "created a law" without a specific referendum ever 
taking place. This happens when the politician in Bern, sensing 
popular concern and anticipating an initiative by the citizens, 
proposes and enacts a law addressing the problem before the initiative 
is necessary. Or when legislators, knowing a certain proposition they 
may admire will inevitably be overturned by a facultative referendum, 
vote against it themselves. This can happen in a purely representative 
democracy too, of course, but notice how the effect is stronger and 
more direct in the case of initiative and referendum. The member of 
Congress who casts an unpopular vote may jeopardize his own 
reelection, but of course the voters will render their judgment on 
that based on hundreds of votes. A Swiss parliamentarian likewise can 
vote for an unpopular measure out of personal conviction or misguided 
judgment, but he has even less incentive to, since the measure, if 
truly unpopular, will almost certainly be overturned. It is a much 
higher certainty than in systems where elites have greater discretion 
to substitute their own judgments.

In any of these cases there is no referendum to refer back to now. But 
it is certain that the referendum helped to produce the result - may 
even be, in some cases, the immediate cause.

Taxes and central bank policy are the issues on which voters have 
proven most troublesome to their leaders through the referendum. Here, 
too, they might have done serious damage. The Swiss turned down tax 
increases in every decade of the twentieth century, and the referendum 
process directly, or by indirect pressure, helped bring about 
significant tax cuts in the 1920s, 1950s, and 1980s. Partly for this 
reason, Switzerland has developed a deserved reputation as a low-tax, 
low-spending country. This is generally true of its combined 
government budget, but is especially true of its central government, 
which consumes only 30 percent of government activity (the cantons, 40 
percent, and the communes, 30 percent - resulting in a 30-40-30 
"formula" of the sort the Swiss cite often with satisfaction). The 
Swiss, as we will discuss in more detail, do not even have an agency 
that corresponds to the U.S. Internal Revenue Service - and when 
measures even resembling them are proposed, they are soundly rejected 
at the ballot box.

On the other hand, the Swiss are not reflexively against all taxation 
or still less all government. At first skeptical about train travel, 
the Swiss today love their national train system - and rightly regard 
it as a prudent investment that helped fuel the country's booming 
growth in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They eventually 
approved excise taxes on liquor and cigarettes that they at first 
turned down, although the final outcome was no doubt less than many 
politicians - particularly of the center-left - might have hoped for. 
Switzerland adapted itself to European protectionism in the 1920s and 
1930s, though the Swiss raised tariffs later, and less, than other 
countries. The Swiss eventually adopted a payroll tax and an income 
tax, though they jealously watch to ensure that these are administered 
by the cantons and communes. And they allowed a Value-Added Tax on the 
fourth or fifth try - but it is less than half the rest of Europe's.

"Switzerland grew out of a tax revolt, in part," as Senator Franz 
Muheim told me at a meeting across from the Luzern train station, "but 
it also grew out of that bridge that the people of Uri built and 
maintained with their own community effort." Such taxes, in fact, 
bought Uri's freedom. As this historical analogy might suggest, taxes 
have generally had a much better chance when they are linked to some 
project or benefit, either directly or as a general matter of need. 
The Swiss are not fond of spending merely for the sake of spending, 
however, and are especially tight-fisted about transfer payments and 
other programs not linked to production. By contrast they are more 
willing than other countries, as a share of what the government does, 
to commit resources to education, transportation projects, and other 
goods perceived as stimulating production or efficiency, or aiding the 
community generally, or both. In part, the Swiss are merely fortunate 
in being able to devote themselves to such projects, and reject 
programs that merely pass around money and the taxes needed to fund 
them. They suffer few extremes of poverty or wealth, and in the 
general condition of rough equality that results, have less need for 
such palliatives. To an extent, however, the shape of the Swiss fiscal 
picture is creditable to intelligent choices by the Swiss. The 
initiative and referendum process made a contribution to this, both as 
a general matter and in the visible ways in which certain programs 
were adapted.

For example, the Swiss turned down a proposal to move back the 
retirement age to fifty-eight and sixty-two - an attractive-looking 
proposal at time, but one whose rejection now appears quite shrewd as 
aging populations stress other government pension systems throughout 
Western Europe, and are literally crippling the economies of Russia, 
Poland, the Czech Republic, and the rest of the former Soviet bloc. 
The Swiss have also maintained lower income and consumption tax rates 
than the rest of Europe, helping them to continue to attract many of 
the most enterprising minds of science, finance, and manufacturing. 
Direct democracy is the greatest single cause of these economic 
policies that have helped Switzerland grow so rapidly over the last 

Switzerland's affection for taxes is nearly matched by its love for a 
powerful, unaccountable central bank. On at least six occasions they 
rejected government proposals for central bank management. Yet this 
tendency seems to have done no harm, and arguably has done good. Twice 
in the nineteenth century (1876 and 1880), the Swiss refused to even 
allow the central government a monopoly on bank notes. When a third 
effort was started in parliament in 1887, signatures for a facultative 
challenge gathered so fast that the effort was dropped. The political 
leadership finally drafted a proposal that made sense to the 
electorate, and in 1891 a more limited authority was granted than 
existed in the United States or most of Europe. In 1897, the proposal 
was approved and the government had the authority to set up a central 
bank. But it was still another decade (1907) until a workable design 
could be found that was not threatened by immediate rejection by the 

When the national bank was created, it was one of the "weakest" such 
structures in the developed world. Even today the National Bank's role 
is strictly limited to monetary policy. The bank is a private entity 
legally, with a small staff and limited powers. A majority of the 
bank's stock is held by the cantons, the cantonal banks, and some 
several dozen other public bodies and institutions. In the early 
twentieth century the Swiss turned down one proposal to allow the bank 
greater latitude in conducting open-market operations. Other ideas 
were stillborn in parliament when the representatives considered how 
chary the voters had been in earlier bank votes. Their denial of this 
flexibility, coupled with Switzerland's low-deficit fiscal situation, 
may have helped soften the Great Depression, which in Switzerland was 
a blip of unemployment that never topped 5 percent, and a "growth 
recession" in which output did not decline, but expanded only 1 
percent cumulatively from 1930 to 1934.

In 1949, frustrated by the government's failure to "get with" the 
emerging monetary order, voters resoundingly rejected another proposed 
change in the national bank. The result was something of a crisis, but 
forced the government to revise its financial austerity package into a 
growth initiative built around postwar tax relief, monetary 
stabilization, and public works programs such as road construction. 
The combination helped pull Switzerland out of the European malaise of 
the early postwar years.(3)

Again in 1961, the appreciation of several European currencies 
threatened Switzerland's monetary order. The government floated the 
currency and, after a long struggle, redesigned the bank. Most leaders 
of industry consider the design of the Swiss central bank to be a 
major asset, and that design is in no small way attributable to what 
one Swiss investor calls "the people's wonderful stubbornness on 
financial issues." Over the last 150 years, the Swiss have been less 
troubled by the wild swings of inflation and deflation seen in the 
world at large than almost any other country - even including the 
United States.

The experience with issues of banking and taxation illustrates some 
important points about the referendum process itself, especially as it 
has evolved into something of an art form over long experience.

The first is that the process itself has become deliberative. The 
effort by political leaders to secure arrangements for a central bank, 
or funding for desired projects, became an ongoing conversation. 
Political leaders first press one way, and then, finding there is 
insufficient support for a particular conception, they lead in 
another. The Swiss have seen this process in recent years regarding 
the debate over entry into the European Union: Proponents have had to 
rethink their arguments and their premises, and adjust their proposals 
and policies, in order to persuade the voters. In this, they naturally 
confer and deliberate among themselves, too, though with the people 
constantly in mind. Thus the process of establishing a national bank 
became a forty-year dialogue, and the value-added tax, one of almost 
twenty-five years.

This is in marked contrast with traditional Western thought about the 
strengths and weaknesses of popular legislation. During the debates 
over the American Constitution, one of the advantages proposed for 
America's legislative system, in contrast to the more direct 
democracies of classical Greece, was the idea that a body of lawmakers 
would be able to consult, think, and craft the laws - to become a 
skilled profession, of sorts, and to be removed, at least to arm's 
length, from the passions of the people. Proposals would benefit from 
having been forged, refined, and crafted over time. Indeed the framers 
were so concerned about the popular whim that they feared the 
"rashness" of even representative assemblies {Federalist 63). One of 
the main arguments for the Senate was that this more senior body would 
impose something of a check on the possibly unruly House. The 
presidential veto, in turn, was set atop of both houses, and provided 
a still further check. Many hurdles were set up in order to filter 
public opinion through experts and seasoned officials, and to stretch 
the process out so that decisions would reflect the "deliberate sense" 
of the country, rather than mere waves of passion.

In Switzerland, though, direct democracy turns out to be significantly 
deliberative. "In our system," as federal counselor and 1999 President 
Ruth Dreifuss explained to a foreign journalist asking about the 
process of Swiss entry into the EU, "things take time." Indeed, the 
most common complaint about the system, as it has actually operated, 
is that the Swiss referendum process slows things down too greatly. 
The people turn matters over and become part of a legislative process 
- especially when, as in Switzerland, they are placed in a position 
where they are, in effect, lawmakers.

This raises a second point about the Swiss system and about popular 
politics generally. The people's opinion on a given matter, requested 
under one set of conditions, is not necessarily the same as their 
opinion on the same matter, but under different conditions. A system 
of referendum does not yield the same results one would have if one 
polled the people about the issues on the referenda - because when 
someone knows he is going to be asked to render an opinion, and that 
opinion will become law, he treats the matter more seriously. This 
does not mean that public opinion polls are wrong, or meaningless - it 
just means that they measure, normally quite accurately, something 
that may differ significantly over time or over different conditions. 
Nor are the people fickle in this, any more than water is capricious 
because it is a fluid at one temperature and a solid at another. They 
are, in fact, wise, economizing on their need for information and 
thought about subjects depending on whether their opinion will have 
some tangible influence. Members of a jury treat a case differently 
than members of the general public, and by the same token, voters and 
lawmakers regard it otherwise than if they were mere bystanders.

In the Swiss case, this differential is more important, but less 
observable, because the people are now long accustomed to being 
lawmakers. It is probably one reason, for example, that the Swiss are 
voracious readers of newspapers and that their newspapers, in turn, 
offer some of the most serious coverage of political policies and 
issues in the West.

A good illustration of these tendencies, in both Switzerland and the 
United States, is the sensitive issue of immigration. Like the U.S., 
Switzerland plays home to a large number of foreign-born workers and 
their families - close to 20 percent of the population for the Swiss. 
In a country already trying to assimilate three major languages across 
mountain ranges, this is a significant tax on Swiss resources and 
patience. One frequently hears complaints by the Swiss about the 
immigrant population, and it is one of the most frequent subjects for 
comment in the graffiti in the train stations and on the streets. 
(Switzerland, a generally orderly and one might even say extremely 
tidy country, has as much or more graffiti than any other country in 
Western Europe; it is close in most cities to New York City standards. 
The graffiti about foreigners, as one might expect, is especially 
unkind.) Public opinion polls, though taken much less seriously in 
Switzerland, indicate that by margins of about three to one the Swiss 
feel there are too many foreigners, they cannot be assimilated, and 
something should be done about it.

Yet when confronted with the chance to reduce immigration through 
policy, Swiss voters have consistently rejected the proposals - and by 
large margins. Anti-immigration measures failed in the 1960s, 1970s, 
and 1980s. These measures were well financed by supporters and most of 
them were not extreme by comparative standards. That is to say, if 
passed, they would not have moved Switzerland to the bottom or even 
the middle of Europe in terms of accepting immigrants; they would only 
have reduced the country's lead, in percentage terms, of acting as a 
home to the foreign born.

The sole victory by the anti-immigration forces was their defeat, 
albeit also by a large margin, of a 1981 initiative proposing to 
significantly liberalize immigration. The measure, however, would have 
had as large or larger an impact on the composition and incentives of 
immigrants as on their numbers: For example, it reduced requirements 
for work, and increased the availability of welfare and other 
services. Thus even many advocates of increased immigration levels 
were lukewarm or opposed to the proposal.

The persistence of this dichotomy suggests that the Swiss voter is not 
behaving in a fickle manner. There is no swing from one attitude to 
another, but rather, a steady pattern: Swiss attitudes on immigration 
are fundamentally negative; Swiss votes on immigration policy are 
fundamentally liberal.

(One finds a similar dichotomy on immigration in the United States, 
although, since there is no national referendum or initiative, it is 
more subtle and difficult to read. Voters answer polls negatively 
about immigration generally. But in large numbers, Americans support 
the admission of immigrants who are highly skilled, or who will take 
jobs that Americans won't, or who are reuniting with families. Since 
these groups comprise about 90 percent of immigrants, there is latent 
support for a liberal policy. In numerous congressional votes over 
recent decades, proponents of high levels of immigration held their 
own, and politicians who ran on broad antiforeign themes fared poorly: 
Richard Gephardt, John Connally, Ross Perot, George Wallace, and 
Patrick Buchanan all garnered a few primary victories, or made it 
close to 10 percent of the popular vote, but did no more. The only 
major immigration referendum in the United States, in the state of 
California, was passed, and was described as a major setback for 
immigration nationally. It was politically, perhaps, but the measure 
had no direct application to the number of immigrants accepted, a 
federal concern. Rather, Californians voted to reduce welfare and 
other services offered to legal and in some cases illegal immigrants. 
One can argue the fairness of such measures, as one can make a case 
for them on incentives grounds. They do not, however, constitute a 
direct vote for lower immigration levels, any more than requiring cars 
on the street to drive on the right side is "antitraffic")

The effects of the Swiss system appear to be somewhat different from 
the process of initiative and referendum in various states in the 
United States. Several other factors, of course, are different as well 
- the party structure, the political system, and others. And it is 
difficult to say which of these differences are causes, and which are 
effects. On the whole, however, the initiative and referendum process 
in the state of California - familiar to me from having lived there 
for some six years - is somewhat less deliberative, and more 
impulsive, than in Switzerland. Part of this is due to the difference 
in the political party structure and tone. In the U.S., since there is 
no national initiative or referendum and since there are two dominant 
parties, it is much easier to bottle up issues or proposals for years. 
They can still be forced out by a well-timed referendum or initiative. 
Proposition 13 in 1978, for instance, put the idea of tax reduction on 
the national agenda. But the process is more problematic. In addition, 
the whole tone of discourse on political issues is more divisive in 
the U.S. than in Switzerland, and in particular the motives of parties 
much more likely to be impugned than in Switzerland. When groups lose 
or win a struggle in a particular state, they are much more inclined 
to merely resume the battle elsewhere, and their politicians, being 
more of a professional class than mere citizens who happen to 
volunteer services to the government, view the struggle as a war that 
must be fought and won.

There are other technical factors as well. The courts in the United 
States are more powerful and more inclined to throw out the results 
even of a popular vote, than in Switzerland. In California and 
Massachusetts, referendum results have been disallowed frequently by 
judges after the fact, or their placement on the ballot made difficult 
by arbitrary signature requirements (i.e., if there is one smudge on a 
sheet of paper with thirty signatures, all the signatures are invalid)
. This makes the process, like the parties and the power structure, 
less direct and certain in its impacts, and hence, turns the 
referendum and initiative into more of an extension of politics as 
usual than a reliable process for making the voice of the people felt. 
As well, while California and many states have both initiative and 
referendum provisions, there are few referenda as such, and none 
required. The process is certainly less regular than in the Swiss 
cantons, in some of which every significant law must be approved by 
the people. This has the effect of rendering the process more 

Because of many stages and iterations in Switzerland, the referendum 
process is not one shot - it's more deliberative and seriatim. The 
Swiss referendum process is more like the legislative process in the 
U.S. The American initiative and referendum process sometimes can 
become more drawn out and deliberative, but, for other reasons, it has 
tended not to be. In addition to those already mentioned, the sheer 
expense of collecting signatures in California, and the large amounts 
of money spent on demagogic appeals - which the voters, being less 
trained as legislators than the Swiss, are more susceptible to - has 
rendered the process more like what the American founders feared for 
direct democracy, than it is like the Swiss alternative.

Overall, direct democracy infuses and pervades Swiss institutions 
through all levels of government; in the United States, direct 
democracy has been an occasional tool used in some places in limited 
fashion. The U.S. system might be called a "weekend athlete" who, 
while not necessarily being fat, does not train regularly and has not 
honed his or her skills to their potential. The Swiss are direct 
democracy professionals, working out regularly. The typical Swiss 
citizen votes on a constitutional amendment about once a year, and 
votes several times on cantonal laws, initiatives, and amendments. He 
takes public issues seriously as issues; like a mini-legislator, he 
will have to "vote" meaningfully on their resolution.

The communications class - politicians, press, business leaders - take 
the importance of the people into account in everything they do. An 
American friend of mine who complains frequently about the massive 
efforts made to "lobby" members of Congress in Washington, D.C., asked 
me after a visit to Switzerland what possible difference it would make 
if the United States were to have an initiative and referendum process 
similar to Switzerland's. My response was that there would probably 
be, to her disappointment, as much or more lobbying as a matter of 
volume - but that a much greater amount of it would be directed at the 
people. "Imagine if all the effort and money spent in Washington went 
towards educating people - and listening to them." She agreed that 
this would be a substantial change.

The use of direct democracy with this frequency and at this level of 
importance creates the effect, almost, of a different system of 
government. There is far less difference between Switzerland and the 
United States than there is between the United States and, say, one of 
the Arab countries or the authoritarian government of Indonesia. But 
if we were to take a constitutional monarchy, such as Britain's, from 
the nineteenth or even eighteenth century, with an elected 
legislature, it is arguable that the U.S. democracy of today is closer 
to it, institutionally and certainly in spirit, than it is to 
democracy in Switzerland. When an American visitor to Switzerland told 
his hosts in 1999, "You have a democracy; we do not," he went too far. 
It might not be saying too much, however, that these two types of 
democracy are so different they might be classified as separate 
species with certain common ancestors and ideas.

Some of the disadvantages of the referendum system are peculiar to 
Switzerland: For example, the diversity of language sometimes yields 
drafting imprécisions in the wording of laws and resolutions, and 
renders political debate and discussion more difficult as well. There 
are other disadvantages to it, however, that while felt in 
Switzerland, might be even more acute for the United States and other 
powerful republics.

Critics of the system of direct voting generally fall into one of two 

One group consists of those who don't like the results of direct 
democracy. This is seen in representative elections too, of course: It 
is tough to see your ideas lose, particularly when votes are close. In 
the Swiss system, given that the voters have demonstrated a certain 
eclecticism and balance in their actions - supporting some government 
programs, opposing others; keeping out of some international 
organizations, but supporting some as well - most groups have suffered 
enough defeats, but also won enough victories so that the "losers" 
don't comprise a consistent or solid ideological bloc. Business 
interests, for example, have lost many votes on environmental policy, 
but have won others on taxes. The left has been unable to push certain 
spending schemes, but has enjoyed victories on pension and health care 

This does not mean, however, that such groups might not form, or have 
not partially formed already - creating a potential threat to the 
system by fostering a small, but hardcore lobby, dedicated to 
incessantly seeking opportunities to overturn the system so it can 
finally win passage of a particular economic or social agenda. One 
such group would be the Swiss, including centrists in the government 
and members of the manufacturing and other non-banking sectors, who 
are keen to have Switzerland join the European Union. Many of those 
who favor such policies - indeed the majority - nevertheless are 
willing to hew to the long and patient task of winning a majority of 
the Swiss over to their point of view. But there is a quiet resentment 
of some of the elite that this is a necessity, and that, of course, it 
could be that they will never win popular support for their policies 
despite their best efforts to explain why they are right. This 
sociological effect - the feeling of superiority and condescension by 
some Swiss elites - could be important in the long run. If direct 
democracy is ever to be overturned, it might well be that it happens 
as a result of a long, concerted effort by embittered business, 
political, or other elites.

A related group would be critics of the regime in accord over 
Switzerland's role in World War II - those who want to see further 
apologies, and payment of reparations by the Swiss, or, in some cases, 
demand that banking privacy and Swiss neutrality be done away with 
altogether. But again, even these critics, who often smolder with 
resentment over the stubborn resistance of the Swiss to clamor to 
their view of the war and related issues, are of mixed minds when it 
comes to direct democracy itself. When I visited one such critic, Jean 
Ziegler, in his office at the University of Geneva, I expected to hear 
a jihad against the direct democracy. Ziegler's assessment was that 
his proposal for a Swiss apology for the country's part in World War 
II would lose about 90-10 in a national referendum. Yet he does not 
propose to overturn the system as such. "There has to be a way to 
persuade people," he says, confidently. Others in Ziegler's circle, of 
course, may not take such a patient, long-run view. For the most part, 
however, it is notable that even many of those who find much of 
Switzerland corrupt - "like a girl who works in a whore house, but 
wants to remain a virgin," in the words of Ziegler's The Swiss, the 
Gold, and the Dead - accept the discipline of direct democracy, which 
forces them to treat each Swiss man and woman as their equal. "Change 
of the kind we are looking for takes time," Ziegler comments.

A second type of critic is more philosophical. One of the more serious 
is Beat Kappeler, a long-time labor union leader, and now an editor 
for the weekly journal Weltwoche. Kappeler's arguments for an 
adjustment in the Swiss system are varied, and his manner smooth and 
polished. Seemingly superior, on the one hand - he decries the notion 
that the system encourages voter study of the issues as "the ill-
informed myth about well-informed Swiss voters" - he is, nevertheless, 
anything but an elitist. Kappeler recalls how, as a prominent labor 
leader, he eschewed first class on the Swiss trains in favor of 
second-class section. "It wasn't out of economic reasons, although it 
saves a little money," he concedes. "It's the fact that elites who 
travel in first class feel free to interrupt you and barge right in on 
you. People in second class leave you alone."

As theories of representative democracy are likely to be in the 
future, Kappeler is especially critical of the impact of direct 
democracy on legislators and the legislative process. In a short but 
cogent book, Regieren statt revidieren, he lays out the case that 
initiative and referendum have weakened the Swiss parliament and 
hampered it from making tough choices and providing meaningful 
leadership. (Weltwoche, Zürich, 1996.)

The weaker of Kappeler's two main criticisms is that direct democracy 
has perverted the legislative process by placing it at the mercy of 
special interest groups and well-heeled lobbies, who can "block almost 
anything" early in the process. Switzerland certainly has pressure 
groups, but how do they compare with other countries?

"We have lobbies, but they are not anything like the full-time armies 
you see in Washington," comments Casper Selg, host of the German-
language news broadcast on Swiss public radio and a former 
correspondent in Washington, DC. "UBS does not have 10 or 20 full time 
staff working in Bern." Another correspondent, Swiss television's Hans 
Bärenberger, is likewise an experienced reporter in Bern. "Lobbying 
hasn't really become a profession the way it has in Washington and 
other capitals," he notes. "There are some hired guns, but I don't 
think I could name more than two or three. There are pressure groups 
and the parties, but these don't seem to be stronger than elsewhere, 
and I would guess they are weaker."

At the least, the referendum and initiative process provides a check 
on these groups. If Kappeler doesn't like their influence, why doesn't 
he challenge laws, or propose new ones through the referendum? 
Kappeler's answer, and it is a fair point, is that this tool, while 
always present in theory, cannot always be used in practical terms 
after the long period of building a complicated set of policies or 
interconnected programs. The voters in Switzerland do rely on 
legislative expertise, and do tend to give their elites the benefit of 
the doubt - approving the vast majority of laws passed by parliament 
that are challenged.

As well, Kappeler argues, money plays an unhealthy role in the 
referendum process itself. Often one side outspends the other by a 
factor of 5-1, 10-1, and more, and the record of success by groups at 
the low end of that figure is not long. It is not, however, non-
existent. When Kappeler met with me at the Bern train station, a 
national vote by the Swiss on reform of the military was only a few 
days off. Powerful forces, led by Christoph Blocher on the right and 
the Green Party on the left, were opposing a proposal to allow Swiss 
forces who volunteer to go abroad to carry arms.

Having watched Blocher's fund-raising efforts, and a sophisticated 
media campaign to accompany it, along with what he called the "very 
poor" effort of the government to rally support for its own proposal, 
Kappeler's assessment was that the opposition was likely to win. I 
ventured the opinion, taken from Jeff Greenfield's concept of 
"political jujitsu," that the very fact that the opposition had so 
much money was being turned into an issue by the government. It also 
seemed to me that the federal council, in particular President Moritz 
Leuenberger, had in fact waged a reasonably skillful counter-effort, 
and would probably pull out a win. My guess turned out to be right in 
this case, though the win was only by a slim 51-49 margin. 
Nevertheless, the result suggested that money, in referendum politics 
as in other votes, can be a two-edged sword.

Kappeler's second argument, that direct democracy tends to produce a 
weaker brand of leadership, is more difficult to deny. This has been 
observed in the U.S., for example, in the state of California, where 
governors and legislators have often seemed ineffectual, dating back 
to the populist uprising that took place in the state during the 1978 
Proposition 13 tax cut.

"We don't have a government," Kappeler argues. "We have a toy 
government." Most members of the Swiss executive, let alone ordinary 
members of parliament, have little experience and no competence, in 
Kappeler's eyes - let alone strength, or polish. "It is not quaint any 
more," he adds with a smile.

In making this point, however, Kappeler and the defenders of direct 
democracy find themselves in rough agreement. Both he and the system's 
supporters find that the referendum system tends to produce a less 
agile, less polished, less independent legislature and executive than 
would otherwise be the case. Kappeler believes this to be a political 
ill. Supporters believe it is a political good. At least, they share 
the same assessment of its impact.

Even enthusiastic Swiss are sometimes weary of their democracy - and 
the referendum system is a partial cause of this. Turnout levels in 
Switzerland have reached U.S.-like levels of 50 to 60 percent in 
national elections and 30 to 40 percent in cantonal elections. It is, 
in fact, work. "You must remember, we have to vote three or four times 
a year, sometimes more," as the late Dr. Paul Jolies, the former Swiss 
Secretary of State, put it. "Some people are tired of it. That is the 
price of citizenship - it is work sometimes."

This phenomenon is not to be overstated, however, especially in 
comparison to other affluent societies. The Swiss are uniquely proud 
of their political system, as survey data show, and as American 
sociologist Carol Schmid, cited previously, has demonstrated in depth. 
If the burden placed on the Swiss citizen is high, it is also true 
that his capacity for bearing such burdens appears to be high as well, 
provided that they are the reasonable duties of citizens. Their 
weariness is that of some Americans when called for jury duty. If they 
are busy people, there is a certain natural reluctance to have to 
spend days or weeks at a trial. But if they are patriots, they are 
willing to do so, and may even wax nostalgic about this exercise of a 
right their forefathers fought and died for.

This drawback, the desire to be less involved in the details, is 
merely the unavoidable flip side of one of the system's striking 
advantages - its precision. The Swiss system of citizen legislation 
facilitates a much quicker and more accurate matching of public policy 
to the will of the electorate. The difference between it and purely 
representative democracy is illustrated if we imagine a system in 
which you could pick only which grocery store someone else would shop 
at for you - or, still further, if you could select between three or 
four carts that had been previously filled by people at the store, but 
could not stock the carts yourself. It is possible, particularly if 
leaders are respectful of the popular will, to communicate what 
groceries you want to the cart fillers. Over time, you might find one 
of them consistently putting eggs into the cart. But even if he did, 
he might also tend to purchase $20 worth of Spam, which you don't 
want, or to buy 2 percent milk instead of your preference, skimmed. 
There would only be very rough approximations of your desires, though. 
And in a system of representative elections, remember, the voters are 
only able to communicate with the "cart stockers" once every few years 
and when they do, rather than giving elaborate instructions they vote 
yes or no for one of them, accepting all the choices they didn't like 
in the bargain.

Imagine if, after acclimating yourself to this system, you were 
suddenly allowed to make periodic trips to the grocery store yourself, 
and pick out your own items. You would have an immense feeling of 
relief as you knew that, from time to time, you could take care of 
some of the neglected items. Sophisticated grocery stores would watch 
carefully to see what you picked out when you had a chance, and use 
this as a signal to improve their own purchases. In thinking about the 
Swiss system, and watching it in action, one feels something of the 
sense of exhilaration that that shopper would feel. It is far from 
perfect, and there are many mistakes made. But the mistakes you make 
are yours. It is a gulp of oxygen; a sip of undiluted democratic 
spring water.

Professor Wolf Linder of the University of Bern, a leading analyst of 
the referendum and initiative process in Switzerland, offers a 
contrasting metaphor. "I think it is true, and a good image, that 
direct democracy is, in a sense, much like this grocery store," he 
suggests. "But we might say that representative democracy presents a 
different image, and it has some advantages.

"Suppose you would like to buy a computer. You face many different 
choices, and you know there are many good models, but you want to get 
one that is right for you, and at a decent price. What do you do? You 
have a nephew that knows a lot about computers, so you ask him to help 
you. You tell him what you want - 'I want a computer that does this, 
and this; I don't care about a lot of storage, but I want a fast 
model,' and so on. He then knows what you want, but he also knows 
about the different computers that can do this.

"So he selects the model for you. He is, in effect, your 

This is a just and persuasive summary of the representative model. It 
relies, of course, on the same kind of hybrid as my own image of the 
grocery store does - combining politics on the one hand with consumer 
choices in a market on the other hand. In politics, of course, even 
democratic politics, we cannot each select our own nephew to buy the 
particular type of government we want. Rather, say in a town of 10,000 
people, all of us select one person to buy a computer for all 10,000 
of us - a loss of intimacy and of control on our part. Furthermore, in 
a real-life grocery store, there are, in fact, elements of 
representative government. We rely on the grocer to select various 
items to put on the shelf for us, and a whole range of government 
inspectors and regulators to make sure - hopefully - that the food we 
buy is accurately labeled, properly handled, and safe.

Nor can we all go to the grocery store and buy whatever we want, 
individually, you selecting snow peas and your neighbor preferring 
corn on the cob. However many choices there are before a law is made, 
once it is made, it is the law - for all of us. Jude cannot pay taxes 
under one code, while Jeff pays taxes under another. So, to the extent 
that either image relies on the desirability of making individual 
choices, they somewhat miss the mark.

Even so, on the central matter that is being compared, the two 
illustrations are illuminating. Representative government, to an 
extent, relies on expertise of someone - your nephew, a consultant, 
your congressman - to make decisions for us. Direct democracy, to a 
greater extent, lets us make choices more directly, with less 
intervention by experts. In the case of initiative, it even enables us 
to "place an item on the shelf that the store manager, or our nephew 
the computer nerd, has declined to do, whether out of stubbornness or 
ignorance or because they simply aren't hearing us very well. This 
advantage may be less or more acute depending on many other factors. 
For example, in many countries, multiparty systems create 
opportunities for voters to choose their representatives, at least to 
select between several different models. In the United States, a 
strong and somewhat exclusive two-party system means that in most 
cases, the choice comes down to brand X and brand Y.

These illustrations also remind us that neither Switzerland, the 
United States, nor any other modern democracy we see today is purely 
"representative" or "direct." The systems we observe, and are likely 
to observe, are mixed regimes. They vary in degree, more than in kind. 
Still, most of the world at present tends to lean far more toward the 
representative model. And Switzerland uses the instrument of direct 
democracy more extensively, indeed far more extensively, than the 
others. Anyone who wants to know what European or U.S. politics would 
be like if direct democracy were employed more extensively will surely 
wish to study this convenient political and social test case.

Whether such a system is suitable for other countries or not, the 
Swiss use of this device, over a substantial period, is a valuable 
departure. Other democracies rely almost exclusively on representative 
methods of securing popular consent. The Swiss alone have taken this 
more direct route. This is not to say that the other democracies are 
wrong. The fact that Switzerland is virtually alone suggests prudence 
may argue against its innovation. It is, at the least, something 

If we glance at how the initiative and referendum process has 
performed, now a 150-year experience, several patterns become readily 

Even those who are skeptics of the benefits of referendum, of whom 
there are few, concede it has committed few if any drastic wrongs. The 
most common complaint against it among the small number of critics is 
that having worked well, it is now "out of date" because it hampers 
entry into the European Union and other desirable outcomes. (And many 
of the staunch advocates of full EU entry, which the Swiss have 
declined for the present, say that the referendum process would need 
only adjustment for that end, along the lines of the Swiss entry into 
the League of Nations, and not a complete overhaul. That is a separate 

In short, if the general presumption is in favor of the most direct 
means of popular control, subject only to checks on the people as 
might seem necessary, the Swiss experience seems to suggest the need 
for such limits is small indeed. We may conclude with Viscount Bryce 
that the Swiss have used their power of initiative and referendum 
"responsibly and well," and certainly without gross disaster or 
inconvenience. Having asked dozens of Swiss what the worst result 
initiative or referendum has produced, most of them answered "none" if 
the question meant has there been a single grave error or result. The 
respondent will then point to a particular referendum he or she did 
not agree with - but will hasten to add that this is only their 
personal opinion.

Importantly, when commenting about "mistakes" by the voters, most add 
one of the following two points - or both. First, nearly all will say 
that the result "is not final" - that if they and others who agree 
with them are right and can marshal the facts, the public, being 
reasonable and indeed astute, will eventually agree with them. Second, 
many - especially politicians, such as Mr. Loeb, Mr. Gross, others - 
will have come to the conclusion that because the people disagreed, 
their own initial opinion must have been wrong. So far from feeling 
any contempt for their fellow citizens as ill informed, the Swiss - 
even the most brilliant - regard the voters as a standard of judgment, 
more than an object. In most countries, as the former economic and 
political guru to Jack Kemp, Jude Wanniski, has observed, the voters 
as a whole are smarter than their leaders. The difference may be that, 
in Switzerland, most leaders believe the people are smarter.

As a result, there is perhaps less of a gap between elite and popular 
opinion in Switzerland than in any other country. There is, when such 
gaps occur, less arrogance felt by the elites and less frustration by 
the people than perhaps mankind has ever seen over an extended time 
under any other political system. The chief institutional sources of 
this distinctive level of mutual respect, in my observation, is the 
federal and cantonal initiative and referendum process, and community 


The history of the instrument and the term are under debate. A case 
can be made that the word itself derives from a practice in the Swiss 
Diet, predating the French Revolution, of "referring" questions back 
to the cantons. A number of cantonal constitutions required this (as 
did the colony of New York in the U.S. Continental Congress). But 
there are many acts of "referring" questions to other branches and 
authorities in politics. In the Swiss case, some of these referrals 
might issue forth in a popular assembly; others would not.

The level as of this writing was 100,000 signatures within an 
eighteen-month period, though there is discussion of raising these and 
other signature requirements to reflect growth in the population and 
the size of the voting public since those levels were established.

Gregory Fossedal, Richard Holbrooke, and Paul Nitze, "How the Marshall 
Plan Worked," Research Report 05-997-02, Alexis de Tocqueville 
Institution, June 5, 1997; and Gregory Fossedal and Richard Holbrooke, 
"Will Clayton's Genius," Houston Chronicle, 2 June 1997
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