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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