Federalism and Direct Democracy

- the Swiss Confederation

by IIFOR - ISSN 0800-0220

Federalism including direct democracy has historically been a corner stone both of Swiss political organization and culture and anarchism. The Swiss Confederation is internationally recognized as having a rich and sustainable experience, and highly differentiated public decision making and conflict management in multicultural environments. Federalism cannot remain static, nor be considered a panacea. It must evolve and adapt to rapid technological, economic and societal change. The lessons are clear, that not only there is an extensive movement of decentralization of public sector underway, but also for many countries radical public sector change and decentralization are central in achieving broader revolutionary objectives of efficient resource mobilization, building a foundation for a pluralistic and real democratic society, and the establishment of a well functioning economy.  

Although the Constitution of the Swiss Confederation is not ideal anarchist, it is a.o.t referring to the "God Almighty" in the preamble, where a secular or atheist formulation would be better from anarchist point of view, it must be considered relatively libertarian, especially with respect to the organizing of the public sector. The terms "state", "government", "powers" and "authority" are used, but mainly meaning "confederal public sector" and similar -- or different parts of it, and not "state", "government", "powers" and "authority" defined in the anarchist way, in short meaning "organization from the top downwards". The "Nationalrat" (National council), "Ständerat" (Council of States) and "Bundesrat" (Federal Council), i.e. political councils of the Swiss system, are somewhat misleading translated to words used in the American system in the English version of the Constitution, as they have different functions, say, the influence of the Swiss councils are limited by direct democracy. This is not happening in America, so the Swiss system seen all in all is more working from the bottom upwards.

Thus, an approximation to the best and most libertarian of the Swiss public sector structure and function, and the Swiss Constitution, would represent a clear improvement in anarchist direction for most countries. The Swiss Confederation's federalism including the direct democracy is an important practical example of a part of anarchism, i.e. mainly a good approximation to the anarchist principles of decentralisation, federalism and autogestion. There is something very important to learn from the Swiss Confederation's public sector organization with respect to practical anarchism. In Switzerland it is possible to insist, by collecting a modest number of signatures, that any law proposed by the councils must be submitted to a vote of the whole people. Even better, you can also insist (by getting more signatures) that a brand-new idea for a law must be put to the people even if the councils are against the idea. Also other countries have federalism and direct democracy on the agenda, but they are not as libertarian and well developed as the public sector organization of the Swiss Confederation. Thus we will take a closer look at it:

Characteristics of Swiss federalism:
1. Four linguistic and cultural groups in Switzerland; majorities and minorities
2. Direct democracy
3. Solidarity
4. Confederal Constitution: 26 sovereign cantons; "supposition towards cantons"

A brief guide to the Swiss public sector system and the federal constitution of the Swiss Confederation are presented at the following link (click on) :

More than half the Swiss Constitution's provisions, as of the late twentieth century, were derived from popular ballot initiatives or referenda voted on directly by the people.  It is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of per capita income. Yet the Swiss economy is one of those which seem blessed by a poverty of physical resources. 

In Switzerland the people in referanda do vote about tax increases/decreases, tax system,  prisons, nuclear powerplants, rail-systems, foreign-politics,  international treaties, the finances of the villages, cantons, country, salary of the members of parliament, protection of the landscape.  The Initiative is very popular in switzerland and quite often, when the people have to vote about a more popular theme, the turnouts are very high (40%-50% and sometimes up to ca 70%).  The referenda have often been used to block some unwanted public sector activities and some international treaties, of which people had to fear major disadvantages. Switzerland doesn't have a real and powerful president, like the USA. There are several ministers, elected by parliament who form the Federal Concil (Bundesrat). Every year another one of these is called 'First among equals', thus he/she is called president. Every "Kanton" has its own laws, its own constitution,  its own court. The Confederation and all of the cantons have the possibility of public interaction into the political process:

- Initiative: The Possibility to propose a change in constitution, or even to propose a new constitution at all. 100,000 signatures are  requred to place an initiative on the ballot. It is impossible yet, to directly change the laws, but since the constitution overrides law, the affected laws just get invalid, but not deleted.

- Obligatorisches Referendum: The federal constitution demands, if some specified laws are proposed by the parliament to change, there has to be a vote about it.

- Fakultatives Referendum:  If any other law changes, which doesn't underly any of the restrictions above, there is only one chance to get a vote about it: From the day on, a law has been accepted by parliament, any movement of people in Switzerland has three months time to collect 50 000 approved signs of swiss citizens, to enforce a vote about it, otherwise
it gets valid three months after proposal.

- Petition:  A non-binding proposal/question to the public sector.

In addition to the referenda one major difference between the US and the Swiss system is as mentioned: The Swiss Confederation doesn't have a powerful president, there are several ministers, working together in the Federal Council. Another major difference is: The Swiss aren't used to have a single party ruling. All the main parties are represented in the Federal Council according to a formula. This Formula is called the "Zauberformel" (magic formula). Therefore the Federal Council is not only representing about 51% of all voting people, but even around 90% of the people. The acceptance of the "Bundesrat",  the Federal Council of the ministers, is quite high, with one exception. The one exception is everything concerning the European Union.

Legislation must pass both parliamentary councils to become law, but it needs no further signature from the executive. This check, the “veto,” was thought to be unnecessary: it is carried out by the people through initiative and referendum. 

Executives Branch
The Swiss Press 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. The first thought of a Swiss is not, ‘let 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?’.  
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.
Switzerland has no great bureaucracy to buck and kick against the policies desired by the public sector. The combination direct and delegated public sector managemt  has the additional benefit of rendering the Swiss relatively difficult to sway with sudden arguments, demagogic appeals, and slanted versions of the facts.   
Some of the persons nominated to the court, in fact, are not even attorneys but members of parliament, businessmen, and other professionals.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. 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. In the U.S., there is much debate among legal scholars about what the “original intent of the framers” was.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 themselves.
The National Council and the Council of State (Parliament)
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 confederations three official tongues.
It reflects, more than any other parliament, the people who elect is, 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. The Swiss feel perhaps less alienated from their politicians than the voters of any other country. There are no federal term limits and members enjoy a very high rate of reelection. Yet they generally step down after a period of ten or so years. 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.
Members of parliament come and go, leaving an outsider to wonder where the entrance is for “visitors” or the “general public. 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 reporters. The typical parliamentarian has only a shared desk in this outer commons area, or a best, a cubbyhole at his party’s office nearby. There are no paid staff, no special barbershops for members. Members generally eat in a cafeteria along with other members, visitors, and employees from the library and other public sector offices housed at the Bundeshaus.
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. There is almost no lobbying, and this remains largely true today.  
In the plebiscites in Revolutionary France, votes often resembled those 98-1 or better affairs. Taken in the spur of the moment, with little real debate or presentation of alternatives, these plebiscites 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. 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. 
Although there had been little experience with the device referendum 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 public sector — and therefore, warranted to be retained as a permanent part of the design. Evidently, the people had little objection to being consulted about he constitution initially, or about its provision by which they would be consulted periodically.
Finally in 1891, the right of initiative for changes to the federal constitution was approved by 60 % of the voters and 18 of the 22 (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.
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 policy.
A list of  some of the more important uses of the referendum:
Add initiative to referendum power, 1891; Proportional voting for parliament, 1918; Add Romansch to German, French and Italian as a national language, 1938; Voting rights for women, 1971; Equal rights for women, 1981; Consumer protection against corporate cartels, 1982; New constitution, 1999; repeated rejection of immigration restrictions, 1977, 2000; Join UN, 2002.
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.
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 education 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. 

Direct democracy is the greatest single cause of these economic policies that have helped Switzerland grow so rapidly over the last century.
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 U.S.
Thus the process of establishing a national bank became a forty-year dialogue, and the value-added tax, one of almost 25 years.
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. 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. 
Like the U.S., Switzerland plays home to a large number of foreign-born workers and their families — close to 20% of the population for the Swiss. Public opinion polls, though taken much less seriously in Switzerland, indicate that by margins of about 3 to 1 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 mainly consistently rejected the proposals — and by large margins. Anti-immigration measures failed in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s.
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. 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 pending schemes, but has enjoyed victories on pension and health care policies.The difference between the Swiss system 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 3 or 4 [2, usually!] carts that had been previously filled by people at the store, but could not stock the carts yourself.
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 the distinctive level of mutual respect, in my observation, is the federal and cantonal initiative and referendum process, and community democracy.
It is simple. Citizenship is conferred by citizens. Citizenship is granted to immigrants by vote of the local town councils. The discussions, the meetings — they all end, politically and therefore psychologically, at the people. Consensus building among elites, in this sense, is merely a faster way of bowing to the inevitable. 
People are perhaps more satisfied with the schools than in any country in the world. "When men cannot argue about principles, they will argue about interests, and then, personal morals," Alexis de Tocqueville. Over time, of course, the most important impact of this process, ballot initiatives regarding education -- may, ironically, be pedagogic. By constantly empowering even the smallest voices to set off a legislative debate and making frequent to the jury of the people, the Swiss education system, in combination with the political, leads a constant dialogue. And, unlike an abstract, academic discussion where nothing changes as a result, this is, if one may co-opt a 1970s phrase, a “meaningful dialogue.”    In Switzerland, the majority, as scholar Carol Schmidt puts it, often “does not behave like a majority.” That is to say, there are majorities in Switzerland — Protestants, German-speakers, and others — that abstain from establishing certain practices they might otherwise prefer, out of a deliberate respect for the minority.
Swiss income tax rates are relatively among the lowest in the industrial world. Wage income, capital gains and corporate income are all taxed — none at more than 40%, few at less than 10%. This attribute has been called “longitudinal fairness”. The voters have the same power, indeed greater power, to limit taxes at the cantonal and local levels — yet they have proven more willing to approve new and higher taxes at those levels than the voters in perhaps any other country in the world. As a review of the initiative and referendum process suggest, it is more difficult to raise taxes in Switzerland than in perhaps any other country. Yet, taxes are raised and altered from time to time. And when they are, there is less resentment than elsewhere, because the burdens are self-imposed.
Income taxes are paid to the community, which reports and divides income with the canton; the canton in turn reports and directs income to the federal government.

Swiss crime rates are not the lowest in the world, but they are close. Switzerland enjoys high employment that has exceeded 98 % for most of the century. Nearly every Swiss male between 20 and 50 years old has his rifle ready at home and practices regularly.   Welfare
Surveys, however, suggest that about 5.6% of the population had an inadequate income to meet basic physical and health standards. Little of this poverty, while real in a sense, is hard core. That is to say, few of the people who may be poor one year in Switzerland are poor two or three years later. The shape of poverty in regional, ethnic, and other terms is happily even. For instance, of all the statistically poor, about 74% are of Swiss birth, and 2% are foreign born — roughly their proportion in the work force as a whole.    Press
The typical Swiss surely casts more votes every year than the citizen of any other country. And the people read more newspapers per capita than in any other country in the world. (With a respectful nod to Norway, first by some measures.)
Swiss newspapers make more than 95% of their sales to subscribers. This is a much higher proportion than one sees in most of Europe or in comparable parts of the U.S.— namely, large cities. There is less pressure to sell a paper every day by having the most glaring photograph or headline, under this system.
But most people are for or against joining]the EU because they think it will be good or bad for the country, not because tit will be good or bad for them.   
Swiss public TV and radio enjoy an audience share of roughly 50% -- a figure unheard of undeveloped countries. 
Relatively  few divorced men or women, say,  29 /per 100 marriages in Switzerland, 48 in the U.S./
In conversations about women, Swiss men are less coarse than is the Western norm, and far less coarse than the American norm. There is less of an obsession with sex in normal conversation. 
Adolescent pregnancy rate is only 21.1 per 1000 in Switzerland.
Indeed, the Swiss have a higher percentage of women in their parliament, more than 20% of the combined chambers, than the U.S. or most European countries. Switzerland has now had one woman president, and following the election of another woman to the federal council in 1998, will have two more terms by women presidents by 2010, under the country’s rotating presidency.
Nearly every male voter is also a militia/military man — and, with a full-time military establishment of only about 1,000 officials or less, nearly every military man earns his living in the civilian economy. No doubt this is one reason there have been relatively few of the military scandals in Switzerland, either as to over-priced procurement items, what weapons to purchase, or other matters.
Neutrality, thus, is a state of mind and personal philosophy, a broadened version of that very wise beginning of the doctor’s Hippocratic Oath: "First do no harm."
"In Switzerland, minorities are not tolerated. They are favored” – A. Togni. Those national cultures along the Swiss border — in many cases less separated by natural boundaries from their affinity group than the three major Swiss language populations are from one another — have been an entropic magnet, always urging the country apart. Ethnic Italians, Germans, French, Jews, and Arabs — groups that haven’t been able to get along anywhere else for centuries —swirl together within a work force more than one-fifth foreign born. Scholars and historians comparing Switzerland to such multilingual nations as Belgium, Canada, India, Nigeria, and South Africa are intrigued at the degree to which the Swiss have managed to form a bona fide nation. In almost any settings where public sector documents are on display, one will see four or five stacks of everything — always German and French, and frequently in Italian, English, or Romansch. Most Swiss are in some important minority and some majority groups. Once again, the unusual degree of harmony between people and elites in Switzerland, the mutual respect unusual even in democratic societies, makes it very difficult to say who is leading whom. The Swiss have escaped both tyranny of the majority and tyranny of the minority.

The Swiss army permeates social, business and political relationships in a popular way. When asked an open-ended question about their reasons for being proud to be Swiss, most named some element of their political system, such as direct democracy.
The Swiss facility with different languages has made them a natural power in the emerging world of global business. This is seen by the country’s highly disproportionate share of Nobel science prizes and international patents. 
The Next Citizen
“The people can never willfully betray their own interests; but they may possibly be betrayed by the representatives of the people” – The Federalist, No. 63  
Interestingly, thought, the reasons raised against direct democracy nearly all could be used, and in earlier times were used, to argue against the American Revolution; to argue it cold not be extended elsewhere, to deny the vote to blacks, women, and other groups deemed insufficiently educated, or otherwise “not ready” as a cultural or traditional matter for democracy.
In focus groups and surveys, people express a rage at the system’s immobility, feelings that democracy (in America and Europe) is unresponsive to their concerns and frustrations. In Switzerland, by contrast, people asked an open-ended question about what makes them proud about their country were more likely to give an answer having to do with their political system than were the next several answers combined.
“Who commits acts of sovereignty,” as Tocqueville noted in analyzing the Swiss poltical scene in a report to the French parliament, “is sovereign.” 
In effect, for this highly decentralized country, initiative and referendum may have been a key legitimizing device which made action by the central and even to some extent the cantonal governments a palatable thing — as any future encroachments could be checked by the people. The maxim of indirect or representative democracy is, “Write your congressman.” The maxim of direct democracy is “vote yes (or no).” 
Second, direct democracy sharpens the ordinary sense of political responsibility. When one has to make up his own mind on a wide variety of specific issues — the Swiss tackled 66 federal questions by general vote in the 1980s, hundreds of cantonal ones and an unknown number (nobody added them up) of local-community matters — he learns to take politics seriously.  

Hitler and Stalin, Pinochet and Marcos — all held plebiscites when it suited them. The test of a new application of direct democracy will be its automaticity, the extent to which it takes place not at the caprice of leaders, but of the people. This is the purpose of the citizen initiative, sometimes categorized with plebiscites generically as referenda. Swiss have a greater incentive to follow political issues and to think seriously about them — they may well be voting on them in a few months.
Swiss politicians, journalists, and business leaders all, in turn, adjust their behavior accordingly. More focus is placed on informing, and listening to, the people, than in any other democracy.

The Swiss Confederation is a Real Democracy, an anarchy of low degree, see IJA 1 (37) . However the Swiss Confederation was slow with women's right to vote, and recently has decided by referendum to ban building of new minarets, a decision condemned by the Anarchist International and the International Anarchist Tribunal, as against libertarian human rights. To secure and increase the anarchist degree in Switzerland, stronger public tribunals, more law and order, based on Libertarian Human Rights should be introduced. Also more direct actions aiming at higher degree of anarchy, and against reactionary tendencies, should be introduced in this context. More information and news about the Swiss Confederation, see the Anarchy-debate.

(Sources: AIT-AIIS and "Direct Democracy in Switzerland" by Gregory Fossedal, Chair, Alexis de Tocqueville Institution)

Resolution, decided with general consent, by:
The International Anarchist Congress
The 11th Anarchist Biennial 27-28.11.2010
International Congress-Seminar on Anarchism
The AI/IFA network represents more than 50 000 anarchist world wide
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