Democratic countries today face many problems. Partly they are the result of large populations (who can determine the "will of the people" in a country of 50 million?), of mass media (which can sway thought), and of minorities who can easily be victimized by the practice of "majority rule."
Local vs. Central Government But these problems have been solved—if they ever existed at all—in Switzerland. The Swiss have a long tradition of local government, and an equally long tradition of distrust of central government. Even today, the male inhabitants of some smaller cantons gather annually to discuss law and taxes, much like a New England town meeting. The smallest—and for the average Swiss, the most important—political units are the communes (townships); they elect mayors and councillors—figures of great local importance. Swiss political life reaches all the way down to the family, the real basis. Until recently, only a family could vote; the theory was that the wife could influence the husband, who then cast the family vote.
Distrust of strong central government goes all the way back to William Tell—the very symbol of Swiss democracy. Tell's revolt was as much against central government as it was against the Austrians. Whether his story is history or folklore, he has become the Swiss national hero; his protest against central government still influences Swiss political life.
Swiss Federalism Switzerland is Europe's only federal nation, though West Germany is technically called one. A "federal" nation is a federation of states, the states remaining the foundation of the system. Only Switzerland gives this much power to its constituent states. The situation in Switzerland is like that in the U.S. just after the War of Independence. The American states were reluctant to give up any of their powers to the central government. By now, of course, the states have diminished in power and the central government runs the country.
Democracy can be endangered by so strong a central government. The Swiss have never had this problem. Swiss laws are made by the elected Federal Assembly. This assembly then elects the Federal Council, the executive branch. Any law passed by the assembly can be vetoed by a popular referendum. Thus, in Switzerland, the people can always overrule their lawmakers. The federal Council, in turn, is composed of seven men, no one of whom can assume a dominating position. The Swiss dread the possibility of a strong personality emerging in politics. The joke is told that the average Swiss citizen doesn't know who the Swiss President is.
Another problem the Swiss have avoided by stressing local government is the rise to influence of a military establishment. The Swiss army is made up of local militia. There is no permanent officer corps or commander-in-chief. A long tradition of neutrality has kept Switzerland out of war since 1815. Thus, the military has always played a background role.
The Environment: A Blessing in Disguise What's important is not the "what" but the "why." Why has Switzerland developed this unique political system? The venerated traditions of the Swiss have something to do with it, but they too must be explained.
Geography and climate explain a great deal. Even in summer, Swiss mountain communities are often isolated. Thus, village and town customs make up much of Swiss life. Imagine how isolated they must be in the winter! Many can be reached only by train—no cars or trucks—and even rail service comes to a halt when the mid-winter avalanches take over. Winter snows divide Switzerland into several areas which are separated from each other. Such isolated mountain communities naturally become a world unto themselves, distrusting a distant (often inaccessible) authority.
A small population is another explanation. Switzerland, with a little over 5 million people, finds it easier to sound out and respect public opinion. A mixture of faiths and languages tends to encourage tolerance, and this has enabled the Swiss to live with each other without strong regional rivalries. But it also encourages regional life, perhaps the most distinctive feature of Swiss democracy.
The environment, them, which may have seemed such a hardship, actually protected the Swiss from a dominating central government and made possible the pattern of Swiss democracy today.
An Analogy There really is no analogy of Swiss-style democracy in the history of modern Europe. To find one, you have to go back to the city-states of ancient Greece, where all citizens met together face-to-face to make the law. Or one can find an analogy in the medieval communes of Italy and France: where the townspeople raised the money to buy their freedom from the feudal lord.
Switzerland comes as close as any nation past and present to the ideal of one of its famous sons, the 18th-century philosopher Rousseau, who proclaimed that "That government governs best which governs least."
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