Recent Email from a Swiss Citizen

Hi Mr. Ravitz,

thank you for your interest in direct democracy.

In Switzerland we do vote about tax increases/decreases, tax system, prisons, nuclear powerplants, rail-systems, foreign-politics, international treaties, the finances of our villages, counties, country, salary of our members of parliament, protection of our landscape. I hope, one day everyone on this planet does have similar rights and possibilities.

The Initiative is very popular in switzerland and quite often, when we have to vote about a more popular theme, the turnouts are very high, by our standards (40%-50%) [up to 72% recently]. But only a minority of the Initiatives have ever been successful. Though, the majority of them had massive influence in regular politics. The referendums have often been used to block some unwanted governmental activities and some international treaties, of which people had to fear major disadvantages (more traffic from the EU etc…)

A. First some simplified information about our Federation. The Swiss Federation is a union of 26 smaller units we call “Kantone” and “Halb-Kantone”, you could use the term county and half-county, i think. Each of these “Kantone” has its own Government and Constitution. And often even these “Kantone” are subdivided into “Bezirke” (Regions). The Federation consists of two parliamentary chambers. One of these Chambers, the “Nationalrat” represents the population of a “Kanton”, thus “Kantone” with more population send more folks to this chamber. The other one, the “Staenderat” represents the “Kanton” itself. Thus, each “Kanton” is sending two Members and each “Halb-Kanton” one. Our Parliament is not professional, thus “Miliz-System”. There are two official sessions of Parliament each Year.

Switzerland doesn’t have a real and powerful president, like the USA. We’ve got 7 ministers, elected by parliament, who rule this country. Every year another one of these is called ‘First among equals’, … thus he is called president. There is one federal court seated in lausanne. You should know, every “Kanton” has its own laws, its own constitution, its own court. Only under certain conditions, you could appeal to the federal court (still very easy yet).

Thus elections of any parliament is very boring, since you see the same heap of boring faces every time. But our Federation and all of the “Kantone” 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 government.

B. Newspapers: I know, the “NZZ-Neue Zuercher Zeitung” is available in the USA. It’s disadvantage is, it’s written in german. It has all the major political discussions and the protocols of parliamentary sessions printed. It is influenced by the “Parti Radical Democratique/Freisinnig Demokratische Partei”, which is a liberal party. It is the one party, which founded our Federative System, as it now is.

C. Some interesting Facts about Switzerland: The Organisation of Switzerland into several “Kantone” had originally been made by Napoleon the Ist. With some smaller exceptions The political map is still the same as when Napoleon was here.

Our Constitution as it actually is, had massively been influenced by the Constitution of the USA. The major difference is: We don’t have a powerful president, we have seven ministers, which rule together. Another major difference in our political life is:

We aren’t used to have a single party ruling !

We have four parties with this division of power:

– SVP (1 Minister), FDP (2), CVP (2), SP (2).

– SVP: Schweizerische Volks-Partei / Swiss people’s party Traditional Party, on the right wing.

– FDP: Freisinnig Demokratische Partei / Free Democratic Party Liberal Party, centered.

– CVP: Christliche Volks-Partei / Christian people’s party Liberal to Social Party, centered.

– SP: Sozialdemokratische Partei / Socialdemocratic Party Worker’s Party, left.

This Formula is called the “Zauberformel” (magic formula). Therefore our government is not only representing about 51% of all voting people, but even around 90% of our people.

The acceptance of our “Bundesrat” (council of the federation/ council of the ministers) is quite high, with one exception. The one exception is everything concerning the European Union and the UN.

D. If you’re interested in our constitution, you should give a phone to our embassy and ask for a copy. It’s quite a small document. There are official translations into french, italy, german; these are relevant at court, there is often noted, which language does apply to which paragraph. There surely are translations into english, i think.

I wish you a nice day.