Switzerland is famous for many things. A pocket knife with ingenious blades, improbable rail tunnels, milk chocolate. The tiny Alpine stronghold is one of the wealthiest countries in the world and is famously stable both politically and socially.
Part of that stability comes from the way in which the country is governed. While that might sound like a truism, Swiss politics is unlike that of any other developed nation. While most countries have a single president or prime minister who sets policies and takes responsibility for decisions, the Swiss don’t. Members of the seven-strong Federal Council make decisions jointly and even take it in turns to be president.
A shared responsibility
All seven, although they have their areas of particular focus and responsibility, are equal in status and pledge to work in concert with one another following the unwritten principle of collégialité, or consensus.
Walter Thurnherr, the Federal Chancellor and Chief of Staff, tells the World Economic Forum that, “The strength of the system lies in procedure: not just one minister is responsible, but all seven. They look over each other’s shoulders and look at matters from a different perspective.
“Each is entitled to intervene in writing, preferably offering short, constructive and persuasive arguments. There are only seven federal councillors in the cabinet and they tend to remain in office for a number of years. That provides continuity, experience and expertise.”
The Federal Council elects one of its members to sit as president for a one-year term and is comprised of representatives of the country’s main political parties: two representatives from the Liberal Party, two from the Swiss Social Democratic Party, two from the Swiss People’s Party, and one from the Swiss Christian Democratic Party. They serve for four years on the Council and there are almost never attempts to oust a member before their term in office expires.
In addition, they each head one of the federal departments: defence; economics; transport, environment, communications and energy; finance; foreign affairs; justice and police; and the interior ministry.
“That may be a disadvantage in terms of representing the country’s interests abroad,” Thurnherr says. “But on the other hand, the office of president does not go to anyone’s head, which is also an advantage.”
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The concept of direct democracy is hard-wired into Switzerland. The referendum is the most obvious and visible example of this. They come in three forms: mandatory, optional and popular initiatives. Any citizen eligible to vote can make a bid to change an aspect of the constitution by launching a popular initiative.
While the Swiss model is at pains to ensure the inclusion of the full breadth of mainstream political views, and stability is its chief preoccupation, there are concerns that the system may be open to abuse.
Tobias Montag is a political scientist at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. He fears the spectre of populism could stalk Swiss democratic efforts. "In practice, these direct democracy maneuvers often lead to great polarization, and that's not very helpful to democracy," he told Deutsche Welle.
The Swiss devotion to inclusion in political discourse, which extends to all four officially spoken languages, hasn’t always been as progressive as it currently sounds. In 1959, a referendum on the issue returned an unequivocal rejection of the idea – 67% of the electorate voted against it. Of course, it was only men who could vote on the matter. It was only in 1971 that women won the right to vote in Switzerland.
Yet in some parts of the country women had to wait another 20 years to vote. In the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, the decision of 1971’s referendum wasn’t implemented; it took a federal tribunal to overrule Appenzell Innerrhoden on the grounds that it was in breach of the country’s federal constitution in 1991 before all Swiss women were allowed to vote.