Bern, the sleek capital of Switzerland, is the perfect example of Swiss traditions mingling with modernity. The city also holds together the highly decentralized Swiss state. In a small country with four official languages and cultures that vary between regions, that’s no small chore.
My boyfriend and I visited the Bern Federal Palace in the summer of 2018. On our visit, we learned all about the cleavages in Swiss culture. We also discovered the peculiar political system holding these divisions together. When it comes to direct citizen participation, Switzerland is a bit of an outlier amongst other Western countries. More on that later.
Touring the Bern Federal Palace
Our tour of the Federal Palace was one of the highlights of our Bern visit. The building is the seat of the federal government in Switzerland. It houses the Federal Assembly and the Federal Council. The Assembly is the Swiss national legislature and the Council is the executive. The tour highlights the legislative branch over the executive, because making laws is always more interesting than executing them. The two grand chambers you get to see on the tour are for the two houses of the Assembly.
A visit to the Bern Federal Palace is rife with Swiss civics, history, and the story of the building itself. In the Domed Hall, you see artwork that represents important aspects of Swiss heritage. The stained glass on the dome represents the 22 cantons of the Swiss state in 1902, the year it was created. There’s also a statue of three men considered to be the founders of the three original Swiss cantons.
The symbols of Swiss democracy
Touring the Federal Palace, you feel an overwhelming sense of formality. Perhaps this was due to the lack of politicians. Neither house of the Assembly was in session when we visited. When you take out the people the building that remains is both opulent and significant, almost like a museum. Many countries throughout the world have elaborate statehouses that display the nation’s traditions. Switzerland isn’t so unique in that sense. It’s the political system the building represents that makes it unique.
Two symbols stood out in particular at the Federal Palace in Bern. The first was commitment to a careful balance of linguistically diverse cantons. Officially, Switzerland speaks French, Italian, German, and Romansh. All four languages have equal status in the law.
The second symbol that struck me was the Swiss democratic tradition. Switzerland prides itself on its forms of direct democratic participation. This pride is literally painted on the wall in the Council of States (the upper house of the Swiss legislature). A mural depicts a people’s assembly in a Swiss commune, where citizens are gathered to openly discuss political matters in a public dialogue. The people’s assembly still exists in some communes today. It’s an integral feature of Switzerland’s so-called direct democracy.
Read A Belgian Experiment in Democracy to learn more about direct democracy.
How participation works in Switzerland
In most countries, citizens exercise their right to vote by choosing representatives. In Switzerland, citizens also vote directly on substantive issues in referenda. Each level of government – municipal, cantonal, and federal – allows these referenda. Citizens can propose changes to the constitution via a popular initiative. They can ask for an optional referendum on a new law or amendment proposed by the Federal Assembly.
Because of all these referenda and initiatives, Swiss citizens can find themselves voting four times per year. Issues range from building a new road to questions on Swiss foreign policy. Since the state introduced popular initiatives in 1891, citizens have proposed over 200 of them. Twenty-two proposals have been accepted. A notable example of these initiatives at work occurred in 2016. A popular initiative proposing a minimum standard wage for all workers came up for referendum. It was rejected by 76.9 percent of voters.
The downsides of direct democracy
Many look to Switzerland as an idyllic “semi-direct” democracy. The country seems to effectively incorporate the representative model with direct participation. Indeed, most Swiss citizens prefer direct participation at all levels of government, even if voter turnout regularly comes in below 50 percent. The advantages of direct democracy – transparency, accountability, and cooperation – are difficult to ignore. This system isn’t without its downsides, though.
In Switzerland, granting new citizenship is the purview of municipal governments. Most communes leave the process up to administrative procedures. In some communes, though, people’s assemblies decide the naturalization of new citizens. Because of this, some people have been rejected for Swiss citizenship based on discrimination. One woman was denied naturalization by her town twice because her neighbors found her too outspoken.
Another example was a popular initiative in 2009, which added an amendment to the Swiss constitution banning the new construction of minarets. The initiative passed by 57.5 percent. At the time of the vote, only four mosques in Switzerland had minarets. These haven’t been taken down, though, as the law only applies to new construction.
Culture and civic tradition at the Bern Federal Palace
Letting people have their voice on matters of government is of the utmost importance for modern democracy. When it comes to issues like granting nationality, however, it is all too easy for citizens to give in to emotions or personal feelings. Most of the time, these don’t get in the way in Switzerland. Citizens are happy with the strong voice they’re lent.
You learn about the Swiss system and its rich experience with citizen participation on the tour of the Federal Palace. The building itself was exquisite, and the view overlooking the Aare river outside was picturesque too. The most fascinating, though, was the portrayal of civic tradition at the Federal Palace. Gazing at a beautiful building rich with symbolic markers is only worthwhile if you understand its context.