Switzerland’s Fascinating Constitution

On this day in 1848, Switzerland drafted its first constitution, which created a federal system of government inspired partly by the United States and partly by France — two countries with very different approaches to republican governance.

While most of Europe was experiencing revolutionary uprisings, the Swiss set up system that officially abolished the nobility, established a bicameral legislature called the Federal Assembly (like our House and Senate), and combined centralized authority with significant autonomy for states and cities (the Swiss equivalent to a U.S. state is called a canton).

Thus, Switzerland—which even in the 13th century had set up a quasi-federal form of government—became one of history’s oldest constitutional republics. Federalism became, and remains, a key unifying ideal for a people divided across different languages, religions, and regional identities (since mountainous countries are notoriously fragmented).

But the Swiss model differed from America’s in two keys ways.

First, their constitution required every amendment to be approved by referendum, i.e. the popular vote. The Swiss balanced representative institutions with what they called “popular rights”: The parliament would do its job, as in any other republican system, but the people could keep them in check.

Second, the constitution had a clause stating that it could be completely rewritten if it was deemed necessary, thus enabling it to evolve as a whole instead of through piecemeal amendments. Thus, when the Industrial Revolution brought about various social and economic challenges (as it did in the U.S. and elsewhere), the Swiss responded in 1891 with a modified constitution that, among other things, allowed the people to initiate and approve constitutional changes themselves, while giving the federal government more responsibility for national security, trade, and the economy.

Direct democracy and federalism remain hallmarks of Swiss political and cultural identify. Swiss citizens may challenge any law passed by parliament if they gather 50,000 signatures against the law within 100 days. Then a national vote is scheduled where voters decide by a simple majority whether to accept or reject the law. Alternatively, any eight cantons can band together and also call for a constitutional referendum on a federal law.

Similarly, the federal “constitutional initiative” allows citizens to put a constitutional amendment to a nationwide vote if 100,000 voters sign the proposed amendment within 18 months. Then, the Federal Council (the Swiss equivalent to the presidency) and the Federal Assembly can supplement the proposed amendment with a counter-proposal, and voters must indicate which proposal they prefer.

Essentially, the people and their representatives directly engage with one another to sort out political questions. Every constitutional amendment must be accepted by a “double majority”: Most Swiss people must approve it, but so do most of the country’s 26 cantons.

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