Blog #10: Switzerland’s Governance System

I am in Switzerland, awaiting open heart surgery on my three month old grandson.  He and his father are Swiss and I am getting a taste of what that means.  Switzerland has the highest per capita GDP and last month a referendum that would have provided every Swiss citizen with a minimum income of 4000 francs per month (about US $4600) lost by a small margin. Why is Switzerland so wealthy, so seemingly insulated from the turmoil swirling about those of us that carry other passports?  The answer, of course, lies in its traditions of governance and that fact that this mountainous region has in the past been militarily defensible.  The first three cantons came together as a confederation in 1291.  As independent-minded mountaineer communities they recognized that the benefits flowing from the trade routes through their mountain passes were highest when they cooperated with each other.  When their main export became mercenary soldiers, they ruthlessly enforced the Swiss brand - mercenaries that could not be bought once a contract had been signed.  One result is that the now largely ornamental Vatican Guards are still Swiss.  The Confederation, with its standing army composed of every able bodied man, managed to stay out of both World War I and II.  Switzerland is not a member of the European Union and only joined the United Nations in 2002.

Switzerland is a direct democracy - not the usual representational democracy.  This means that as a citizen, you are expected to vote on a variety of local and national matters every three months.  About half of all Swiss men and women do indeed vote this regularly. There are also elected representatives to canton and national government.  Candidates for these positions are all given a standard budget for each campaign and they may not accept additional contributions.  The top seven national governmental posts, including President and the equivalent of Secretary of State, are held by people selected by their parties in proportion to the votes won by each.  They rotate position following a prescribed sequence.  The Constitution can be amended, even rewritten, at any time if the votes are there to do so.  The result is that the conservative and stable Swiss political system plods forward without the dramatic swings that mark so many countries.  There are many other features of this governance system specifically designed, it seems to me, to keep any one faction from gaining the upper hand.  There are, for example, three official languages.  Even though the Italian speaking population is tiny, Italian is one of them.  Very different from Sri Lanka where a hurried decision made by President Bandaranaike soon after independence proclaimed that the official language was English.  This single decision by one person disenfranchised much of the Tamil population and set in motion decades of civil war.  This could not happen in Switzerland.

What do the Swiss do with all their wealth?  They keep their military expenditures small.  They invest heavily in education, in public health and in research.  Their rules for businesses and banking attracts multinational corporations but also favors the thousands of small business - including many family farms.  I am blown away by their investments in infrastructure - not just fine roads, clean cities and an extraordinarily orderly and frequent public transportation system - but in the landscape itself.  In this mountainous landscape the streams that I see trickling or rushing downhill have all been carefully lined with masonry.  This keeps in check what would otherwise be dramatic erosion when streamflows are high.  All this water is also harnessed for power generation with the result is that some two thirds of the nation’s energy consumption is provided by a national and renewable resource.  There are check dams in the most inaccessible ravines.  The concrete channels that take the water off gravel roadways and the bigger walking paths don’t just dump into the adjacent woodland or pasture but guide the runoff first into a little hand-dug catchment basin where the water flow is slowed down, absorbed and released gradually.  Very simple, and not expensive if well maintained.  And everything is well maintained - individual privately owned houses with their tidy little gardens, a farmer’s beautifully designed small-scale equipment, everything.  So much order and so much agreement on what should be and what is inappropriate or forbidden can be unsettling.  But in this mountainous country with scant natural resources, this form of governance is the backbone of the country - and it works.  

Tourism is a dominant industry and it helps distribute the wealth since the attraction is the country’s extraordinary scenery.  In the winter skiing brings a flood of well-heeled enthusiasts up into the mountain villages.  In the summer, the same mountainsides are crowded with hikers and those who sit sipping expensive coffee admiring each other and the view.  Everyone is magnificently equipped for whatever sport is in season.  And these free spending multitudes are not people from elsewhere.  Many, often most, are Swiss.  How extraordinarily different from beautiful places elsewhere on this planet where the tourists are rich foreigners and the locals are poor!  The world class ski slopes above the village where I am staying are owned by the same families that have owned them for generations.  They not only own the land but also the lifts and the fancy restaurant up at the top.  They were not bought out by some wealthy outsider who made the investments and reaped the benefits.  These farmers still pasture their cows on these slopes in the summer, and hay them.  Their farming is heavily subsidized, but if these mountain pastures were not maintained, this gorgeous landscape and the good things it generates would quickly disappear.  It’s all good business.

Just about everywhere I have worked “the government” is an object of distain and the perceived root of almost every problem.  This holds as much for the US as a country in Latin America, in Africa or anywhere else. “The government,” we complain, is controlled by some group whose purpose is to advance its self-interest and all too often to impose its values on everyone else.  This isn’t the pattern in Switzerland where a “nested system” of governance with distributed authority and responsibility appears to be functioning - even though - like a Swiss timepiece - the inner workings are complicated.  Anyone attempting the arduous task of becoming a Swiss citizen must convince their home canton that their reasons are honorable and can assure a panel of local citizens that they know the history and the current issues of that canton and have good reasons to become a member of that community.  The federal government must not object - but the decision lies with the canton.  

When my wife and I applied for extended stay visas to support our Swiss family through the upcoming operation on our grandson, we began by filing all the necessary papers with the Swiss Consulate in New York, a branch of the federal government.  But the papers, when fully in order and complete and paid for, then had to be sent to the canton where we will be staying, and the decision on granting or denying our visas was theirs to make.  And now that we are here, we must obtain a Stay Permit from our local village.  It has sent its acceptance to the canton, the next layer up in the system.  And the canton will mail us the paperwork for the final documents that, again, will be issued by the village.  And so it goes for decisions made on how development is regulated and the myriad of tasks that occupy local government - excepting that as a voting citizen the expectation is that you will engage in such decisions.  “The government” is here - not somewhere else - and the accountability lies with the collective perceptions of what is good for your canton and the nation, what is not, what should be done and what can be put off or ignored.  It is by no means perfect, but it’s different, and it has been working for a long time.  Unfortunately, it is not a model that can be wrapped up and exported elsewhere.  It’s the product of a long history and a self-reliant mountain culture and, as always, the contributions of a sequence of extraordinary leaders who shaped this governance system over many centuries.  For the rest of us, Switzerland offers many lessons that are indeed transportable and that should inspire solutions to complex political issues that can indeed be found through distributed governance systems.  Of course every other country has its own traditions of governance and what may be transportable will vary from place to place.