Kushay's Matter Bank Politics

[AK] A Decentralized Government System

This note will discuss an example of a highly effective decentralized government in Swiss.

The Swiss government has a rather unique flavor that makes it different with much of European countries. Because of the Swiss mentality that heavily opposes centralization, political power mostly directly rest within their people and the federal government serves a rather decorative than functional role. The executive of the federal multi-party directorial republic is a body called the Federal Council. It is composed of 7 members (each one responsible for one of the seven departments in Switzerland) who are voted into their position by both chambers of the Federal Assembly. Their presidency and vice-presidency is rotating each year, their mandate is four years.

The council shows unity towards to the public and most decisions are made by consensus. That is largely because their function is more decorative than functional, as most of the power is still held by the cantons (regional level). Decisions related to education and even levying taxes are made at the regional level. There is no executive action or veto which the federal government could use.

The Swiss cantons perform the balancing act of politics: the conservative cantons are those outside of the big cities such as Zurich, Geneva or Bern (the capital). The population in the smaller communities reject the tendency to govern from the capital. As a result, the Swiss has continuously rejected proposals like the ones phasing out nuclear energy.

This push for loyalism would be considerably more difficult if it wasn’t for the system of direct democracy that is very common in the Confederacy.

All federal laws there are subject to a three to four-step process:

1. A first draft is prepared by experts in the federal administration.

2. This draft is presented to many people in an opinion poll: cantonal governments, political parties as well as many NGOs and associations out of civil society may comment on the draft and propose changes.

3. The result is presented to dedicated parliamentary commissions of both chambers of the federal parliament, discussed in detail behind closed doors and finally debated in public sessions of both chambers of parliament.

4. The electorate has a veto-right on laws: If anybody is able to find 50,000 citizens who will sign a form demanding a referendum within 3 months, a referendum must be held. In order to pass a referendum, laws need only be supported by a majority of the national electorate, not a majority of cantons. It’s not unusual for Switzerland to have referenda on more than a dozen laws in any given year.

These referenda are the reason why the political majorities have decided to include their own opposition in government: if the majority does not seek a consensus, the oppositions can use a citizens initiative (referendum) to overturn any decision made on the national level.

The system of checks and balances through both the aggressively localist cantons and the tool of direct democracy has made Switzerland particularly resistant to the growth of government.

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