Landsgemeinde: direct democracy in action

April 25, 2011, No comments

Next Sunday, 1 May, anyone in Switzerland can witness a very Swiss institution. Actually, this year you have two chances on the same day, thanks to Easter being so late. All you have to do is head to Appenzell or Glarus, the last two remaining cantons that use an annual open-air parliament, or Landsgemeinde, to make decisions. Appenzell usually holds its meeting on the last Sunday in April and Glarus a week later; this year both are on 1 May because in the canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden, religion takes precedence over politics –  it is a Catholic canton, after all.

In the age of e-voting and Facebook campaigning, having all the voters assemble in the town square may seem a little old-fashioned. And in some ways, it is. Two years ago, I went to Appenzell to watch the Landsgemeinde, and not just because that day they were debating whether or not to ban naked hiking. Seriously, that was on the agenda. The little town in eastern Switzerland (where the cheese comes from) was packed, its pretty painted buildings almost swamped by a sea of spectators, who were perched on every conceivable vantage point. The concept of democracy being so direct and public made quite an impression on me, so much so that it got a whole section of Swiss Watching:

“Exactly on time, ie midday once the church service is over, the drums roll, flags flutter, the brass band plays its tune and the dignitaries process from the church down the main street, around the square and onto the stage. The mass of spectators has to stand around the back and sides of the square, in ranks behind a rope barrier that separates off the inner circle, where the electorate is gathered. Between the two groups is a wide processional aisle, guarded by men in smart black uniforms and shiny helmets. Anyone wanting to cross the aisle has to show his (or her) voting card in order to duck under the rope and enter the central corral. Everyone has to stand, voters included, and endure the hot April sunshine.

The council members are solemnly dressed in black or grey robes, giving them a judicial air, but since they’re standing on an elevated dais behind a wooden railing, they look as if they are on trial rather than giving judgement. In effect, they are as they have to face their electorate assembled in front of them. But before any debating can begin, the councillors and voters have to take the oath, exactly like the three men at Rütli. A forest of right hands shoots up, all with thumb and two fingers in position, and everyone swears together. To someone less cynical it might seem like a video for a Queen song, but to me all those arms raised in unison look spookily like a mini-Nuremberg rally. Just don’t tell the Appenzellers I said that.

Once the session has begun, any voter can get up and speak on any issue being decided. No vote is taken until everyone who wants to has had their say, which can be a lengthy process. It’s rather like being at Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park, though without the heckling. In fact it’s remarkably quiet. Speeches are heard in silence, with no clapping or cheering or even murmurs of discontent; audience participation, it seems, is limited to listening and voting. It’s all very civilised, if a little lacking in vitality. Each debate ends in a vote, with hands in the air for yea or nay and a winner declared without an exact count, and the session moves slowly on. The most excitement in the first hour comes when one voter faints in the heat and has to be helped out of the inner circle. Not that anyone really notices because the big issue of the day is up next. Naked hiking.”

The vote that followed was overwhelmingly in favour of banning the bizarrely popular pastime of hiking through the countryside with just a knapsack on your back. It was at that moment that I realised my problem with this hands-in-the-air system. Vote against the crowd and in a flash all your friends and neighbours know the truth: either you like walking in the altogether or you’re a softy liberal who would let it happen. That could influence you so much that you vote differently or not at all. Imagine everyone in your town knowing exactly what you think – and in Switzerland that doesn’t just mean which party you choose but also your views on every issue, from the euro to the age of consent. Literally standing up for your beliefs in the face of a huge majority could be a step too far for some people. Maybe that was why Appenzell Innerrhoden was the last canton to give women the vote in non-federal matters – in 1990! This is a demonstration of democracy in its purest form, but could it also exert such peer pressure that democracy itself is strangled? I fear so.

Despite this, watching a Landsgemeinde take place is something everyone in Switzerland (expat and Swiss) should do. It’s an essential part of understanding Swiss politics, if not the country itself. This is how decisions always used to be made, and goes a long way to explaining the current political process. It may seem outdated and unsexy but it’s actually interesting and essentially Swiss (not forgetting, free!); it’s as much about a sense of belonging as about voting, about being an integral part of a community. Even as an foreigner and spectator, that much is clear. So why not go along to Appenzell or Glarus this Sunday and see a bit of the real Switzerland behind the scenery? You won’t regret it.

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