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Switzerland


     

    Switzerland is a country of about 7 million people in the middle of Europe. Its neighbours are Germany, Austria, Liechtenstein, Italy and France. It has been a federation since 1848, and its federal institutions have meant that the country has been able to accommodate diversity politically. Historically, the 26 cantons and the about 3,000 communes were able to develop their own traditions and cultures so that Switzerland had and still has cultural, cantonal and communal diversity. Switzerland did not attempt to homogenize its population nor did it split according to linguistic, religious, or cultural lines.

    The official starting point of Swiss history is 1291. In 1291 three cantons (at this time called Orte) concluded a treaty and created a defence union combined with a system of arbitration for conflict management among the cantons. The union was intended to prevent outside dominance and guarantee a power balance within the country. Other cantons joined by concluding further treaties so that a confederation based on a treaty system developed. The confederation was to facilitate as much cooperation as necessary to defend the independence of Switzerland while safeguarding the sovereignty of the cantons.

    At the end of the eighteenth century modernization in neighbouring countries, industrialization and the professionalization of the army, combined with the ideas of the French Revolution, triggered demands for some centralization and modernization in Switzerland. In 1798 French forces led by Napoleon invaded and created a centralized state in accordance with the French example. The cantons were transformed into equal but purely administrative units. Switzerland, however, quickly proved to be ungovernable as a centralized state, and Napoleon brought back the cantonal system.

    After Napoleon's defeat, Switzerland opted again for a loose confederation. In the Vienna Congress (1815) the borders and the neutrality of Switzerland were recognized. While many of the Protestant cantons adopted progressive democratic governments, in other predominantly Catholic cantons the old influential families re-introduced conservative power structures. The progressive cantons pressed for democratization and centralization of the union. In order to limit the pressure of the progressive (mostly Protestant) cantons, the conservative (predominantly Catholic) cantons formed a secret union (Sonderbund). This violated the treaty of confederation. When the union was revealed and the Catholic cantons refused to dissolve it, the Protestant cantons dissolved it by force. The year 1847 entered Swiss history as the year of civil war. After the civil war, the defeated Catholic cantons elected new democratic governments.

    In 1848 the people and the cantons of Switzerland adopted a federal constitution. This constitution was a compromise between the winners and losers of the civil war. It introduced some centralization but it also guaranteed, through the institutional set-up and the limitation of competencies of the central government, respect for cantonal diversity.
    With the 1848 constitution, Switzerland took an important step towards modernity. It became a federal country based on constitutionally-guaranteed shared rule and self-rule. The modernization did not aim at homogenization of the population but tried to create a Swiss nation by preserving the pre-existing diversity. The combination of shared rule and self-rule enabled the country to create diversity in unity.

    While over the years the institutions and political processes have developed further, and there have been two total revisions of the constitution (1874, 1999), the over-all design has stayed the same. The federal constitution has provided the basis for the peaceful cohabitation of different cultural, linguistic and religious groups.

Swiss profile by Thomas Stauffer