The voice of the Swiss citizenry rules the federation

Former Swiss president Arnold Koller addresses a roundtable on intergovernmental relations in Switzerland.

Direct democracy plays an important role in Swiss federalism and in intergovernmental relations there, experts and practitioners from across Switzerland agreed at a recent roundtable on intergovernmental relations.

The meeting, part of the Forum’s Global Dialogue on Federalism series, was opened by Dr. Arnold Koller, the former President of Switzerland and the chairman of the Forum.

In a system of direct democracy, citizens have a direct voice in the governance process by way of referendum. In Switzerland, for example, citizens can vote on proposed laws and amendments in national referendums and may also propose new measures. In a representative democracy, by contrast, elected officials vote in elected assemblies on behalf of their constituents.

The most controversial topic discussed at the roundtable was the effectiveness of agreements between cantons and whether these accords should be managed by the federal government. Switzerland is comprised of 26 states or cantons and almost 3,000 municipalities (known as communes) with each canton possessing its own constitution, legislature, government and courts.

The tiered nature of federalism in Switzerland and its effect on intergovernmental relations was the most interesting topic of the day. The federal government assumes more major responsibilities than the other orders of Swiss government, but execution of federal policy is often delegated to the cantons which may in turn delegate it to the communes. The lowest tier of government, therefore, is often tasked with implementation. Local economic areas often do not correspond with cantonal or national borders, presenting further challenges to co-operation, efficiency and legitimacy.

Citing recent reforms and changes to the constitution, the 23 participants agreed that more co-operation between Swiss governments is necessary. One such reform took place in 2003 when the federal government received the power to force co-operation between cantons by obliging cantons to join inter-cantonal agreements. Participants believed that this power could be viewed either as a tool against centralization or as a danger to self-determination, though the power has not yet been exercised by the federal government.

Further co-operation between governments, the participants suggested, may well foster efficiency, expertise and distribution of responsibilities but could also reduce the influence of Swiss citizens and therefore weaken the Swiss federation.

The final remarks at the roundtable were presented by Roland Brogli, the vice-president of the cantonal government of Aargau. He noted the practical importance of the Global Dialogue on Federalism series.

The event took place on March 26, 2009 at the Centre for Democracy in Aarau. It was organized by Prof. Thomas Pfisterer, Attorney at Law. Other participants included Dr. Ursula Abderhalden, University of St. Gallen; Prof. Dr. Andreas Auer, University of Zurich; Lorenz Bösch, Member of the Cantonal Government Schwyz; Canisius Braun, Secretary of State, Canton St. Gallen; Dr. Werner Bussmann, Federal Office of Justice; Prof. Dr. Rainer Eichenberger, University of Fribourg; Hans Fahrländer, Aargauer Zeitung; Fabrice Filiez, Integration Office, Federal Department of Foreign Affairs; Jean René Fournier, Member of the Cantonal Government, Valais; Dr. Marcel Guignard, Union of Swiss Cities; Andrea Iff, Universty of Berne; Dr. Arnold Koller, Forum of Federations; Roland Mayer, Conference of Cantonal Governments; Walter Moser, Conference of Cantonal Governments; Georg Müller, Professor emeritus, University of Zürich; Luigi Petrazzini, Member of the Cantonal Government, Ticino; Dr. Regine Suter, Member of the Cantonal Parliament, St. Gallen; Matthias Saxer, Neue Zürcher Zeitung; Prof. Dr. Rainer J. Schweizer, University of St. Gallen; Martina Suter, University of Zürich; Dr. Hans Martin Tschudi, University of St, Gallen and Prof. Dr. Bernhard Waldmann, University of Fribourg.

The participants of the Forum's Global Dialogue roundtable on intergovernmental relations in Switzerland
The participants of the Forum’s Global Dialogue roundtable on intergovernmental relations in Switzerland.

Swiss Country Roundtable Coordinator, prof. Thomas Pfisterer, addresses the roundtable.

Swiss Country Roundtable Coordinator, prof. Thomas Pfisterer, addresses the roundtable.

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