Wednesday, May 02, 2007

It's All Swiss To Me - The Swiss Government and Federal Council

I have been volunteering with the American Women's Club of Zurich for a couple of months now. Usually, I just prepare the layouts for their monthly publication, The Round Robin, but in May they asked me to write a piece on the Swiss federal government for a column called 'It's All Swiss To Me.' This column usually features an aspect of Swiss culture that American women may wish to learn more about. For instance, the article in February's It's All Swiss To Me page described the history of those Alpine St. Bernard rescue dogs. As you know, I am not at all fond of dogs, but I thought even this subject was more engaging than the one they chose for me to write about in May, the Swiss federal government.

When I started researching the Swiss government, I quickly decided that I would focus on the executive branch because of its unusual composition and secret meetings. I thought I could make the piece interesting and fun somehow, but writing it felt like a chore and the result is a boring report. Read it below or skip down to the bottom paragraph.

In many ways, the Swiss government has a lot in common with our own American system. Indeed its 1848 Federal Constitution was based on our own Constitution and the ideas of the French Revolution. Switzerland has a Federal Supreme Court which hears appeals of cantonal courts and functions in a similar manner to our own, but does not debate the constitutionality of federal and local laws. Unsurprisingly, the 1848 Federal Constitution established a bicameral legislature, or Federal Assembly, consisting of the Council of States and the National Council. The Council of States, a 48 member group consisting of two deputies from most cantons, is comparable to the US Senate while the National Council, a 200 member body whose constituents are elected on a basis of proportional representation, resembles the House of Representatives.

The elements that set the Swiss government apart from not only the American system but from the rest of the world are its system of direct democracy and its executive branch of government. In this case, direct democracy refers to the fact that Swiss citizens have full power over the law. Any citizen may challenge the law and seek to amend the constitution if he/she gathers enough signatures. Once this occurs, a national vote is called and sometimes changes are implemented. While this system resonates with a Swiss notion of fairness, some citizens feel that voting on so many referenda is burdensome.

Again, perhaps the most intriguing feature of the Swiss government is its executive branch, the seven-member Federal Council. Only two other nations in the world, Bosnia and Herzegovina and San Marino, have similar collegial systems of government, but it is not unusual for the Swiss. The 1848 Federal Constitution established the Federal Council because Switzerland has a long tradition of success with the rule of collective bodies.

The seven members are elected by the Federal Assembly for four year terms, but almost all are reelected several times and remain on the Council until retirement. There was a Zauberformel, or ‘magic formula’ which determined the composition of the Federal Council from the four major political parties during the latter half of the twentieth century. The Free Democratic Party, Christian Democratic People’s Party, and the Social Democratic Party each had two seats while the Swiss People’s Party had one. The 2003 elections, however, marked a significant change when the Swiss People’s Party took one seat from the Christian Democratic Party. Each Council member is the head of a government department and are commonly called ‘ministers’ of Finance, Home Affairs, Justice and Police, etc. The Federal Assembly elects one President and Vice President of the Council and they rotate these responsibilities each year.

One of the most important traits of the Federal Council is their collegiality. Members of the Council do not publicly criticize Council decisions or fellow members even though they are often political opponents. The Council’s weekly Wednesday meetings in Bern are completely secret and records are sealed for fifty years. Though the Federal Council is stable and viewed favorably by most Swiss, it is said to be more divisive since the 2003 elections.

Unfortunately, only five women have ever been elected to the Federal Council. And one of them had to resign because of a scandal and another was one of the few Councilors to not be reelected. Today, however, two women serve on the Council and one of them, Micheline Calmy-Rey, is its President. Around one quarter of the Federal Assembly is women and perhaps even more women will be involved in the Swiss government in the future.

How could I have infused my own voice into this dry regurgitation of facts? Do you think it would have been better if I could have written about a subject that was more interesting to me? For instance, Paola told me about specialty Swiss cheese shops and their owners, the so called Masters of Cheese. Apparently they study for several years and then take an apprenticeship for a couple more years before they can become real Masters of Cheese. I would love to write about this topic, especially if I could interview Masters of Cheese and then quote them in my article. On the other hand, The Round Robin could use some fresh material and ideas. I was thinking of suggesting to the editors that they add a new column featuring one post from an expat American woman's blog (like mine, or Julie's or Meggie's) each month. Ideas?

1 comment:

Jul said...

That might end up being a good idea. It could provide the newsletter with different content, and could get some new readers to the blogs.

I don't usually provide content for free, but I'd consider it for this kind of project.