Voting mad

Legalised marijuana. Low gun crime despite the liberal gun laws. Life expectancy for men and women in the 80s. Switzerland is certainly full of surprises.

One of our meetings was in Bern, in the Swiss Parliament building and, as is perhaps usual with a foreign delegation, we had a tour of the Federal Assembly – a chance to see the inner sanctum of a country that hasn’t lost its ability to surprise.

IMG_2959 (800x600)The Swiss system of government is quite unusual in that the people, with enough signatures (50k), can overturn any decision made in either of the two chambers – (1) the National Council, with its 200 members elected by a system of proportional representation since 1919, and (2) the Council of States, with two members representing each of the 26 cantons – and send it to popular vote. It seems as if the  Swiss like to vote. They’ve had seven referendums so far this year with two more in the offing in September and November. [There are 46 members of the Council of States and this has something to do with some cantons having split in two lately but retaining one rep for each half of the split.]

IMG_2973 (556x800)In the Council of States, members debate in their chosen language, and as there are no interpreters, everyone is expected to be fluent in each of the four Swiss languages – French, German, Italian, and Romansch (yep – that was a new one on me, too – I had to look it up. What’s amazing though is that it’s an official language even though it’s spoken by less than 1% of the population). And there are no terms, as such. You’re in until you stop being elected.

The building itself was completed in 1902, both chambers connected by a domed hall in the centre in which stand the Three Confederates whose oath was most likely made famous by Friedrich Schiller’s Wilhelm Tell. 

We want to be a single People of brethren,
Never to part in danger nor distress.
We want to be free, as our fathers were,
And rather die than live in slavery.
We want to trust in the one highest God
And never be afraid of human power.

IMG_3001 (800x600)IMG_2996 (800x600)The 5×12 m painting on the wall of the National Council is called The cradle of the confederation (Le berceau de la confédération/Die Wiege der Eidgenossenschaft). Painted by Charles Giron, 1901, it has, hidden in the clouds, a naked female who IMG_3000 (800x600)is said to symbolise peace. It’s a restful room, lined with beautifully carved seats and overhung with wrought iron balconies heavy with visitors on the days the council is in session. That’s certainly one thing the Swiss have over the majority of their European counterparts – they’re fully engaged in the governing of their country.

IMG_2998 (800x600)Some trivia

  • Even though its gun laws are rather liberal, Switzerland has one of the lowest crime rates of all industrialised countries (2.3–4.5 million guns in a population of 8 million).
  • As at 2013, 85% of men and only 41% of women work full-time.
  • Women didn’t get to vote until 1971.
  • Only about 2% of Swiss wine leaves the country.
  • Possession of marijuana was decriminalised last year.

Worth a visit if you find yourself in Bern visiting the Bärengraben (Bear Pit).

IMG_3006 (800x600)


5 replies
  1. ola66
    ola66 says:

    Interesting building………..what did you think of it? Also did you get an impression of how practical the Swiss democratic process was……….did it produce results or just lots of burocracy and paperwork. Certainly I had not understood that their system worked like that. The $th language was news too!


    • Mary
      Mary says:

      Seems quite sensible, the democratic process. And given that parliament costs about 14 francs per capita per year, no one gets rich from it. Think they had 11 referendums last year in total. Might be a pain in the proverbial for planners, because if you post planning permission for something in my ‘hood that I don’t like, and I get the signatures, then I can stop you. Bet it’s a great place to be a curmudgeon or a LOL with time on her hands 🙂

  2. stcoemgen
    stcoemgen says:

    A few comments.

    – Some US States have a public referendum system. Making this form of popular political participation simply uncommon rather than unusual.

    – Swiss guns law — calling them liberal is maybe relative to Europe (at least relative to me as an American — see for example some right to carry states in the US). The Swiss citizen military means that many people have guns at home because they are in the military. But there are very strict rules about gun ownership. For example, the civil military person may have a gun at home (inflating the gun owning statistic), but is not allowed to have the ammunition. Which means such home guns are really of little more use than a club in defense or act of violence.

    – “Only about 2% of Swiss wine leaves the country.” If you tasted some Swiss wine, you might know why… But, seriously, there are indeed some decent Swiss wines, but not as much as in neighboring countries so export is not really economical. And the Swiss seem to be rather proud of consuming home made things; probably consuming more local products than many other European countries. Whether that is good or bad is a matter of opinion.

    – “everyone is expected to be fluent in each of the four Swiss languages”. Or the other politicians just ignore the Romansch speaker and simply vote the party line.

    – “Possession of marijuana was decriminalised last year.” For what it is worth, Appenzeller Hanfblüte (spiced with hemp leaves) beer has been around a long time. And there is even a Swiss Cannabis Ice Tea drink you can buy (

    For what it is worth, I lived in Switzerland for many years. Nice place to visit but…. I live in Hungary now. To each their own.

    • Mary
      Mary says:

      I think the level of engagement with governance in Switzerland is both uncommon and unusual. The figures I read on Swiss guns suggested anywhere from 2.5 mill to 4.5 mill guns for 8 million people – quite a lot. Interesting point regarding ammo. Quite liked the Swiss wine I had (I make a point of only drinking local wine wherever I go, unless, as in Ireland, it simply isn’t an option!). And am amused at the thoughts of being fined 100 chf for carrying up to 10 g of marijuana – a whole new take on law-abiding. I had thought Swiss were, well, quite proper. Am well impressed with fluency in even three languages being an expectation 🙂 But not impressed enough to move there admittedly. As you say, nice place to visit…


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] However, as I found out lately, other nations/people are not that surprised about Switzerland’s ability to, well, surprise. For many Americans the practice of open referendum is not an unknown one for it does exist in several of the (United) States. But still, to consider that with enough signatures any decision made by either of the two chambers (National Council or Council of States) can be overthrown and sent to popular vote seems a little unusual. If you’re interested to read more about a foreigners view on the Swiss Federal Assembly, the Parliament building and other, well, let’s say interesting facts, follow this link to a post on a blog (by Mary called “Unpacking my ‘bottom drawer’ in Budapest”) I recently discovered and started to follow: Voting mad.(2) […]

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