Democracy: “government of the people, by the people, for the people".
Abraham Lincoln, 16th President of the United States
Politically, Switzerland is built from the bottom up – it’s a pyramid. The citizens’ meeting, where all the citizens of a town or village get together in one place to make decisions, is the root of Swiss democracy. This is the birthplace of local laws, values and ways of doing things in the villages and municipalities of Switzerland.
This is where many ordinary Swiss have raised their hands for the first time to be “for” or “against” something. Here people come together and negotiate, thus laying the groundwork for their daily lives together.
"Citizens getting to shape and change their society – that is a great republican idea," says Swiss political scientist Claude Longchamp. At the citizens’ meeting, people get to implement this idea directly. The meeting is sovereign, it makes up its own mind, and it is also a law-making assembly.
swissinfo.ch visited five villages and talked to people involved in citizens’ meetings – and also to those who don’t attend. We came away with an appreciation of the range of topics and the challenges facing these citizen assemblies.
Going through a crisis
The citizens’ meeting is a feature of Swiss democracy. In no other European country is the autonomy of municipalities greater than in Switzerland. So does that mean everything works well? Not quite. The citizens’ meeting enjoys an important role in local government, but it is going through a crisis.
And the crisis is worsening: in the past 30 years citizens have been increasingly staying away. An end to the decline is not in sight. Another development in the last 30 years is that about 800 municipalities have disappeared in mergers. Among the remaining municipalities, there are meetings where less than 1% of the eligible voters attend. swissinfo.ch made a point of talking to some of the people who do not attend, those who belong to the great “silent majority”.
Will Sangeetha get her citizenship?
"The people at work are wishing me well and saying I should have nothing to worry about."
Sangeetha Baskaran, shortly before the meeting
The young, pretty woman stands out in this rural village in canton Aargau: she is dark-skinned and black-haired with a dazzling smile. Sangeetha Baskaran was born in Sri Lanka, and at the age of four she fled with her parents from the civil war in the country. Two years later they obtained refugee status in Switzerland. They ended up living in a sleepy country village in one of the most conservative cantons in Switzerland – Aargau.
In the meantime she has married, had two children, and works as a customer service rep with the Raiffeisen Bank. The 33-year-old speaks fluent Swiss German, has little connection with Sri Lanka now, and sees her family’s future as being in Switzerland, where she and her husband are building a house. So she wants to take citizenship.
In Switzerland that is not such an easy matter. Her husband cannot apply – he has not been long enough in the country. Baskaran herself has only just become eligible, because during her training she did not spend three years in the same municipality.
After filling out numerous forms, handing in documents, dredging the names of onetime schoolteachers out of her memory, and passing a written citizenship test, she is all set. The municipality of Gipf-Oberfrick has given the green light for Baskaran and her two sons to be awarded citizenship by the citizens’ meeting.
Chorus of boos
A few hours before the meeting, she looks a bit nervous. "The people at work are wishing me well and saying I should have nothing to worry about," she says
Easier said than done. The municipality of Gipf-Oberfrick has a touchy reputation: it was here in 2016 that the voters blackballed the well-integrated Dutch-born Nancy Holten. At the citizens’ meeting, her candidacy was greeted by a chorus of boos. Folks here clearly found the animal rights activist too radical for their taste, and she was subjected to a torrent of public abuse.
Does that story bother this candidate? No, Baskaran does not see herself in the same league as Nancy Holten. "Holten is an exception", she says. "Gipf-Oberfrick is not in itself an unwelcoming place. The rate of citizenships awarded is actually quite high." Still, she decides to leave the children at home.
A particular trump card
That the voters decide on the award of citizenship, and not some faceless bureaucracy, is an advantage, to Baskaran’s way of thinking. "They know me in the village, because I work here, because my picture was on an advertising poster for Raiffeisen Bank, and because my children go to play-group and school here."
She has a trump card to play: "My mother is a school crossing guard, she takes the children across the street. Everybody knows her."
273 citizens have gathered for the meeting in the local gymnasium. Baskaran shakes plenty of hands, hears good wishes, and waves to people she knows. She knows plenty of people. "You know what it’s like in Gipf-Oberfrick," says one with a wink, obviously thinking of the cause célèbre of Nancy Holten. Baskaran is not quite relaxed enough to laugh.
Also up for citizenship this evening are an Austrian-French couple and a Turkish teenager. They are told to go sit on the back row in the gym. "We’re on the penalty bench," says the Austrian woman, though she knows that that is just to make things easier for the vote counters. The applicants can’t vote – yet.
The Austrian woman leans over to Baskaran and whispers: "Aren’t you a daughter of…?" Baskaran can’t help laughing. It is as she expected: people know her because of her mother.
Life story on screen
Using a slide presentation, the mayor says a few words about each applicant: where they were born and grew up, education, hobbies, club memberships. Baskaran is said to be a keen cook. "Swiss food too," emphasises the mayor. "Her mother is much better known…" she then says to laughs and whispers.
Then discussion is opened to the floor. "Are there any questions or comments?" A citizen inquires about the legalities involved. Is it really legal to grant citizenship to a minor teenager without their parents? "Yes, that can be done," says the mayor.
The citizenship candidates have to go outside, because now the vote is taking place. The citizens indicate by a show of hands whom they are ready to accept. When Baskaran’s turn comes, there are so many hands in the air that the vote counters don’t need to count them all. The other applicants are easily accepted too.
When the applicants return to the meeting, there is loud and enthusiastic applause. Baskaran is surprised at this, but then laughs happily. "Thank you all so much," she says, standing at the microphone. "I am pleased to be officially one of you now." The mayor adds: "Even in Gipf-Oberfrick citizenship can be awarded easily." More applause.
Sibilla Bondolfi, text and Thomas Kern, photos
Democracy in the living room
"What use is a rich resident, when he doesn’t get involved? Here we all have to pull together."
Ueli Emch, mayor
Where the central plateau ends and the hills of the Jura begin is a village called Kammersrohr, consisting just of a few houses and farms. With its population of 29 and area less than a square kilometre, this place is one of the tiniest municipalities in small Switzerland.
Kammersrohr has one further peculiarity: the citizens’ meeting is not held in the gymnasium or in the meeting room of the local inn, as so often happens in Switzerland – the village doesn’t have any of these things. The citizens meet in Dimitri Plüss und Marcelle Schläfli’s living room.
Making room for meetings
These two young people from the region currently rent the house which belongs to the municipality. The small house and surrounding property is situated high on the slopes of the Jura. From their living room they have quite a view of the white peaks of the Alps bordering the central plateau away to the south.
Right now Dimitri and Marcelle have no time to admire the scenery. Their rental contract has a clause obliging them to make their living room available twice yearly for the citizens’ meeting. Even for Switzerland this is a bit unusual.
A leather sofa and a few chairs
This evening there is one such meeting going on. Ten local inhabitants arrive, all shake hands and are on first-name terms. There are a few minutes to spare for a chat outside the house.
Just before eight, mayor Ueli Emch calls them in to take their places. Dimitri and Marcelle sit on their black leather sofa, the others on chairs.
At the table in front sit the mayor, who is a local farmer, and Alissa Vessaz. The young town clerk, part-time like the mayor, is all set to take minutes on her laptop.
The world is getting more complex – here too
Emch declares the meeting open. In this room with an audience of ten, no less than 38.5% of all eligible voters are present. This is a figure which citizens’ meetings around the country can only dream of. Emch proposes one of the attendees in the second row as vote counter – he is elected unanimously. Vessaz' minutes from the last meeting meet with no objections either.
Now comes the main agenda item of the evening: the past year’s financial statements. Although it is just a very small municipality, the accounts take up 51 pages. Behind the welter of figures are information and stories that tell you all about the little world of Kammersrohr.
The little municipality has entrusted its young tenants Dimitri and Marcelle with its main asset, for the house and adjoining property is the biggest item the municipality owns. Its book value is CHF 371,000 ($389,000).
The columns of figures and sums, exhaustive as they are, also show how small the world of Kammersrohr is. A road, the municipal house in in which we are sitting, the pipes for drinking water and waste disposal. That’s it. There’s no infrastructure like a schoolhouse or a playing field, no club or association. Not even a shooting range, which is something many municipalities in the country still have. There is a bit of forest land.
"I didn't want to take the post. But nobody else wanted to do it."
Lorenz Nussbaumer, councillor
Good location, good revenues
What keeps the small community going is the wonderful living environment it offers. "We live from inhabitants who can afford to pay high taxes," says mayor Emch later over a drink. He is the kind who calls a spade a spade. "What use is a rich resident, when he doesn’t get involved? Here we all have to pull together."
The well-heeled taxpayers ensure that Kammersrohr’s finances stay well in the black. And that is also a reason why Emch enjoys his job. The mayor knows only too well that, for more and more municipalities in the country, their financial situation is a cause of real concern.
The major taxpayers here, who include a former industrialist and board member, show their beneficial effect on things: in the living-room ten hands are raised, when Ueli Emch puts the financial statement to a vote.
After thanking the bookkeeper and town clerk, Emch closes the meeting. It has lasted a total of 28 minutes.
Renat Kuenzi, text and Enrique Muñoz García, photos
The village in figures
Kammersrohr: at 0.94 km², the smallest municipality in canton Solothurn.
Population: 29, of whom 26 are eligible to vote. Currently no school-age children.
Municipal council (executive): three members.
Part-time politicians: they all have other occupations.
The smallest municipality in Switzerland is Kaiserstuhl in canton Aargau. It is only 0.32 km², which is the size of about 40 football fields.
The largest municipality is Scuol in canton Graubünden. At 439 km², it is bigger than the French capital Paris.end of infobox
A midsummer night’s event
"When the year’s financial statements are being approved, there is not much for the citizens to say."
Elvira Venosta, town clerk’s office, Bassersdorf
In summer there are open air festivals going on all over Switzerland. They draw big crowds. In Bassersdorf, a municipality near Zurich airport, the council is trying for the same effect - casting the citizens’ meeting as an enjoyable public event, so that people actually come.
Not far away, big jet planes are taking off and landing. Bassersdorf in canton Zurich with its population of 11,500 is really a town, but in spite of growth it remains what its name proclaims it to be, a “Dorf”, a village. There, on the village square, the summer citizens’ meeting takes place, in the balmy open air.
With this festive atmosphere the council wants to achieve several aims: to bring life to the village square, which was redesigned in 2016, but also to give municipal politics a higher profile and get more of the locals interested in local government.
"The usual crowd"
The summery lightness of local government in Bassersdorf is just not getting through to the population, though: on this June evening only 85 voters show up. "Just the usual crowd," as Elvira Venosta of the town clerk’s office in Bassersdorf says. They amount to only 1.2% of the 7,000 eligible voters. At the “premiere” of the event last summer, 150 showed up.
The sparse turnout is a bit of a disappointment for Venosta. She can understand it though, for it’s always just the approval of financial statements at this June meeting. "And there is not much for the citizens to say."
After three quarters of an hour the financial statements have been gone through and approved. Then it’s summer party time on the village square. Bottles of wine cooling in buckets are opened. The aperitif is served. The mood turns sociable and lively.
Thomas Kern, photos and Renat Kuenzi, text
"That’s why we don’t go"
"I don’t drive any more, and it would take me an hour to walk from my isolated farm to the village schoolhouse."
Steep hills with a tree on top, scattered farmhouses with geraniums in window-boxes, inbetween them fields stretching away to the next village, and two bridges over the river – that is Eggiwil in the Berne valley of Emmental, a spread-out municipality with a population of 2,500.
It’s time for the citizens’ meeting. One might fairly describe it as a "non-event". The only thing on the agenda is the financial statements – the municipality is squaring its accounts. Usually 1-2% of voters show up at these meetings.
Silent majority approves
"Approving the year’s financial statement does not arouse much interest," says mayor Niklaus Rüegsegger. "If there were no big changes to the budget, people feel no great need to vote on the statements. From the point of view of the municipal council, it is a sort of vote of confidence in us that only a few citizens come to the assembly."
In the municipal council they have actually discussed the idea of not having the meeting in May any more. But there are citizens who have been coming for years, and following the meeting itself there is always a good opportunity to mix and mingle. And if there is anything really important on the agenda, people do come. At some of the assemblies the turnout has been 16%, whereas 4% is more usual.
All in favour, but no-one goes
swissinfo.ch asked around the village on the day of the meeting. Most who don’t go feel bad about it and agree that it would be a good thing to go. Many find it important that decisions should not be made by the few. And no-one we asked - absolutely no-one - wants to abolish the citizens’ meeting.
So why do the citizens stay away?
Sibilla Bondolfi, text und Thomas Kern, photos
Proprietor of a building firm
"I have a meeting myself and can’t go to the citizens’ meeting. Usually I do go, especially if there’s an election. The year’s financial statement doesn’t arouse my interest much. I trust the council to get it right. If there is anything special, I always go. For example, about 20 years ago we had to decide whether we should have a wooden or concrete bridge at the entrance to the village. As proprietor of a building firm, I felt strongly about that: for years I had to drive back and forth over that rickety narrow wooden bridge. Now there’s a concrete bridge as well as the wooden one."
Proprietor of a carpentry shop
"As a onetime municipal councillor myself, I am aware of the problem of low attendance at citizens’ meetings. I used to get frustrated when I saw more councillors than voters at the meeting. So I will be at today’s meeting, although there’s nothing very spectacular on the agenda, just the year’s financial statement."
Housewife and mother
"I trust the council, and prefer to stay in the background anyway. This evening I have a music rehearsal, so I can’t attend. That is almost always the case, since the meeting is usually on a Friday. I’ve been to just one citizens’ meeting. It would have to be something important. For example about the children, or the school, then I would go. If there was an electronic citizens’ meeting, I would participate."
Gottfried Hirsbrunner, retired
"I live in the old people’s home with my wife. I won’t be at the meeting today, as at the age of 90, I think I’m too old. When I was younger, I used to go. In those days, I wanted to change the world. Today I realise that can’t be done. In years gone by people took more interest in the municipality. Maybe the fault lies with the helpful summary of items to vote on put out by the town clerk’s office: people are so well informed, they no longer need to go to the meeting."
Bed and Breakfast manager
"I can’t go to today’s meeting, because I’ve been invited to a wedding. When it comes to more important things than the year’s financial statement, I do my best to fit it in. Elections are more interesting. On the other hand: since so few people now want to take on the office of municipal councillor, there are hardly any elections to speak of.
I remember one spectacular meeting, when the topic was the old people’s home, which had attracted attention due to high staff turnover and poor morale. My own mother was living in the home, so I knew about the situation. At the meeting I talked a lot – almost too long, but the mayor let me keep going. At the end there was quite a response, people clapped for a long time. In the end, the manager of the home lost her job. That is one positive aspect of the citizens’ meeting, it is a very direct kind of democracy."
"Oh, is the citizens’ meeting today? We forgot. Yes, we do vote, but to go to the citizens’ meeting is usually too much of a bother. Only on special occasions we manage to walk or drive down the valley – when grandfather got a diploma for target shooting, the husband was honoured for Swiss wresting (schwingen), or the youngsters got their coming of age citizenship documents at 18."
Proprietor of the Bear inn
"It is a tradition after the citizens’ meeting to come into the Bear for a beer. That way I know what’s going on and can even have my say, even though I only go to every third citizens’ meeting and no more.
The first time I went to a citizens’ meeting I was still at school. It was all about the purchase of an inn. It was as exciting as a detective story! I intend to go to the citizens’ meeting this evening – if I don’t forget!"
"This evening I am going to a meeting of the ice hockey club. I’ve never been to a citizens’ meeting, it just doesn’t interest me. If it had to do with zoning of land, I would go. Most people I know don’t go to the meeting. But I would think it a pity if they actually abolished the citizens’ meeting."
The Eggiwil meeting
“It’s the football match today, so that’s why there aren’t so many people here,” explains an attendee at the citizen’s assembly in Eggiwil, to explain why the sports hall is half empty.
Indeed, of the 1,891 villagers with voting rights, just nine men and three women have turned up - in addition to the seven municipal councillors, the town clerk and the new municipal councillor and his wife. That brings the total to 22, or just 1.1% of the voting public.
The first task is to chose the evening’s vote counter from among the few attendees. A beekeeper gets the job. “He normally counts bees,” jokes the mayor.
The financial statement is presented and the citizens get to ask questions. One wants to know whether making two years of Kindergarten obligatory has had any effect. Nobody knows, so the answer is not forthcoming. There is only one dissenter in the final vote – 21 citizens accept the year’s financial statement.
Next up come questions, observations and concerns from the attendees. Another beekeper thanks the municipal council for the letter in which it was stated that he would receive CHF20 subsidy per bee colony. “This was really great, a super gesture,” he shouts exhuberantly.
The mayor smiles paternally and moves on to the next citizen who wants to know what all the fuss is about with the old people’s home, due to regular coverage in the local media. “Is the village doing something about it?” he wants to know. “Don’t believe everything that’s in the newspapers,” comes the answer from the mayor.
Another attendee speaks up. “My uncle was buried today,” he explains. “He lived in the old people’s residence. And I can only say that he felt very at home there.” This seems to reassure the person who brought up the topic.
But then a third citizen speaks – who sits on the board of the senior’s home – who says there are too few care staff in Switzerland and that employees tend to quit straightaway over minor issues. The first man then wants to know why this is, but is interrupted by the mayor. The man then jumps up from his chair and shouts, red faced, “if we are simply supposed to say yes then we can do this by post!” He then storms out.
“Bye Erich*,” the mayor says and continues the meeting without batting an eyelid. A citizen invites people to a shoot, attendees are encouraged to find out from their social circles whether people need a daycare facility, a goodbye is said to the retiring councillor and his replacement welcomed – and then the group heads to the Bear inn for a beer and a bite to eat.
*Name has been changed
Sibilla Bondolfiend of infobox
It all depends on the snow
"The three villages of Troistorrents, Val d' Illiez and Champéry have wasted a decade fighting for their own particular interests, instead of thinking ahead."
Luc Fellay, mayor of Champéry
Troistorrents is the story of one of those small municipalities in the Swiss Alps which within a space of a few generations has been catapulted into the modern world. In the 1950s tourism started to change everything here: the mountains were crisscrossed with skilifts, and up on the Morgins Plateau, holiday homes shot up like mushrooms.
Citizens decided on growth
Development was not entirely uncontrolled, though: citizens were consulted about where and when things were to be built. At the citizens’ assemblies, the locals got to decide about the future of their village. Troistorrents is situated at the entrance to Val d'Illiez, an Alpine valley that stretches towards the French border. The municipality has one foot in the valley, and the other on the snowy peaks.
The neighbouring French village of Châtel is not far distant as the crow flies. Cooperation between the Valais people and the council there enabled the development of Portes du Soleil, a combined French-Swiss skiing area, which, with its 600 km of pistes, is one of the biggest in the world.
In canton Valais there are 126 municipalities. The biggest eleven of them have their own municipal elected assembly. Elsewhere it is at the traditional citizens’ meeting that the locals debate the executive’s proposals and vote on them.
In Troistorrents everybody knows everybody else, and the people at the meeting have no hesitation about addressing critical questions and remarks to their mayor.
After the citizens’ meeting there is usually the meeting of the Bourgeoisie or “citizens’ corporation”. This is a relic from the days of the Ancien Régime, when long-established land-owning families ruled the roost.
Winter sport location a cause for concern
The fate of the winter sport resort Morgins has dominated the citizens’ meetings for some time now. After the fourth snowless winter in a row, the cable car company, of which the municipality is part owner, had run up a loss of CHF4-5 million.
An old chair-lift had to be modernised as well, or they would have lost their official approval to operate the next winter.
The resources required were just out of the municipality’s reach. So it sent out calls for help in all directions, including to the owners of holiday homes, as these are committed customers who have become part of the family over the years.
In the course of several meetings there were pledges of over CHF1 million. The rescue could be accomplished, even though only half of the money pledged eventually came in. So the skilifts were able to run again this past winter, and the snow came back too: in Morgins, as in most of the Alps, snowfall was highest it had been in twenty years.
Globalisation in miniature
The mid- and long-term solution clearly lies in merging the local tourist offices and cablecars. Throughout the Alps you hear just one mantra these days: “unity brings strength”. In Valais, however, the three villages of Troistorrents, Val d' Illiez and Champéry "have wasted a decade fighting for their own particular interests, instead of thinking ahead," as Luc Fellay, mayor of Champéry, laments.
In autumn last year the three municipalities agreed on a common tourist fee, at the same time raising the price. The proceeds of this fee enable Alpine resorts to pay for the building and maintenance of their infrastructure.
Overnight stays taxed
Tourists and owners of holiday homes have to pay a small amount to the municipality for every night they spend in the village.
This has enabled Morgins to renovate or extend its sports centre, swimming pool and tennis courts. The official citizens’ meeting had previously waved through the proposal without opposition. This is hardly surprising, as none of the voters have to pay the fee.
Cracks in the community
So is everything right in the village? Not quite. At the beginning of October, the locals were surprised to be told that the last village shop was closing down. Not because it couldn’t turn a profit. On the contrary, business was good.
The reasons are different: the bank that owned the building needed to expand its premises. The locals were fighting, however, for the survival of an important part of village life and soon collected over 1,000 signatures.
"It is a matter between two private companies", says mayor Fabrice Donnet-Monay diplomatically.
A solution is not yet in sight.
Back to the town meeting
It is clear now that a shop is not coming back to the location, which has looked unattractive for quite some time. The garage building has been partly demolished, and there is rubble lying around. An eyesore, say many of the locals.
Investors had planned to put up a new building with apartments in it. But at the citizens’ meeting last summer the mayor announced that the plan was dead. "Too expensive, too little revenue forecast," the investors had decided.
The next part of the story is hard to predict. One way or another, the fate of the village is in the hands of the citizens’ meeting.
Marc-André Miserez, text and Thomas Kern, photos
Crisis without end
Local democracy faces uncertain future
"The declining willingness to take on public office is cramping the ability of the municipalities to get things done."
"The notion of local democratic self-determination is on a collision course with the realities of modern living," thinks political scientist Claude Longchamp.
For the growing cracks in the democratic basis of Switzerland he gives these reasons:
Alienation: municipalities are becoming dormitory towns. The place where people have their home is not the place they identify with as the place they actually live and work.
Growing individualism: discourages people to take up public office. This in turn is cramping the ability of the municipalities to get things done.
Lack of manpower: around the country, municipalities are lacking 3,000 to 4,000 volunteers to take up public offices. Many municipalities have their backs to the wall.
Declining skill base: municipal work is complex. Social welfare, which used to be one of the traditional municipality tasks, is now handled by professionals (social services, child protection agency).
Democratic deficit: Technocratic solutions may be efficient, but mean that less influence is exercised by the citizens. This in turn makes the citizens feel alienated from the institutions, and undermines the ideal of amateur, part-time politicians.
Financial difficulties: more and more municipalities have this problem, especially the ones with populations under 500.
Legitimate concerns: taking on a public office may mean less spare time, little remuneration, greater exposure to the public gaze and criticism in the media. Women in particular are put off by this. "They would like to be able to do something for the community, but don’t like all the criticism and abuse that comes with it," says Longchamp.
Citizens’ meeting: the format has its downside. Men, older people, business, associations, and firefighters are overrepresented. People who have recently moved to the place, women and younger people are underrepresented.
Possible solutions: bringing in a municipal elected assembly and/or merging with other municipalities. In Scandinavian countries, municipalities are being welded into super-municipalities and the management contracted out to external service providers.
Weakening of democracy: Switzerland works according to the bottom-up principle. This involves a corporatist and cooperative system. Any deficit of local democracy eats away at the core values of Switzerland.
Outlook: Municipalities that are a model for others are important, and will remain so," says Longchamp.
Municipalities dying out
When it was founded as a modern nation-state in 1848, Switzerland had a total of 3,205 municipalities. The number remained constant until around 1990.
In the last 30 years, 800 municipalities have disappeared, almost a quarter of the total, so that as of 2018 there were only 2,222 municipalities.
This huge decline is due to a wave of mergers of municipalities, often typically proposed to solve financial and staffing problems.
Mergers come with a price, though, as recent studies show. One negative result is a further decline in citizen participation, which has been noted for the past 30 years.
The rule seems to be: the bigger the municipality, the less the citizens participate.
About a fifth of present-day municipalities in Switzerland have replaced the citizens’ meeting with a semi-professional elected assembly. This is the case mostly in the larger municipalities and in French- and Italian-speaking Switzerland.
Elected assemblies are not necessarily the last word, though, for there are municipalities which have gone back to holding a traditional citizens’ meeting.
Renat Kuenzi, Sibilla Bondolfi and Marc-André Miserez
Thomas Kern, Enrique Muñoz García and Keystone
Renat Kuenzi and Felipe Schärer Diem