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Participatory democracy Switzerland’s militia system – a tradition under threat

Soldiers doing construction work

Militia work in Switzerland: essentially tasks undertaken by citizens for the benefit of the community, alongside normal professional work. The principle is applied to the army as well as political and institutional life in the country. 

(Keystone)

The Swiss militia system is one of the cornerstones of participatory democracy in Switzerland. But what’s behind this concept, which most people outside the country might associate with armed groups? 

Citizen duties 

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“The term militia describes an organisational principle common in Swiss public life, which is founded upon the republican idea that every qualified citizen should take on public offices or duties in a part-time or voluntary capacity,” says the Historical Dictionary of Switzerlandexternal link.  

It is citizens that make up the state, so in a participatory democracy, citizens don’t just have the right to vote and elect their representatives, they also have to take on some tasks and responsibilities.  

What are its origins?  

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The term comes from the Latin militia, meaning army, and the militia concept was first applied in Switzerland in this context, following the republican principle of arming the population rather than having a permanent army. Some Swiss cantons were already using this type of recruitment in the late Medieval times. 

This principle of a citizen army was subsequently set down in the Swiss Constitution of 1798. After the modern federal state was created, the principles of compulsory military service and having no standing army were anchored in the constitutions of 1848 and 1874. When the constitution was completely revised in 1999, it explicitly statedexternal link that “in principle, the armed forces shall be organised as a militia.” 

Extension into politics

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Some Swiss cantons started to apply the principle to municipalities and local administration in the 1830s. This meant that citizens were called to take on responsibilities in public affairs. They were given positions and duties, even important ones, for periods of time. These were carried out in a voluntary capacity or for a nominal fee.   

The principle was also introduced when the process for appointing people to cantonal authorities was made more democratic in the 19th century. The concept had now come to permeate every level of Swiss political and institutional life: communal, cantonal and federal. 

Good works 

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The militia principle is also part of civilian life. The number of associations and bodies providing public services and doing good work on a voluntary basis rose between the 18th and 19th centuries. In many cases the militia system worked well alongside the principle of Christian charity, but it also chimed with the principle of mutual benefit and the rise of socialist movements. 


Decline

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But during the 20th century, the population’s willingness to take on militia duties started to decline. By the 21st century, the trend had accelerated due to the increasing individuality of society, more mobility and ever more demanding work environments.  

So the principle may still be firmly anchored in the collective public consciousness, but in reality it is losing ground. Only small to medium-sized municipalities use the militia principle at an executive level, and it is hard to find volunteers to act as mayor or sit on committees.  

The militia concept is applied at both local and cantonal levels for the legislature (parliament). But as workloads increase, it could be that professionalism is not too far off in the future. The federal parliament is meant to run on the militia principle, but most members are professional politicians or at least semi-professionals. They spend most of their work time on parliamentary activities, for which they receive a decent-enough salary


Translated from Italian by Isobel Leybold, swissinfo.ch

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