Democracy at its most direct in Appenzell
Once a year on the last Sunday in April the citizens of canton Appenzell Inner Rhoden vote on important local issues, and elect their judges and cantonal representatives. But, unlike the rest of the Swiss, they don't fill out postal ballots. Instead, the entire electorate gathers in the historic square in the town of Appenzell.
The open air vote, known as the “Landsgemeinde”, is a tradition which dates back to the 14th century, and the only way to really understand its significance is to experience it at first hand.
On this special Sunday the local train to Appenzell is unusually full, there is an atmosphere of excitement in the air, and old friends greet each other not with a “how are you?”, but with the question “are you going to vote?”.
And there is something else out of the ordinary; the men are wearing swords. By tradition the sword signified the wearer’s right to vote, and even today Appenzeller men would not dream of leaving their swords at home on voting day.
The town of Appenzell is festive on this day; the flags of each community are hung in the main street, and on every corner there are stalls selling the famous “Landsgemeindechrempfli”; sweet pastries stuffed with minced hazelnuts.
The voting is preceded by a church service – Appenzell Inner Rhoden is a deeply Catholic canton, and religion continues to play an important role in many aspects of life. After the service, there is a colourful procession to Landsgemeindeplatz, accompanied by a brass band, and flag bearers from each of the canton’s communities.
Waiting in the square are around 3,000 voters – it seems that most of the canton’s electorate has turned up, despite the warm spring weather and the fact that attending the Landsgemeinde entails standing in the open for at least two hours. Among the crowd is Stefan Otz; he has only recently become a resident of Appenzell, and this is the first time he has voted at the Landsgemeinde.
“For me this is democracy in its purest form,” says Otz. “‘I feel honoured to take part. Yes it’s a very old tradition, and other places don’t vote like this anymore, but what would Switzerland be without its traditions?”
Carlo Schmid, the president, or “Landsmann” for canton Appenzell, clearly shares Otz’s sentiments. In his speech to officially open the proceedings he tells the electorate that their way of voting is truly democratic. “The words ‘l’etat, c’est moi’,” proclaims Schmid, “can be uttered most convincingly of all by an Appenzeller.”
Privately, too, Schmid remains a great supporter of the open air voting system. “Look how much business we get through in two hours,” he points out. “We are voting today on all sorts of things; building permits, road extensions, Sunday opening hours… and we’re electing all our officials too. So we come here, we vote on everything, and then we’ve got peace for the rest of the year.”
And Schmid denies that Appenzellers hold on to traditions for the sake of it. “We don’t want to keep things just because they are old,” he says. “But neither do we think we should get rid of them just because they are old. Here in Appenzell we keep traditions which we believe are still useful today.”
One tradition Appenzell Inner Rhoden managed to hold on to until only 10 years ago was the centuries-old law forbidding women from voting. This only changed in 1991, when Switzerland’s federal court intervened, forcing the canton to grant women the right to vote.
It was a decision welcomed by Monika Rehm, a young working mother who is watching this year’s proceedings with satisfaction. “I always said, if I don’t have a vote, I won’t pay my taxes,” says Rehm. “And anyway, having women at the Landsgemeinde makes the whole thing more colourful, when it was only men in their suits it was terribly grey.”
Older Appenzeller women don’t necessarily agree with Rehm though. “To begin with I was against giving women the vote,” says Maria Hamm. “I thought one of our traditions would be lost, and anyway we women always told our husbands how to vote, so we never felt we didn’t have a voice.”
Now though Hamm admits she has changed her mind. “We have kept the tradition and we have women voting,” she says. “It’s the best possible combination. And I must say our elected women representatives have been absolutely wonderful.”
But despite all the enthusiasm for the Landsgemeinde and its traditions, there are question marks over its future. Other cantons, such as Appenzell Outer Rhoden, have abandoned the open-air vote, believing that a secret ballot is more democratic.
“It’s true that there is no anonymity,” agrees Stefan Otz. “I’m in marketing and the vote on Sunday trading was of special interest to me. And I had to put my hand up for all to see; so if you come to the Landsgemeinde you have to be prepared to stand up for your opinions in public.”
Monika Rehm is not sure the younger generation is willing to accept this kind of exposure. “I think the young people don’t like voting in public,” she says. “I have a feeling the Landsgemeinde might not be around in 10 or 15 years’ time. Personally I would be a bit sad about that, because I like the tradition.”
But Rehm’s gloomy predictions have Maria Hamm throwing up her hands in horror. “No I don’t agree at all,” she says. “I can’t imagine Appenzell without the Landsgemeinde. I think it will be with us for many years to come.”
And Carlo Schmid thinks the same way. “Let’s face it, all political systems are man-made, and, by definition, everything that is man-made is temporary. But if you want me to predict a date for the end of the Landsgemeinde, I would give it another 2000 years at least.”
As the official business of the day draws to a close, people begin to drift through Appenzell’s narrow streets. The air fills with the aroma of frying ‘Bratwurst”, and the sound of the traditional Appenzeller dulcimer can be heard from some of the cafes and bars.
At this point what may be the real reason for the Landsgemeinde’s longevity becomes more apparent. It is, quite simply, a good day out: a chance for people who live on far-flung farms to meet friends and family, and to exchange news while sorting out some local business.
Above all, it’s a time to take pride in the long history of Switzerland’s smallest canton before returning to the humdrum normality of every day life in the 21st century.
by Imogen Foulkes
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