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Young people remain rooted in ancient traditions

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Their reputation for being conservative and independent precedes the people from Appenzell, a rural region that maintains the ancient tradition of the Landsgemeinde.

This content was published on April 30, 2007 - 19:53

swissinfo met a group of young people at this annual open-air assembly of citizens to hear what makes them feel proud of their local customs and their remote hilly region in northeastern Switzerland.

In some ways Sunday's Landsgemeinde was the political and social highlight of the year for many in Appenzell Inner Rhodes - one of very few regions to keep the tradition.

The gathering, which brings together several thousand people, takes decisions of local importance - but is also an opportunity to see friends.

The young people, who met at a round table in an old restaurant in the small town of Appenzell, are all aged between 18 and 20. But scrapping the more than 600-year-old Landsgemeinde institution is the last thing on their mind.

They all have been avidly preparing for the meeting, reading the assembly's agenda and riffling through their wardrobes.

"I wear my best suit, like most of us, and carry a sword – which used to be the traditional proof of an able bodied male citizen," says Matthias Eugster.

The Landsgemeinde is also a special occasion for 18-year old college student Madeleine Walzthöny.

She bought a skirt, although usually she doesn't normally wear them. There is not a strict dress code for the Landesgemeinde, but the young people seem to like the festive and formal atmosphere.

Genuine

The table also seems to agree on the value of traditions in general. The young people are fond of their distinctive dialect, the unique scenery of the Alpstein mountain range, and the hills with houses dotted across the region, and, last but not least, the local music.

But Simona Koller, a student at a teacher training college, says it is necessary to go beyond the idyllic picture.

"I like people who continue our traditions and preserve this particular mentality of ours, but it is increasingly being exploited for commercial reasons. This is a real threat for something that used to be so genuine," she says.

Her remark prompts some opposition from Aline Heim, who works for the local tourist office, and Matthias Fässler, a young man with a baseball cap and a face piercing, adds dryly:

"Traditions cannot stop me from living the way I want."

His girlfriend, Natascha Guarino, says it's good to respect traditions. The daughter of an Italian immigrant family says she has never had any problems combining the mentality of her parents with those of Appenzell. "Both are known for being conservative," she admits.

Strict norms

But Simona comes back to the flipside of life in a small, rural society. "The variety of opinions is very limited and strict norms set by the Catholic Church can be intimidating."

She says she gets really angry when she has to listen to people - mostly from the older generations - making openly racist comments.

Those around the table play down such remarks as teasing that should not be taken too seriously. They say people in nearby St Gallen and elsewhere are just as xenophobic.

Matthias Eugster, who is an office apprentice, sides with Simona to some extent. He also says that he is ashamed that Appenzell Inner Rhodes was the last Swiss canton to grant women the right to vote. But for him, the positive aspects count the most, such as the area's friendliness.

Whether foreigners should get the right to vote at the Landsgemeinde is not really open to question. No voting rights without a Swiss passport, the table agrees.

Rituals

Natascha, who recently acquired Swiss nationality, makes no exception. It is a small community and residents expect people to adopt their mentality, she says.

The hostile or sceptical attitude towards foreigners or modern influence has not been a major problem for her, she adds.

Natascha, Madeleine, and 18-year old Reto Fässler, a butcher's apprentice, are all novices to the Landsgemeinde.

They are excited about the day: the moment people enter the assembly square - known as the ring - the slow procession of dignitaries, the brass band and the elections. They are also looking forward to the festivities afterwards.

These young citizens say they want to be able to participate in politics. Reto says it is part of growing up, but certainly not the most decisive step.

"A real man is somebody who has completed his training in the army," he says, earning a few laughs in the process.

swissinfo, Urs Geiser in Appenzell

In brief

Appenzell Inner Rhodes has the smallest population of Switzerland's 26 cantons. It is a rural region in northeastern Switzerland with an area of just 172.5 km².

The majority of its 15,400-strong population are Catholic.

More than 10,500 citizens have the right to take part in the Landsgemeinde. Women were only granted the right to vote in 1991, following intervention by the federal authorities.

As a rule about 30% of the citizens take part in a Landsgemeinde.

The local Landsgemeinde goes back about 650 years. It usually takes place on the last Sunday in May. The open-air assembly passes law and elects the seven-member government, the senator who represents the canton on a federal level, as well as the judges.

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Landsgemeinde

The Landsgemeinde (open-air assembly) is the highest political decision-making body in the canton.

Its origins are believed to date back some 1,500 years. Such gatherings used to take place primarily in Alpine regions - in what is today Switzerland, northern Italy and Austria - as well in the Pyrenees, central and northern France and in northern Germany.

Only the assemblies in Switzerland survived after the Middle Ages.

Of the eight Swiss cantons with a Landsgemeinde, only Glarus and Appenzell Inner Rhodes keep the tradition alive. The others have abandoned the practice over the past 150 years.

85% of Switzerland's more than 2,700 communes have regular citizen gatherings indoors throughout the year to decide on local matters.

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