How Swiss direct democracy made a comeback after authoritarian rule


The seven members of the Swiss government were sworn in before parliament in 1943. The photo suggests that everything is above the edge. But in fact, the government reigned in an authoritarian style between 1939 and 1952 without the checks and balances of parliament and even outside the remit of the constitution. Keystone / Str

World War II was over when the Swiss government finally began to benefit from the “full powers regime” that parliament granted it in times of crisis. It was not until 1949 – exactly 70 years ago – that the initiative dubbed “Return to Direct Democracy” passed with a small margin, bringing Swiss direct democracy back to solid ground.

This content was published on September 9, 2019 – 11:00

David Eugster,

In times of crisis, democracies are sometimes too slow to respond. It is for this reason that the Swiss parliament granted the government the “right to rule” under the emergency law.External link on the eve of World War II. This allowed the Swiss government to make decisions without the consent of parliament, a measure that would facilitate the action of the executive body in times of war.

Foreign Minister Marcel Pilet-Golaz called on the Swiss population to adapt to the new situation in Europe, following Hitler’s successful attack on France. The infamous speech of June 1940, broadcast on national radio, cost Pilet-Golaz the confidence of many Swiss citizens. Keystone / Str

Put direct democracy on the back burner

This rule had another side effect. By making extensive use of this emergency clause, Parliament has prevented the Swiss people from acting as the third branch of democracy alongside the government and parliament. The emergency clause deprived voters of rejecting laws using the democratic referendum tool.

With this new rule, the Swiss people could no longer influence the political agenda. The government and parliament have indeed plunged Switzerland’s system of direct democracy into an artificial coma.

The end of the war in 1945 did not put an end to the right of exception. Even though it had already been decided that Switzerland would return to democracy, the process was very slow.

“Attitude of the patriarchal police state”

The return to direct democracy would probably have taken much longer, if the two initiatives which directly called into question the almost unlimited power of the seven ministers (see box) had not been tabled in 1946.

The ministers, however, procrastinated. “The government is in no rush to return to direct democracy,” read headlines at the time.

The most vehement critic of this emergency law was Zaccaria Giacometti, a specialist in constitutional law. He considered that the government’s refusal to return to democracy testified to a “patriarchal police state attitude”, a sign that Swiss democracy was going through a major crisis. The professor went so far as to call the regime illegal.

Switzerland, a “provisional dictatorship”

This criticism was voiced by constitutional law professor Hans Nawiaski who fled Germany in 1943.

According to Zurich professor of constitutional law Andreas Kley, his criticism was not without merit. “The government was the creator of the constitution as well as the legislative and regulatory authority and was no longer bound by the Swiss constitution. He was authorized to impose emergency laws within the powers of the cantons and did not have to respect civil liberties.

Two popular initiatives have been launched to reintroduce direct democracy.

When in 1949 the people and the cantons voted in favor of the first initiative, the government and parliament were shocked. The second initiative was withdrawn. The indirect counter-proposal to this second initiative was that the emergency law regime was not abolished until 1952.

The crisis of democracy in Switzerland and elsewhere did not only begin with the saber strikes that were occurring in Germany at that time. After the stock market crash of 1929, anti-democratic voices grew louder in Switzerland and throughout Europe. They called on democracies to have less power, arguing that this hinders reasonable governance in times of crisis.

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Scorns of parliamentarism

The reluctance to return to direct democracy has historical roots. In the 1930s, the main Swiss thinkers had already developed what is called the politico-cultural movement of “spiritual national defense.External link”. This Swiss obsession with safeguarding national identity was meant to counter the National Socialist threat posed by Hitler’s “blood and earth” ideology.

Spiritual national defense was associated with the image of the brave and powerful Swiss who swayed the morning stars and halberds, two classic weapons of war of the Swiss mercenary army in the Middle Ages.

However, some believed that democracy weakened this image.

Alarm: the Radical Party used a poster with a red, greedy monster to warn voters of the Bolsheviks. Zürcher Hochschule für Künste ZHdK

Swiss Nazis and government ministers

In Switzerland, this attitude was most often in radical forms among Nazi sympathizers and Swiss fascists. They mocked the democratically elected parliament and called it a lame “talk shop”.

However, people outside of far-right circles were also convinced that the democratic model had many weaknesses. During the interwar years and after the general strike, political pressure groups began to use new marketing methods. Their aim was to create an image of a political enemy that could no longer be dealt with by democratic means. It was the image of the Judeo-Bolshevik conspirator.

Many have seen a solution in so-called corporatist formsExternal link government, where corporate professional organizations similar to guilds and fraternities should replace parliaments. The state, however, would be ruled by strong leadership or a strong leader.

These federal societies were only meant to play an advisory role to autocratic rulers. Even the government shared such strong anti-democratic beliefs.

Democracy on the move

The trend towards authoritarian forms of government survived the war, and the government and parliament were still against the return of referendum democracy.

Catholic-Conservative parliamentarian Karl Wick declared in 1948 that it was possible for a state to “democratize to death”: “Democracy is important; however, the internal and external security of a state is more important.

Philipp Etter, Minister of the Interior from 1934 to 1959, openly sympathized with the idea of ​​an authoritarian corporate state. Keystone / Str

Only a few parliamentarians spoke in favor of the two popular initiatives for the reintroduction of direct democracy. Senior trade union official and finance minister Max Weber was one of them: “It is impossible to fight against the danger of a dictatorship and anti-democratic measures by limiting democracy,” said the Social Democratic minister.

Odd Alliances: the Vaudoise League

However, the reflexes of direct democracy could still make themselves felt. The main incentive came from a popular initiative called “Return to Direct Democracy”. Ironically, its initiators were not flawless Democrats. On the contrary, some of the most dedicated among the initiators were members of an organization called Ligue Vaudoise.External link.

Originally, the League was a multi-party protest movement in the French-speaking canton of Vaud. It was founded in 1933 and aimed to stop the introduction of cantonal taxes on local wines.

It was anti-centralist and anti-state. The founder and co-initiator was Swiss essayist and journalist Marcel Regamey. He hated democracy and in 1944 even lamented the fall of the Third Reich. He believed that “liberating industry from the grip of international Jewish capitalism” and unifying all European countries under one flag was “defensible”.

Ultimately, the fathers of the initiative promoted the spirit they were fighting against. The paradox is that it was in reality the anti-democrats who sowed the seeds and helped Swiss direct democracy to emerge from its coma.

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