Freedom in the World
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In 2004 there were tensions within the government over the inclusion for the first time, in late 2003, of the leader of a right-wing nationalist party. This leader, Christoph Blocher, pushed to tighten Switzerland's asylum laws. His role in government also complicated Switzerland's ongoing negotiation of a series of bilateral accords with the European Union, a key goal of Swiss foreign policy.
Switzerland, which has been a loose confederation of cantons since 1291, emerged in its current borders after the Napoleonic wars, in 1815, where its tradition of neutrality was also sealed. The country's four official ethnic communities are based on language: German, French, Italian, and Romansh (the smallest community). Switzerland has stayed out of international wars and only joined the United Nations after a referendum in 2002.
For this reason, membership in international institutions has long been a controversial issue in Switzerland. The country is surrounded by members of the European Union (EU), but the Swiss, who fiercely value not only their military neutrality but their political independence, have resisted EU membership. The country has even resisted membership in the European Economic Area, a halfway-house to EU membership that has a trade agreement with the EU.
Hostility not only to EU membership, but also to immigration, has been a hallmark of the right-wing SVP. The other main political parties are the center-left Social Democratic Party (SP) the right-wing Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the center-right Christian Democratic People's Party (CVP). Traditionally, these last three parties held two seats each in the seven-member Bundesrat (Federal Council), with the SVP holding just one. However, the SVP's vote share increased gradually over the 1990s - in correspondence with a rightward move by the party - as it poached voters initially from small far-right parties, and then increasingly from the FDP.
During the October 2003 legislative election, the SVP made blatantly xenophobic appeals, including running a newspaper advertisement blaming "black Africans" for crime. The SVP insisted that it had nothing against legal immigrants, who make up a fifth of Switzerland's population, and that it was merely opposed to illegal immigration and abuse of the asylum policy. The SVP won the biggest share of the vote, while the SP finished just behind the SVP. The CVP received just under 15 percent of the vote, barely half the total of the SVP.
With this success, the SVP's leader, Christoph Blocher, called for a second Bundesrat seat for his party. Blocher demanded that he and another minister be appointed to the council, with a seat being taken from the CVP. After extensive negotiations, the other parties agreed. In late 2003, Blocher joined the cabinet as head of the Federal Department of Justice and Police, and the CVP lost a cabinet seat. The inclusion of the SVP has brought new tensions into the Swiss cabinet, for example over a tightening of asylum laws pushed by Blocher and over justice and home-affairs cooperation with the European Union, and could slow down the legislative process.
The success of the SVP, the Swiss party most hostile to Swiss entry into the European Union, strained relations with the EU. This has slowed a package of bilateral accords between the two that would deepen cooperation on tax evasion, justice, and home affairs. The package was submitted to the legislature in November 2004, and most of the agreements are expected to be ratified in 2005.
The Swiss can change their government democratically. The constitution of 1848, significantly revised in 1874 and 2000, provides for two directly elected legislative chambers - the Council of States (in which each canton has two members and each half-canton, one) and the National Council. The Federal Council is a seven-person executive; the presidency is ceremonial and rotates annually among the Federal Council's members. Collegiality and consensus are hallmarks of Swiss political culture.
The Swiss institutional system is characterized by decentralization and direct democracy. The cantons and half-cantons have control over much of economic and social policy, with the federal government's powers largely limited to foreign affairs and some economic policy. The rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities are strongly protected. Referendums are also a common feature; any measure that modifies the constitution must be put to a referendum. Any new or revised law must be put to a referendum if 50,000 signatures in favor of doing so can be gathered, and voters may even initiate legislation themselves with 100,000 signatures.
The government is free from pervasive corruption. However, the country has traditionally drawn criticism for its banking-secrecy laws, which financial watchdogs claim enable money laundering and other crimes. In the IMF's 2004 report on its annual consultation with Switzerland, the IMF praised Switzerland for a toughening of laws on money-laundering and terrorist financing in 2003. Switzerland was ranked 7 out of 146 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2004 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Switzerland has a free media environment. The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation dominates the broadcast market. The penal code prohibits racist or anti-Semitic speech. Consolidation of newspapers in large media conglomerates has forced the closure of some small and local newspapers. Internet access is unrestricted.
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. Most cantons support one or several churches. The country is split roughly evenly between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, although as there are now officially more than 300,000 Muslims (and perhaps many more undocumented), Muslims are the largest non-Christian minority. Religion is taught in public schools, depending on the predominant creed in the canton. Students are free to choose their creed of instruction or opt out of religious instruction. In 2001, a cantonal court ruled that the Church of Scientology could not be a "real church" because it does not advocate belief in God. Scientologists face other legal obstacles, such as difficulty establishing private schools. Academic freedom is respected.
There is freedom of assembly and association. The right to collective bargaining is respected, and approximately a third of the workforce is unionized.
The judiciary is independent, and the rule of law prevails in civil and criminal matters. Most judicial decisions are made at the cantonal level, except for the federal Supreme Court, which reviews cantonal court decisions when they pertain to federal law. Refusal to perform military service is a criminal offense for males. Prison conditions are generally acceptable.
Women were only granted universal suffrage at the federal level in 1971, and the half-canton Appenzell-Innerrhoden denied women the vote until 1990. Abortion laws were liberalized to decriminalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy following a referendum in 2002, which 72 percent of voters supported. The law gives women 10 weeks of maternity leave but no salary guarantee.