Freedom in the World
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Switzerland in 2006 continued to mull the future of its relationship with the European Union (EU). Although a package of bilateral arrangements passed the year before had tied the country more closely to the regional bloc, the Swiss government found that full membership was still not politically acceptable in Switzerland. Also in 2006, an anti-immigration party in the government scored a victory when voters approved a tightening of asylum and immigration laws.
Switzerland, which has existed as a confederation of cantons since 1291, emerged with its current borders at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, when its tradition of neutrality was also confirmed. The country’s four official ethnic communities are based on language: German, French, Italian, and Romansh (the smallest community).
Switzerland remained neutral during the wars of the twentieth century, and it joined the United Nations only after a referendum in 2002. 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 even rejected, in a 1992 referendum, membership in the European Economic Area, a “halfway house” to EU membership that features a trade agreement with the EU. However, Switzerland has joined international financial institutions and signed a range of free-trade agreements.
Hostility to both EU membership and immigration has been a hallmark of the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP). During the October 2003 legislative elections, the SVP made blatantly xenophobic appeals, including a newspaper advertisement blaming “black Africans” for crime. The SVP insisted that it had nothing against legal immigrants, who made up a fifth of Switzerland’s population, and that it was merely opposed to illegal immigration and abuse of the asylum policy. The SVP captured the largest share of the vote, while the center-left Social Democratic Party (SP) finished just behind. The center-right Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) received barely half the total of the SVP.
With this success, SVP leader Christoph Blocher called for a second Federal Council 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. The rise of the SVP brought new tensions into the Swiss cabinet.
In June 2005, a package of bilateral accords with the EU passed in a referendum, approved by 55 percent of Swiss voters, after years of negotiation. Switzerland joined the Schengen area, a passport-free travel zone consisting of two other non-EU countries (Norway and Iceland) and 13 of the 25 EU member states. The accord also deepened Switzerland’s cooperation with the EU on asylum policy, as well as justice and home affairs. In September, a second referendum passed, extending the free movement of labor to the 10 countries that had joined the EU in 2004 (mostly post-Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe).
The SVP opposed both referendums, and their passage led to speculation that the party had passed its political peak. However, in September 2006, it successfully championed a tightening of asylum and immigration laws in a new referendum. Asylum seekers must now produce an identity document within 48 hours of arrival or risk repatriation. (The SVP claims that many fake asylum seekers throw away their documents to avoid investigation of their claims.) The tightening of immigration policy will limit immigration mainly to EU countries; prospective immigrants from outside the EU must possess skills that are lacking in the Swiss economy.
In June 2006, the Federal Council reassessed its options on the relationship with the EU and acknowledged that full membership was still not politically possible. That meant that the most likely course of action remained individual bilateral agreements with the bloc, rather than any new overarching framework, even though the piecemeal approach was bureaucratically cumbersome.
Switzerland is an electoral democracy. The constitution of 1848, significantly revised in 1874 and 2000, provides for a Federal Assembly with two directly elected chambers: the Council of States (in which each canton has two members and each half-canton has one) and the 200-member National Council. All of the lawmakers serve four-year terms. The Federal Council (cabinet) is a seven-person executive, with each member elected by the Federal Assembly. The presidency is largely ceremonial and rotates annually among the Federal Council’s members. Collegiality and consensus are hallmarks of Swiss political culture. The next national elections are due in 2007.
The Swiss political system is characterized by decentralization and direct democracy. The cantons and half-cantons have significant control over economic and social policy, with the federal government’s powers largely limited to foreign affairs and some economic matters. Referendums are also a common feature; any measure that modifies the constitution must be put to a referendum. Any new or revised law must also 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 main political parties are the SVP, the SP, the right-wing Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the CVP. Traditionally, these last three parties held two seats each in the seven-member Federal Council (cabinet), with the SVP holding just one. However, the SVP’s popular support increased gradually over the 1990s as it shifted to the right, poaching voters initially from small far-right parties and then increasingly from the FDP.
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. The International Monetary Fund has praised Switzerland for tightening laws on money laundering and terrorist financing but, in 2005, the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force still found Switzerland only “partially compliant” with many of its recommended international norms. Switzerland was ranked 7 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution. Switzerland has a free media environment, although the state-owned Swiss Broadcasting Corporation dominates the broadcast market. The penal code prohibits racist or anti-Semitic speech. Consolidation of newspaper ownership 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, and most cantons support one or several churches. The country is split roughly between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, although an official tally of more than 300,000 Muslims (and perhaps many more undocumented) form the largest non-Christian minority in Switzerland. Religion is taught in public schools, depending on the predominant creed in each 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 generally respected.
Freedoms of assembly and association are respected in practice, and civil society is especially active in Switzerland. The right to collective bargaining is respected, and roughly one-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.
The rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities are strongly protected, though there is increasing anxiety about the large foreign-born population, which has led to a tightening of asylum laws and societal discrimination.
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 constitution guarantees equal pay to men and women for work of equal value, but pay differentials remain as a result of general inequality. The National Council has 52 women among its 200 members, which is above the European average.