Switzerland | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2008

2008 Scores



Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
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Political Rights
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Trend Arrow: 

Switzerland received a downward trend arrow due to the electoral gains of the Swiss People’s Party, which campaigned with racist appeals and promised anti-immigrant policies that would further marginalize the country’s significant foreign-born population.

The right-wing, xenophobic Swiss People’s Party won the 2007 elections with 29 percent of the vote, the best result for any party in decades. The Green Party also had its best-ever showing, but Switzerland’s other parties were disappointed by poor results.

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 20th 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 have resisted joining. 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. 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. This led SVP leader Christoph Blocher to call, successfully, for a second seat on the seven-member Federal Council for his party, at the expense of the CVP. Blocher became minister for justice and police.

In June 2005, a package of bilateral accords with the EU passed in a referendum 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, 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.

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 would have to produce an identity document within 48 hours of arrival or risk repatriation. (The SVP claimed that many fake asylum seekers threw away their documents to avoid investigation of their claims.) The tightening of immigration policy limited immigration mainly to those coming from EU countries; prospective immigrants from outside the EU would have to possess skills that were lacking in the Swiss economy.

The 2007 elections showed that the SVP had somewhat farther to climb. The race centered unusually around the figure of Blocher. An SVP rally on October 6 in Bern, met by a leftist counterdemonstration, resulted in violence and police use of water cannons and teargas—extremely rare in Switzerland. The SVP won the elections with 29 percent of the vote, more than any party since 1919. The SP fell to 19.5 percent, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) to 15.6 percent, its worst-ever showing. The CVP won 14.6 percent, and the Green Party took 9.6 percent, its best-ever result. The SVP campaign received international attention for its anti-immigrant appeals. One poster showed white sheep kicking a black sheep off a Swiss flag; Blocher denied that the advertisement was racist. A television ad called “Heaven or Hell?” showed immigrants, especially Muslims, in a negative light with foreboding music.

However, once parliament convened, it surprised the SVP by refusing to re-appoint Blocher to the cabinet, choosing instead Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, from the party’s more moderate wing. The SVP responded by entering formal opposition to the government, the first time a major party entered opposition in decades. This portends a more adversarial style of government. Blocher, upon his rejection for the position, promised to use referendums to pursue its preferred policies directly with the people. The SVP was expected to push forward with two referendums, to legalize deportation of “criminal foreigners,” among which the party platform included welfare-system abusers, and to ban minarets for mosques.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

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.

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 and free-market Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the CVP. Traditionally, these last three parties each held two seats in the Federal Council, 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. Since the 2003 elections, the SVP has held two seats and the CVP has held one. In the wake of the 2007 election and the expulsion of Christoph Blocher from the cabinet, however, the SVP’s parliamentary faction has declared it will not formally support its party-affiliated cabinet members.

The government is free from pervasive corruption. However, the country has traditionally drawn criticism for its banking-secrecy laws, which allegedly 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 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 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 (and perhaps many more undocumented) Muslims form the largest non-Christian minority. The SVP supports a referendum to ban mosque minarets. 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 upheld 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 legally protected, though increasing anxiety about the large foreign-born population has led to a tightening of asylum laws and societal discrimination, especially against non-European immigrants and their descendants. 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 eased 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 59 women among its 200 members, which is above the European average.