Switzerland | Freedom House

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Switzerland received a downward trend arrow due to referendum voters’ approval of a constitutional ban on the construction of minarets.

In a highly controversial national referendum in November 2009, Swiss citizens approved a ban on the future construction of minarets on mosques, sparking domestic and international condemnation. Following a series of deals with European countries which allowed for the sharing of bank information, Switzerland was removed from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s “grey list” of tax havens in September.

Switzerland, which has existed as a confederation of cantons since 1291, emerged with its current borders and a tradition of neutrality at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815. 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 Swiss have resisted joining the European Union (EU), and even rejected membership in the European Economic Area, a free-trade area that links non–EU members 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 2003 legislative elections, the SVP made blatantly xenophobic appeals, while insisting that it was not opposed to legal immigrants. The SVP led the vote, followed closely by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SP). The center-right Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) received barely half the total of the SVP. Christoph Blocher, leader of the SVP, successfully called for a second SVP seat on the seven-member Federal Council, at the expense of the CVP.
A package of bilateral accords with the EU was passed in a June 2005referendum. Switzerland agreed to join the Schengen area, a passport-free travel zone consisting of 2 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. A second referendum in September extended 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, the SVP successfully championed a 2006 referendum on tightening asylum and immigration laws. The new laws required asylum seekers to produce an identity document within 48 hours of arrival or risk repatriation. The tightening of immigration policy effectively limited immigration mainly to those coming from EU countries; prospective immigrants from outside the EU would have to possess skills lacking in the Swiss economy.
In the October 2007 elections, the SVP triumphed with 29 percent of the vote—more than any party since 1919. The SP captured 19.5 percent, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) took only 15.6 percent, its worst-ever showing. The SVP campaign received international attention for its anti-immigrant appeals. An SVP rally and counterdemonstration in Bern resulted in violence rarely seen in Switzerland.
The new parliament surprised the SVP by refusing to reappoint Blocher to the cabinet, choosing instead Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf from the party’s moderate wing. The SVP responded by entering into opposition, the first time that a major party had done so in decades. The party expelled Widmer-Schlumpf and Samuel Schmid, the other SVP minister, and the two became part of a new moderate-right party, the Burgeois-Democratic Party, which constituted itself formally at the national level in November 2008.However, the SVP returned to the cabinet by year’s end.
Switzerland, a major banking center, was severely hit by the global financial crisis in 2008, which renewed international criticism of the country’s strict bank secrecy laws. In March 2009, Switzerland agreed to adopt international transparency standards established by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) by providing foreign governments with financial information for tax evasion cases, in addition to tax fraud investigations. However, financial data sharing will be assessed on a case by case basis, and significant evidence will be required before information on individuals can be released.

The SVP continued its efforts to ban the construction of minarets on mosques in 2009 and successfully petitioned for a November referendum on the issue. Despite government opposition, nearly 58 percent of the population and 22 out of 26 cantons voted in favor of the referendum, effectively prohibiting the future construction of minarets at the constitutional level. However, the four mosques with existing minarets would not be affected. The ban was met with considerable domestic and international criticism, and human rights organizations considered it a violation of the European Human Rights Convention.

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 lawmakers serve four-year terms. The Federal Council (cabinet) is a seven-person executive council, 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 common; any measure that modifies the constitution must be put to a referendum. A new or revised law must also be put to a referendum and requires 50,000 signatures in favor of doing so. Voters may even initiate legislation themselves with 100,000 signatures. The main political parties have long been the SVP, the SP, the right-wing and free-market FDP, and the CVP.
The government is free from pervasive corruption. As the world's largest offshore financial center, the country had long been criticized for failing to comply with recommended international norms on money laundering and terrorist financing. However, Switzerland reached bilateral deals with several countries on financial information sharing in 2009 and was removed from the OECD's "grey list" of tax havens in September. Switzerland was ranked 5 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2009 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. Consolidation of newspaper ownership in large media conglomerates has forced the closure of some small and local newspapers.The penal code prohibits public incitement to racial hatred or discrimination. A controversial SVP poster in support of the minaret ban in 2009 was prohibited in several cantons but allowed in others out of respect for free speech. 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, though some 400,000 Muslims form the largest non-Christian minority. A 2008 law requires that immigrant clerics receive integration training, including language instruction, before practicing. Most public schools provide religious education, depending on the predominant creed in each canton. Religion classes are mandatory in some schools, although waivers are regularly granted upon request. The government respects academic freedom.
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, though a September 2009 report by the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance (ECRI) noted incidents of police discrimination and excessive use of force against detainees in asylum detention centers. An independent 12-member National Commission for the Prevention of Torture was appointed in October by the Federal Council to conduct prison inspections.
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. The mosque in Geneva was vandalized three times in the lead-up to the November 2009 referendum on the construction of minarets.
Women were only granted universal suffrage at the federal level in 1971, and the half-canton of Appenzell-Innerrhoden denied women the vote until 1990. The constitution guarantees men and women equal pay for work of equal value, but pay differentials remain. There are 3 women in the 7-member Federal Council, and 59 in the 200-member National Council, which is above the European average. Abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy was decriminalized following a 2002 referendum.