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The Swiss parliament rejected a ban on Muslim veils in 2012. However, it further tightened the country’s asylum laws, and rejected a recommendation from the United Nations Human Rights Council to overturn a 2009 ban on new construction of mosque minarets.
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.
During the 2003 federal elections, the far-right Swiss People’s Party (SVP), hostile to both EU membership and immigration, made blatantly xenophobic appeals. It led the vote, followed closely by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPS).
The SVP successfully championed a 2006 referendum on tightening asylum and immigration laws. The new laws require asylum seekers to produce an identity document within 48 hours of arrival or risk repatriation, and effectively limit immigration 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 federal elections, the SVP captured 29 percent of the vote, more than any party since 1919. The SVP campaign received international attention for its anti-immigrant appeals, and an SVP rally and counterdemonstration in Bern resulted in violence rarely seen in Switzerland.
In December 2007, the SVP temporarily placed itself in opposition to the government after the parliament refused to reappoint SVP leader Christoph Blocher to the cabinet, choosing instead Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, from the party’s more moderate wing. The SVP subsequently expelled Widmer-Schlumpf, who then became part of the new center-right Conservative Democratic Party (BDP).
Following successful petitioning by the SVP, a referendum calling for a ban on the future construction of minarets on mosques was held in November 2009. Nearly 58 percent of the population and 22 out of 26 cantons voted in favor of the ban. However, the four mosques with existing minarets would not be affected. In November 2010, a referendum mandating the automatic deportation of foreigners convicted of certain crimes passed with 53 percent of the vote. Both referendums met with considerable domestic and international criticism.
The federal elections held in October 2011 saw a modest strengthening of the political center in Switzerland. In National Council elections, the SVP, while still the leading party, lost seats for the first time since 1975, retaining 54 seats—8 fewer than it won in 2007.
Facing renewed international criticism of its strict bank secrecy laws, in 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 in tax evasion cases and tax fraud investigations. In June 2012, the United States announced an agreement with Switzerland that would allow Swiss banks to report suspected tax evasion by U.S. clients to U.S. authorities. Switzerland also reached a deal with Germany in April to tax secret Swiss bank accounts held by Germans at a rate of up to 41 percent, but the upper house of the German parliament rejected the agreement in November.
Switzerland is an electoral democracy. The 1848 constitution, significantly revised in 1874 and 2000, provides for a Federal Assembly with two directly elected chambers: the 46-member 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, which have been used extensively since the 1848 constitution, are mandatory for any amendments to the Federal Constitution, the joining of international organizations, or major changes to federal laws.
The government is free from pervasive corruption. However, Philipp Hildebrand, the head of the Swiss Central Bank, resigned in January 2012 over allegations that he and his wife had engaged in improper currency trading. As the world’s largest offshore financial center, the country was criticized for failing to comply with recommended international norms on money laundering and terrorist financing. Switzerland has reached bilateral deals with several countries on financial information sharing and was removed from the OECD’s “grey list” of tax havens in 2009. Switzerland was ranked 6 out of 176 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index.
Freedom of speech 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 law penalizes public incitement to racial hatred or discrimination and denying crimes against humanity. There is no government restriction on access to the internet.
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, according to the 2000 census. A 2008 law requires that immigrant clerics receive integration training, including language instruction, before practicing. The Swiss parliament in September 2012 rejected a proposal to ban face-covering veils for Muslim women in public spaces, following the implementation of similar bans in France and Belgium. Opponents of the ban argued that it was unnecessary, since relatively few women wore such veils in Switzerland, while supporters cited public safety and gender equality concerns. 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 provided by the constitution. The right to collective bargaining is respected, and approximately 25 percent 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. Some incidents of police discrimination and excessive use of force have been documented. Prison and detention center conditions generally meet international standards, and the Swiss government permits visits by independent human rights observers.
The rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities are legally protected, though minorities—especially those of African and Central European descent, as well as Roma—face increasing societal discrimination. Increasing anxiety about the growing foreign-born population has led to the passage of stricter asylum laws. Parliament further tightened those laws in September 2012, including barring applications for asylum at Swiss embassies abroad and cutting benefits. In 2012, 28,631 people applied for asylum in Switzerland, the highest number since 1999, and up 27 percent from 2011. In response to concerns put forward by the UN Committee against Torture in 2010, the government took steps in 2011 to address the treatment of asylum seekers, including training observers present during repatriation flights and instituting a monitoring system in cases of forced repatriation. In October 2012, the UN Human Rights Council made a number of recommendations to Switzerland to improve its practices and address racism, xenophobia, and the treatment of asylum seekers. The Swiss government rejected four of the recommendations, one of which was to overturn the 2009 minaret construction ban.
Women were only granted universal suffrage at the federal level in 1971, and the half-canton of Appenzell-Innerrhoden denied women the right to vote until 1990. Fifty-eight women sit in the 200-member National Council and 9 in the Council of States. The constitution guarantees men and women equal pay for equal work, but pay differentials remain. Switzerland was ranked 10 out of 135 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum’s 2012 Gender Gap Report, which analyzes equality in the division of resources and opportunities between men and women.