Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Amid rising tensions over immigration, Swiss voters approved stricter asylum laws in a June referendum. Authorities in one town reacted to the opening of a new federal housing center for asylum seekers by banning them from local public facilities, including a swimming pool. The southern canton of Ticino became the nation’s first to ban face-covering veils in public places.
The Swiss banking industry continued to face pressure from an international crackdown on tax evasion. The oldest Swiss bank pleaded guilty to conspiracy in January and announced that it would close. In August, the government struck an agreement with the United States allowing Swiss banks that were not already under investigation to avoid prosecution if they disclose involvement in tax evasion by U.S. customers and pay fines.
Political Rights: 39 / 40 [Key]
A. Electoral Process: 12 / 12
The constitution 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 federal elections held in October 2011 saw a modest strengthening of the political center in Switzerland. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) while still the leading party, lost seats in the National Council for the first time since 1975, retaining 54 seats—8 fewer than it won in 2007. The Social Democratic Party (SPS) won 46 seats, the Free Democratic Party (FDP) took 30 seats, and the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) garnered 28 seats. Seven smaller parties are also represented. In a June 2013 referendum, voters rejected a proposal backed by the SVP to hold direct elections for Federal Council members.
B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 15 / 16
Political parties are free to operate, but the system is extremely stable, with a coalition of the same four parties (or their precursors) governing since 1959. By common agreement, since 2008 the Federal Council has been comprised of two members each from the SVP, the SPS, and the FDP, and one member from CVP.
Restrictive citizenship laws and procedures tend to exclude many immigrants and their family members in successive generations from political participation.
C. Functioning of Government: 12 / 12
The Swiss political system is characterized by decentralization. The 26 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 are used extensively, 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. Switzerland was ranked 7 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.
As the world’s largest offshore financial center, however, the country has been criticized for failing to comply with recommended international norms on preventing tax evasion, money laundering, and terrorist financing. In June 2013, the National Council rejected a bill that would have allowed banks to disclose information about their U.S. customers in order to avoid indictment by the U.S., which was pursuing banks that allegedly helped U.S. customers conceal assets and evade taxes. In August, the Swiss and U.S. governments reached an agreement to allow approximately 100 Swiss banks to avoid prosecution for aiding tax evasion by admitting wrongdoing, turning over customer information, and paying a fine equal to at least 20 percent of the hidden deposits. However, the agreement excluded banks already under investigation, which includes most of the nation’s largest banks. Wegelin & Co., the oldest Swiss bank, pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy to help approximately 100 U.S. customers evade at least $1.2 billion in taxes; the bank paid nearly $58 million in fines and said it would close.
In October 2013, Switzerland signed an Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development convention against tax evasion, in which nations pledge to share information for tax enforcement. However, ratification requires both parliamentary approval and a referendum, which had not taken place by year’s end.
Civil Liberties: 57 / 60
D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 15 / 16
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 as well as denial of 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 more churches. The country is roughly split between Roman Catholics and Protestants, though some 400,000 Muslims form the largest non-Christian minority, at about 5 percent of the population. Voters in a November 2009 referendum approved a ban on the future construction of minarets on mosques. In September 2012, the Swiss parliament rejected a proposal to ban face-covering veils for Muslim women in public spaces. However, in 2013 voters in the Italian-speaking southern canton of Ticino became the first to approve such a ban. About 65 percent of voters backed the ban in a referendum.
Most public schools provide religious education, depending on the predominant creed in the canton. Religion classes are mandatory in some schools, although waivers are regularly granted upon request. The government respects academic freedom.
E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 12 / 12
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. In March 2013, about 20,000 civil servants demonstrated in Bern against austerity measures by the canton including pay freezes and reduced spending on education and health care.
F. Rule of Law: 15 / 16
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. In November 2013, representatives of minority youth groups raised allegations of police discrimination, including repeated stops and intrusive searches. Prison and detention center conditions generally meet international standards, and the Swiss government permits visits by independent human rights observers.
Increasing anxiety about the growing foreign-born population has led to the passage of stricter asylum laws. According to the government, 21,465 people applied for asylum in Switzerland in 2013, down 25 percent from 2012. In a June referendum, about 80 percent of voters approved a proposal to tighten asylum laws. Under the new rules, asylum seekers may no longer apply from abroad, and military desertion is not valid grounds for asylum; desertion has been the reason most commonly cited by Eritreans, the largest contingent of asylum seekers in Switzerland. In August, human rights groups denounced the town of Bremgarten for banning asylum seekers from using a swimming pool and other public facilities; at the beginning of the month about 150 asylum seekers had been housed by federal authorities in a former military barracks in the town.
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. In August, black American talk show host Oprah Winfrey sparked a controversy over Swiss racial attitudes by alleging that a shop assistant in Zurich had refused her request to see a $38,000 handbag, telling the billionaire Winfrey that the item was too expensive for her.
G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 15 / 16
In a November referendum, voters rejected a proposal to limit executives’ salaries to 12 times those of the lowest-paid employees at their companies.
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. There are 62 women 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 9 out of 136 countries surveyed in the World Economic Forum’s 2013 Gender Gap Report, which analyzes equality in the division of resources and opportunities between men and women.
In a 2005 referendum, voters approved same-sex civil unions. Recognized since 2007, these unions grant many of the legal rights of marriage, with the exception of adoption. In December 2012, the National Council passed a bill allowing members of same-sex unions to adopt the children of their partners but not other children. That narrowed the original measure passed by the Council of States, which would have allowed all couples unrestricted adoption rights regardless of marital status or sexual orientation.
X = Score Received
Y = Best Possible Score
Z = Change from Previous Year