Freedom in the World
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The political system of Switzerland is characterized by decentralization and direct democracy. The multilingual state is typically governed by a broad coalition that includes members from the four largest political parties represented in the parliament. The 26 cantons that make up the Swiss Confederation have considerable decision-making power, and the public is often asked to weigh in on policy matters through referendums. Civil liberties are generally respected in the country, though laws and policies adopted in recent years have reflected a growing wariness of immigration and minority groups of foreign origin, which sometimes face societal discrimination.
- In February, Swiss referendum voters rejected a proposed law that would have forced the government to expel foreigners for even minor crimes.
- In September, the lower house of parliament approved a bill that would impose a national ban on face-covering veils. The measure was under consideration by the upper house at year’s end.
- Also in September, referendum voters endorsed a law that considerably expanded the surveillance powers of the Swiss security services.
Swiss policymakers continued to grapple with overlapping concerns about immigration, integration, and security during 2016. In a February referendum, citizens rejected an initiative by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) that called for authorities to automatically expel foreigners convicted of at least two minor crimes within a span of 10 years. Separately in June, voters approved a measure to reduce processing times for asylum applications and provide asylum seekers with legal assistance and more financial aid.
However, efforts to ban certain practices associated with fundamentalist forms of Islam appeared to move forward during the year. A law that came into force in the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino in July banned face-covering veils, following a 2013 referendum and several legal battles. The law prescribes fines of up to 10,000 francs ($10,000). In September, the National Council narrowly voted for a nationwide ban on such veils; at year’s end the legislation was before the Council of States, the upper house of the Swiss parliament, though it was considered unlikely to pass. A discussion broke out in the canton of Basel over two male Muslim students’ refusal to shake a female teacher’s hand on religious grounds. The canton authorities concluded in May that the students had no right to deny the traditional handshake to their teacher, and that their parents could be fined if they persisted.
In April, local authorities in Bern banned a demonstration by the Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (IZRS), citing security concerns. IZRS claims to represent Muslims in Switzerland, but it has often been criticized for making radical statements and maintaining links to Salafi movements.
Swiss citizens who seek to travel abroad to fight on behalf of terrorist groups are subject to prosecution, and a suspect was sentenced to prison for the offense for the first time in August. Amid growing concerns about terrorism, Swiss voters in September approved a law that significantly expanded the surveillance powers of the Swiss security services. Though their activities would be subject to judicial oversight, Swiss agencies would be able to use a range of surveillance technologies and cooperate with foreign counterparts.
This country report has been abridged for Freedom in the World 2017. For background information on political rights and civil liberties in Switzerland, see Freedom in the World 2016.