Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
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.
Key Developments in 2017:
- In February, voters passed a referendum that created an easier path to citizenship for third generation immigrants, easing Switzerland’s restrictive citizenship laws.
- In March, the Council of States rejected a ban on burqas proposed by the right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP). In October, the government announced that a referendum on the subject would be put to a vote.
- In September, the Intelligence Service Act went into effect. The law gives the government new surveillance powers, including the ability to monitor internet usage, bug private property, and tap the phone lines of suspected terrorists.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 39 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 12 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
Executive power lies in the Federal Council (cabinet), a seven-member executive council, with each member elected by the bicameral Federal Assembly to four-year terms. The Federal Council is comprised of a consensus-based coalition between all of the large parties represented in the Federal Assembly. The presidency is largely ceremonial and rotates annually among the Federal Council’s members. In December 2017, Alain Berset of the Social Democratic Party (SP) was elected President by the Federal Assembly in accordance with Swiss law.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 4 / 4
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. Switzerland’s electoral process is vibrant and pluralistic, garnering high levels of confidence from the public. The last elections were held in 2015. In the National Council, the right-wing SVP won 65 seats, up from the 54 it previously held. The SP won 43 seats, the Free Democratic Party of Switzerland (FDP) took 33 seats, the Christian Democratic People’s Party (CVP) captured 27 seats, and the Green Party won 7 seats. In the Council of States, the FDP and the CVP won 13 seats each, the SP took 12, and three other parties split the remainder.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 4 / 4
Switzerland’s electoral process is robust and well-implemented. Electoral laws are fair, and the Election Commission of Switzerland, which administers elections, is considered credible.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 15 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 4 / 4
Political parties are free to form and operate, and a wide range of parties are active at the federal and regional levels. The political system is stable, but remains open to new groups.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 4 / 4
Switzerland operates a consensus-oriented political system, where most parties govern together by common agreement. The government often relies on referenda to decide on contentious policy issues, and there is a realistic opportunity for different parties to vie for influence. Parties frequently gain or lose seats in federal elections. The Federal Council is comprised of two members each from the SVP, the SP, and the FDP, and one member from the CVP.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 4 / 4
The people’s political choices are generally free from domination by democratically unaccountable powers. However, the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO) continued to criticize Switzerland for failing to combat the lack of transparency in party financing. Civil society leaders contend that the opaque campaign finance system allows wealthy interests to influence the platforms of the major political parties.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 3 / 4
Restrictive citizenship laws and procedures tend to exclude many immigrants, as well as their children, from political participation. A referendum passed in February 2017 created an easier path to citizenship for third generation immigrants.
Women participate robustly in Swiss politics, both as voters and candidates for office. In the 2015 elections, 64 women were elected to the National Council.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 12 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 4 / 4
Switzerland’s freely elected officials are able to effectively implement national and local policy through a decentralized system of government.
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.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 4 / 4
Safeguards against corruption are generally effective. However, with a robust financial sector and a number of loopholes in the tax laws, tax evasion continues to be a problem: in December 2017, the European Union (EU) placed Switzerland on a “grey list” of countries that had been uncooperative in abolishing questionable tax policies.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 4 / 4
The government is generally transparent. In 2017, however, an ongoing overhaul of federal procurement laws initiated by the Federal Council meant to increase transparency was weakened by the Council’s own revisions to the law, strongly curtailing the law’s intended purpose by restricting access to public procurement documents for the public and media.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 57 / 60
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 15 / 16
D1. Are there free and independent media? 4 / 4
Freedom of the press is generally respected in practice. The law punishes public incitement to racial hatred or discrimination as well as denial of crimes against humanity. Switzerland has a free media environment, although the state-owned Swiss Broadcasting Corporation (SRG/SSR) dominates the broadcast market. Consolidation of newspaper ownership in large media conglomerates has forced the closure of some smaller newspapers in recent years.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 3 / 4
Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution and the penal code prohibits discrimination against any religion. However, Muslims face legal and de facto discrimination. The construction of new minarets and mosques is prohibited, the result of a 2009 referendum. In 2017, anti-Islamic political discourse intensified, especially from the SVP. A federal ban on burqas proposed by the SVP was rejected by the Council of States in March. In October, the government announced that a referendum on the subject would be put to a vote. In 2016, the canton of Ticino passed its own burqa ban
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 4 / 4
Academic freedom is largely respected.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 4 / 4
Individuals are generally able to express their personal views on political issues without fear of retribution. The Intelligence Service Act, approved by referendum in 2016, went into effect in September 2017. The law gives wider surveillance power to the Federal Intelligence Service, allowing it to monitor internet usage, bug private property, and tap the phone lines of suspected terrorists.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 12 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 4 / 4
Freedom of assembly is guaranteed by the constitution and generally respected. However, in April 2017, the owners of the Zurich World Trade Center cancelled the reservation of the controversial Islamic Central Council of Switzerland (IZRS), which was planning a conference at the venue. The property owners claimed that they cancelled the booking because IZRS invited radical Islamists to speak at the event.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 4 / 4
NGOs operate without undue restrictions.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 4 / 4
People are generally free to form trade unions and other professional organizations. The right to collective bargaining is respected, and approximately 16 percent of the workforce is unionized.
F. RULE OF LAW: 15 / 16
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 4 / 4
While the judiciary is largely independent, judges are affiliated with political parties and are selected based on a system of proportional party, linguistic, and regional representation in the Federal Assembly. In late 2017, a group of civil society leaders introduced an initiative to remove the party affiliation requirement from the judicial nomination process in an effort to strengthen the independence of the judiciary.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 4 / 4
Due process normally prevails in civil and criminal matters.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 4 / 4
Switzerland is generally free from war and the use of illegitimate force by authorities is relatively rare. The occasional use of excessive force by police has been documented. The Universal Periodic Review of Switzerland’s human rights record, which was presented by the Swiss government to the United Nations in June 2017, documented some incidents of alleged excessive use of force against undocumented immigrants during the deportation process. Conditions in prisons and detention centers generally meet international standards, and the Swiss government permits visits by independent observers.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 3 / 4
Although the law prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, gender, or religion, anti-immigrant attitudes have grown in recent years. An immigration law passed in 2016 enacted policies to curb mass migration from the EU. It also required employers to give preference to Swiss citizens in hiring practices. Despite the government’s negotiations with the EU and a new law against mass immigration, the SVP initiated a referendum in June 2017 on an end to the free movement between Switzerland and the EU.
The rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities are legally protected, but minority groups—especially those of African and Central European descent, as well as Roma—face societal discrimination. Roma continue to fight to be officially recognized as a minority in Switzerland. In April, two SVP officials were found guilty on charges of racial discrimination after publishing a racially charged campaign advertisement against people from Kosovo on the party’s website and several news outlets. The officials were fined approximately $22,900.
While LGBT rights are generally respected, Switzerland’s antidiscrimination laws do not specifically address sexual orientation or gender identity. Gender pay gaps and discrimination against women persist in the workplace. In July 2017, the Swiss cabinet presented the National Assembly with a bill obligating companies with more than 50 employees to conduct gender pay audits and publicly disclose their findings.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 15 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 4 / 4
Freedom of movement is respected, and there are no undue limitations on the ability to choose one’s place of residence, employment, or education.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 4 / 4
The rights to own property and establish a business remain unrestricted.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 4 / 4
Personal social freedoms are enjoyed by most people. In a 2005 referendum, voters approved same-sex civil unions. Recognized since 2007, these unions grant many of the legal benefits of marriage, with the exception of full adoption rights.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 3 / 4
Although the government complies with international standards for combating trafficking, according to the U.S. State Department’s 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report, Switzerland remains a destination for victims of human trafficking. Switzerland lacks a national minimum wage. Migrant workers are prone to exploitive labor practices and dangerous working conditions, particularly in the construction, healthcare, and tourism industries, among others.