The Assembly Democracy System ‘Landsgemeinde’: The Best Form of Direct Democracy?

Dr. Louis Perron
blog post louis

Guest article by Johanna Burger, trainee at Perron Campaigns

Being a federal political system, Switzerland is divided into 26 cantons (similar to states) where each canton has some power of decision. Each of them has the ability to make decisions in several political matters on its own. Usually, these decisions – elections and votes – are made by the voters of this very canton with a ballot-box vote. Nowadays, there are just two cantons that know another voting system for cantonal matters: the assembly democracy. Last Sunday, voters in Appenzell Inner Rhodes gathered together to fulfill their civic duty (however voting is not compulsory there).  Next Sunday, voters in Glarus will assemble to do the same. This form of voting has often been called a utopia concerning theory of democracy: In principle, every voter can take the floor and express his or her opinion. In addition, voting once a year together at the same place and at the same time is a deeply rooted tradition that is being appreciated and celebrated by the residents of Glarus and Appenzell Inner Rhodes.

However, one could find some aspects in this political process that do not represent a perfect democracy. For instance, lack of secrecy of the ballot is an often-given argument by the critics. Furthermore, an assembly system requires the voters to actually and physically be at one place at a specific time. This is not feasible for several people as the elderly, people who have to work, people who are on vacation on this particular Sunday, etc. Moreover, the fact that the majority of votes is being estimated by members of the cantonal government is an aspect of the Landsgemeinde that is often criticized.

In the (recent) past, more cantons knew this assembly voting system. However, a lot of them switched to the ballot-box voting system. Although there are just the two cantons Appenzell Inner Rhodes and Glarus that still work with it nowadays, even these two systems differ: Voters in Glarus can vote and elect some people for cantonal concerns at the assembly. Other matters are being decided in a ballot-box vote. Another difference between the two Swiss Landsgemeinde systems is the possibility to suggest amendments of a law. In Appenzell Inner Rhodes, voters can just reject or accept laws. In Glarus however, every voter has the possibility to suggest modifications of a law’s wording. The electorate can reject or accept these modifications immediately. This way, it is possible that voters in Glarus end up with a new law that has never been discussed by the government with this particular wording before. An example for this would be the drastic merger of the 27 previously existing communes into just three of them in 2006. (Initially, the government suggested 10 new communes. Then, one citizen came up with the idea of just three of them.)

Despite all the criticism, a lot of voters in Glarus und Appenzell Inner Rhodes want to keep their political tradition. The three political scientists Marlène Gerber, Hans-Peter Schaub and Sean Müller from the university of Berne conducted a survey about this in Glarus in 2016. They conclude that most of the questioned voters want to keep their political tradition.

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