Understanding Swiss: from Watches to Direct Democracy

By Adhi Kawidastra

When asked about Switzerland, one phrase that most probably is the answer is the luxury watch. The Swiss watch industry is the result of an industry based on precision wrapped in a brand “Swiss Made”. The precision of the Swiss watch industry is essentially a reflection of the perfectionism and punctuality that characterize the Swiss society.

As a diplomat posted at the Indonesian Embassy in Bern, Switzerland, I am required to understand Switzerland from A to Z. Although having a small size, Switzerland is a diverse country with 4 official languages, 26 states or what they call as Canton, and three different nations.

All these diversities live in a country that is slightly smaller in size compared to the Province of West Java. Understanding Switzerland is a challenging task for a foreign diplomat, but yet important and crucial to do.

Situated in the middle of Europe, Switzerland plays an important role in shaping the dynamics of the region, despite not being a member of the European Union.

This article will not discuss about Swiss luxury watches and the industry behind it. This article will look into the story behind the Swiss character that places Switzerland as one of the economic superpowers in the region.

There are many factors contribute to the progress of the Swiss economy. However, this article will focus on three distinctive features of Switzerland, namely plurality, the practice of direct democracy and its relations with the European Union.

A Country with Multi Languages

Once I was having lunch with a long-time friend whom I met in from my previous workplace and we talked about life in Switzerland. Since I lived in German-speaking region in Switzerland, he asked whether I had already learned German. He laughed when I said that I had not learned German yet. He then suggested that I should not learn German in Switzerland, especially Swiss German if I were only to stay for a while.

To understand and speak Swiss German, first, you need to learn the High German. After, you need to learn the Swiss dialect, of course, you have to know the which dialect to learn among the different dialects of the 17 German speaking Cantons. It is a long process and ones have to stay for at least a decade to understand and speak the language.

Switzerland was established as a federal state based on the agreement of communal regions or city-states in the Central Alpine region. In 1291, three city-states, namely Uri and Schwyz and Unterwalden agreed to establish what is called today as the Swiss Confederation.

The agreement was realized on the basis of a mutual goal, which was to be independent from the political and power influence of the large neighboring states in Europe.

Since then, Switzerland had grown with the addition of other territories in the French-speaking Romandie region and the Italian speaking Lombard region. The Swiss had also experienced and suffered from civil war as well as annexation by the French Empire during the Napoleon era.

These historical backgrounds explain the Swiss pluralism which divided the country into regions based on the languages they use. In general, Switzerland is divided into three groups of Germanic German (63.5%), French-speaking Romandie (22.5%), and Italian-speaking Lombard (8.1%).

The term “Röstigraben” reflects the cultural boundary between German speaking and French-speaking parts of Switzerland. While the term “Polentagraben” refers to the cultural boundary of the Italian speaking Canton of Ticino. The variety of languages usage shows that Switzerland is a very diverse and multicultural country.

Democratic Deliberation by the People

Despite the cultural and language diversity, there is one common thing that is agreed among the Swiss societies, which is “direct democracy”. Switzerland is known as one of the countries that practice a direct democracy in its political system.

Through this system, Swiss citizens can actively participate in determining a policy through a referendum. Simply by collecting signatures from at least 50,000 Swiss citizens, a group may propose initiatives and hold a referendum to object policies or laws passed by the Parliament or the Government.

Institutionally, the State or Canton Governments can also submit an initiative to hold a referendum at the federal level. To do so, a Canton needs to have an agreement with at least eight other Cantons.

A referendum can also be used as one the mechanism to amend the country’s Constitution and to decide strategic issues at the federal level. Unlike the regular initiative, to carry out the amendment, the initiator of the referendum must collect at least 100,000 signatures of Swiss’ citizens.

The referendum is conducted by determining the preferred choice of the distributed ballot. The result of the referendum is determined by a simple majority in which the proposed initiative will be accepted if it resulted more than 50% of votes from total number of citizens who participate in the referendum.

On the other hand, the result of the constitutional referendum is decided by a double majority system. In order to win, the initiator must get a majority vote not only from the citizens who participate in the referendum but also a majority among the 26 Cantons of Switzerland.

An Island in the Middle of Europe

The result of the referendum sometimes can be decisively against the government’s strategic plan. One of the clear examples of this phenomena is when on 6 December 1992, a majority vote of 50.3% reject the membership of the European Economic Community (EEA).

As a result, the Swiss Government had to suspend negotiations for European Union (EU) membership and eventually formally withdrew its application for EU membership in 2016. All but one, which is the microstate Liechtenstein, of Switzerland’s neighboring countries, are EU member states.

Hence the phrase “A small island in a large European sea” has been a common term to describe the relations between Switzerland and the EU.

Meanwhile, Switzerland is a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). EFTA is a single market trade organization consisting of four European states which are not members of the EU, namely Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland.

Despite not being part of the European Union Customs Union, EFTA runs parallel with the EU. In its effort to establish a global free trade network, Switzerland often use EFTA as the means to reach agreements with non-EU partner states.

In the meantime, to safeguard its economic relations, Switzerland maintains bilateral agreements with the EU. There are in total ten bilateral treaties between Switzerland and the EU, including the free movement of people and the Schengen membership.

Understanding the Swiss Character

Switzerland is a country with a “hedgehog mentality”, a metaphor that became popular before and during the second world war. A period when the small Switzerland was surrounded by Nazi Germany (including Austria), Fascist Italy and the Vichy France.

Hedgehog are slow, calm and often underestimate because of their small size. However, those having hedgehog mentality are the one who have the advantage of simplifying complex and focusing on single vision.

This mentality makes Switzerland, apart from its relatively small size, able to withstand the turmoil and the rough navigation through the large “European Sea”.

The writer is a mid-career diplomat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Indonesia. He had been assigned to the Embassy of Indonesia in Bern, Switzerland (2013—2017) and underwent a brief assignment at the Embassy of Indonesia in Rome, Italy (2008—2009).