Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1
Status: Free
Population: 7,300,000
GNI/Capita: $38,330
Life Expectancy: 80
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic (46 percent), Protestant (40 percent), other (14 percent)
Ethnic Groups: German (65 percent), French (18 percent), Italian (10 percent), Romansch (1 percent), other (6 percent)
Capital: Bern


The October 19, 2003 parliamentary election shook up Switzerland's long-quiet political system by which seats in the cabinet are proportioned in a fixed formula among the major parties. The Swiss People's Party (SVP), a right-wing party with a xenophobic bent, won the biggest share of the vote and may demand a second ministerial seat in the council, where it has long had just one.

Switzerland, which has been a loose confederation of cantons since 1291, emerged in its current borders after the Napoleonic wars in 1815, where its tradition of neutrality was also sealed. The country's four official ethnic communities are based on language: German, French, Italian, and Romansh (the smallest community). Switzerland has stayed out of international wars and only joined the United Nations after a referendum in 2002.

Membership in international institutions has long been a controversial issue in Switzerland. The country is surrounded by members of the European Union (EU), but the Swiss, who fiercely value not only their military neutrality but their political independence, have resisted EU membership. The country has even resisted membership in the European Economic Area, a halfway-house to EU membership that has a trade agreement with the EU.

Hostility not only to EU membership, but also to immigration, has been a hallmark of the right-wing SVP. The other main political parties are the center-left Social Democratic Party (SP), the right-wing Radical Democratic Party (FDP), and the center-right Christian Democratic Party (CVP). Traditionally, these last three parties had held two seats each in the seven-member Bundesrat (Federal Council), with the SVP holding just one. However, the SVP's vote share increased gradually over the 1990s – corresponding with a rightward move by the party – as it poached voters initially from small far-right parties, and then increasingly from the Radicals.

During the October 2003 legislative election, the SVP made blatantly xenophobic appeals, including a newspaper advertisement blaming "black Africans" for crime. The SVP insisted that it had nothing against legal immigrants, who make up a fifth of Switzerland's population, and that it was merely opposed to illegal immigration and abuse of the asylum policy. The SVP won the biggest share of the vote, while the Social Democrats finished just behind the SVP. The Christian Democrats received just under 15 percent of the vote, barely half the total of the SVP.

The SVP's success in the election gave its leader, Christoph Blocher, backing for calling for a second Bundesrat seat for his party. Blocher demanded that he and another minister be appointed to the council, with a seat being taken from the CVP. If his demands are not met, he has threatened to take his party into opposition, which would be unprecedented in modern Swiss politics. A stint in opposition, he hinted, might only increase his party's popularity, as voters could feel that their democratic choice of the SVP was thwarted and flock to it in sympathy. Taking Blocher into the government, on the other hand, might somewhat neutralize his appeal, as he would be under pressure to tone down his fiery rhetoric and operate in the traditionally collegial atmosphere of Swiss federal politics.

The SVP's success also strained relations with the EU. Switzerland and the EU had hoped to conclude an agreement by the end of 2003 that included cooperation on tax evasion, justice, and home affairs. However, the success of the most Euroskeptic of Switzerland's major parties clouded the possibility of an early conclusion to the agreement.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

The Swiss can change their government democratically. The constitution of 1848, significantly revised in 1874 and 2000, provides for two directly elected legislative chambers, the Council of States (in which each canton has two members and each half-canton one) and the National Council. The Federal Council is a seven-person executive; the presidency is ceremonial and rotates annually among the Federal Council's members. Collegiality and consensus are hallmarks of Swiss political culture.

The Swiss institutional system is characterized by decentralization and direct democracy. The cantons and half-cantons have control over much of economic and social policy, with the federal government's powers largely limited to foreign affairs and some economic policy. The rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities are strongly protected. Referendums are also a common feature; any measure that modifies the constitution must be put to a referendum. Any new or revised law must be put to a referendum if 50,000 signatures in favor of doing so can be gathered, and voters may even initiate legislation themselves with 100,000 signatures.

The government is free from pervasive corruption. Transparency International rated Switzerland eighth (tied with Norway and Australia) on its 2003 Corruption Perceptions Index. However, the country has traditionally drawn fire for its banking secrecy laws, which financial watchdogs claim enable money laundering and other crimes.

Switzerland has a free media environment. The Swiss Broadcasting Corporation dominates the broadcast market. The penal code prohibits racist or anti-Semitic speech. Consolidation of newspapers in large media conglomerates has forced the closure of some small and local newspapers. Internet access is unrestricted.

Freedom of religion is guaranteed by the constitution. Most cantons support one or several churches. The country is split roughly evenly between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, although there are now over 300,000 Muslims, the largest non-Christian minority. Religion is taught in public schools, depending on the predominant creed in the canton. Students are free to choose their creed of instruction or opt out of religious instruction. In 2001, a cantonal court ruled that the Church of Scientology could not be a "real church" because it does not advocate belief in God. Academic freedom is respected.

There is freedom of assembly and association, and the right to collective bargaining is respected. Approximately a third of the workforce is unionized.

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. Refusal to perform military service is a criminal offense for males. Prison conditions are generally good.

Women were only granted universal suffrage at the federal level in 1971, and the half-canton Appenzell-Innerrhoden denied women the vote until 1990. Abortion laws were liberalized to decriminalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy following a referendum in 2002, which 72 percent of voters supported. The law gives women 10 weeks of maternity leave but no salary guarantee.

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