Capital: Bern
Population: 7,600,000

Political Rights Score: 1
Civil Liberties Score: 1
Status: Free


The fallout from the October 2007 parliamentary elections continued to reverberate in Switzerland throughout 2008. Although the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP) won the largest percentage of votes, it was kept out of government for the first time in decades. The SVP's two members in the seven-member cabinet joined a new party, the Bourgeois Democratic Party, which announced its intent to compete nationally in future elections. However, the SVP rejoined the cabinet in December, with one minister, after a frustrating year in opposition.

Switzerland, which has existed as a confederation of cantons since 1291, emerged with its current borders at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, when its tradition of neutrality was also confirmed. The country's four official ethnic communities are based on language: German, French, Italian, and Romansh (the smallest community).

Switzerland remained neutral during the wars of the 20th century, and it joined the United Nations only 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 have resisted joining. The country even rejected, in a 1992 referendum, membership in the European Economic Area, a "halfway house" to EU membership that features a trade agreement with the EU. However, Switzerland has joined international financial institutions and signed a range of free-trade agreements.

Hostility to both EU membership and immigration has been a hallmark of the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP). During the October 2003 legislative elections, the SVP made blatantly xenophobic appeals, while insisting that it was not opposed to legal immigrants. The SVP captured the largest share of the vote, followed closely by the center-left Social Democratic Party (SP). The center-right Christian Democratic People's Party (CVP) received barely half the total of the SVP. SVP leader Christoph Blocher called successfully for a second seat on the seven-member Federal Council for his party, at the expense of the CVP.

A package of bilateral accords with the EU was adopted in June 2005. Switzerland agreed to join the Schengen area, a passport-free travel zone consisting of 2 other non-EU countries (Norway and Iceland) and 13 of the 25 EU member states. The accord also deepened Switzerland's cooperation with the EU on asylum policy, justice, and home affairs. In September, a second referendum passed, extending the free movement of labor to the 10 countries that had joined the EU in 2004.

The SVP opposed both referendums, and their adoption led to speculation that the party had passed its political peak. However, in a September 2006 referendum, it successfully championed a tightening of asylum and immigration laws that would require asylum seekers to produce an identity document within 48 hours of arrival or risk repatriation. The tightening of immigration policy limited immigration mainly to those coming from EU countries; prospective immigrants from outside the EU would have to possess skills lacking in the Swiss economy.

The October 2007 elections were a triumph for the SVP, which captured 29 percent of the vote – more than any party since 1919. The SP's share fell to 19.5 percent of the vote, and the Free Democratic Party (FDP) to 15.6 percent, its worst-ever showing. The CVP won 14.6 percent, and the Green Party took 9.6 percent, its best-ever performance. The SVP campaign received international attention for its anti-immigrant appeals. An SVP rally in Bern, met by a counterdemonstration, resulted in violence and police use of water cannons and tear gas – rare in Switzerland.

The new parliament, however, surprised the SVP by refusing to reappoint Blocher to the cabinet, choosing instead Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf, from the party's moderate wing. The SVP responded by entering into opposition, the first time that a major party had done so in decades. The party expelled Widmer-Schlumpf and Samuel Schmid, the other SVP minister, and the two became part of a new moderate-right party, the Burgeois-Democratic Party, which constituted itself formally at the national level in November 2008. At the end of the year, however, the SVP returned to the cabinet. Blocher and Ueli Maurer constituted a joint ticket for the party, but low support for Blocher forced his withdrawal. In a close vote, Maurer joined as defense minister, replacing Schmid. He repeatedly declared publicly that he was prepared to join the traditional Swiss pattern of consensus and collegiality within government.

Switzerland, a major banking center, was severely hit by the global financial crisis in 2008. In October, the government rescued UBS, a Switzerland-based bank, with a bailout worth $59 billion, and economic growth threatened to slow significantly.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Switzerland is an electoral democracy. The constitution of 1848, significantly revised in 1874 and 2000, provides for a Federal Assembly with two directly elected chambers: the Council of States (in which each canton has two members and each half-canton has one) and the 200-member National Council. All of the lawmakers serve four-year terms. The Federal Council (cabinet) is a seven-person executive, with each member elected by the Federal Assembly. The presidency is largely ceremonial and rotates annually among the Federal Council's members.

The Swiss political system is characterized by decentralization and direct democracy. The cantons and half-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 are also a common feature; any measure that modifies the constitution must be put to a referendum. Any new or revised law must also 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 main political parties have long been the SVP, the SP, the right-wing and free-market FDP, and the CVP. Traditionally, these last three parties each held two seats in the Federal Council, with the SVP holding just one. However, the SVP's popular support increased gradually over the 1990s as it shifted to the right, poaching voters initially from small far-right parties and then increasingly from the FDP. After the 2003 elections, the SVP held two seats and the CVP held one. In the wake of the 2007 election, however, the SVP splintered; the SVP's two ministers joined a splinter party, but one was removed for an SVP minister in December 2008.

The government is free from pervasive corruption. However, the country has traditionally drawn criticism for its banking-secrecy laws, which allegedly enable money laundering and other crimes. The International Monetary Fund has praised Switzerland for tightening laws on money laundering and terrorist financing, but in 2005, the intergovernmental Financial Action Task Force still found Switzerland only "partially compliant" with many of its recommended international norms; criticism was renewed by other European governments in 2008 as the financial crisis unfolded. Switzerland was ranked 5 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution. Switzerland has a free media environment, although the state-owned Swiss Broadcasting Corporation dominates the broadcast market. The penal code prohibits racist or anti-Semitic speech. Consolidation of newspaper ownership 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, and most cantons support one or several churches. The country is split roughly between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, although an official tally of more than 300,000 (and perhaps many more undocumented) Muslims form the largest non-Christian minority. The SVP supports a referendum to ban mosque minarets. Religion is taught in public schools, depending on the predominant creed in each canton. Students are free to choose their creed of instruction or opt out of religious instruction.

Freedoms of assembly and association are upheld in practice, and civil society is especially active in Switzerland. The right to collective bargaining is respected, and roughly one-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 acceptable.

The rights of cultural, religious, and linguistic minorities are legally protected, though increasing anxiety about the large foreign-born population has led to a tightening of asylum laws and societal discrimination, especially against non-European immigrants and their descendants.

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 eased to decriminalize abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy following a referendum in 2002, which 72 percent of voters supported. The constitution guarantees equal pay to men and women for work of equal value, but pay differentials remain as a result of general inequality. The Federal council has 3 women among its 7 members, and the National Council has 59 women among its 200 members, which is above the European average.

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