The Swiss Legacy In Direct Democracy Is Exceptional

Claudio Grass, Going Postal
Copyright Going Postal 2019

Our readers probably realize by now, what a proud Swiss fellow I am, and how I take every possible opportunity to argue how Switzerland presents itself as a role model to achieve radical decentralization and respect for civil liberties. It also assures the right of self-determination in an environment where municipalities, cities or smaller states are in competition with each other and, by doing so, limiting the power of politicians. I was particularly intrigued by the comparison made by Rahim Taghizadegan, a polymath I very much admire, in a lecture titled “The Lebanon – A Switzerland of the Near East” that was given at the last Property and Freedom Society conference of Hans-Hermann Hoppe. Having lived in the Middle East, particular in Tiberias and Damascsus for 2 years, I was interested to learn more about this comparison, and to understand where and how Lebanon deviated from the Swiss path.

What are the similarities between Lebanon and Switzerland?

Both Lebanon and Switzerland cover small territories that are surrounded by mountain terrain. The existence of mountains is of great strategic importance as it acts as a natural protective barrier. Interestingly, I learned that these difficult terrains developed hard working and innovative inhabitants with a low time preference. They understood they had to save before consuming. Living in a challenging environment teaches you that innovation is a necessity to survive. Also, in terms of demographics, both states accommodate diverse cultural identities. However, the historical relationship between these groups was very different when we compare both experiences. While the Swiss cantons not only differed in linguistic and cultural differences (Middle French / French, Alemannic German, Lombard, Rhaeto-Romansh), they were largely divided between Catholic and Protestants during the Reformation. As for Lebanon, it accommodated the Christian Maronites, Muslim Shite and Sunni communities, and the Druze (offshoot of Shiism that goes back to the 11th Century).

The origins of Swiss direct democracy

The origins of the Swiss political system and direct democracy can be explained by the historical relationship between the different cantons dating back to the 13th century. Even then, the cantons enjoyed significant regional independence and fiercely challenged any form of interference in their internal affairs. All this goes back to the time of the reformation, which witnessed numerous religious wars that tore Europe apart. I do not wish to go into the details of the Swiss reformation experience, but would like to highlight the history of the process of decentralization.

Zürich was the base of the Swiss reformation movement led by Ulrich Zwingli in the early 15th century. The movement managed to create an alliance among the urban towns like Bern, while mountain and rural regions formed a counter-alliance supported by the Pope and Emperor. Zwingli’s movement was significant in that he moved against the tide, promoting theocratic reforms and doctrinal change, which essentially separated church from state. His work on Zürich set a pattern that was to be later encouraged in Bern and Geneva – it was never imposed on the other cantons. Even after the feuds and wars between the two camps, they strived to uphold their norms of non-interference in their internal matters. There was a strong political will to at least try to maintain these norms and principles in a context that was blurred by wars. Nevertheless, this was not the end of the process, the Old Confederation failed as a project and Switzerland did not enjoy a similar setup until the new Confederation was created after the 27-year Sonderbundkrieg. Finally, in 1848, a constitution was drafted that acknowledged both a Swiss and cantonal citizenship, which represents a culmination of previous agreements between the cantons. According to Gottfried Keller, “without cantons and without their differences and competition, no Swiss federation could exist”.

Switzerland endured several centuries of cantonal wars where the cantons were divided into camps largely based on religion. Additionally, it was caught in the middle of a war-torn Europe that was resisting change. Whether the Austrian Habsburgs, the French or the Germans, regional powers had a vested interest in the Alpine nation. But at the same time, Swiss mercenaries had been involved in armed conflict in Europe – this involvement was to end with the new constitution and the upholding of the principle of neutrality. Switzerland is a true pioneer in decentralization and religious tolerance. But this decentralization allowed it to develop a culture of neutrality and, most importantly, acceptance or, better said, respect for diversity and sovereignty of the individual. One canton could not impose its ideas on another, and it was up to the individual to accept or reject them. In essence, the Swiss culture has asserted that the sovereign is the citizen and not the authority. Modern Switzerland developed a political system where the federal government has limited powers as the cantons take their matters into their own hands and manage their own affairs in all aspects. To overcome religious differences, there was no longer an official state church; the citizens referred to the cantons directly. The Swiss constitution upholds the freedoms of religion and the laws of the country condemn any form of discrimination or public incitement to hatred or discrimination. But more importantly, the constitution protected the sovereignty of the cantons, which is the cornerstone of the country’s policy of domestic plurality and direct democracy.

Lebanese politics along sectarian lines

The Lebanese community can be characterized with rather complex relationships and is highly sensitive to sectarian loyalties. When talking about Lebanon, we often limit the talk about sectarian tension to the fifteen-year civil war (1975-1990), but this tension has its origins going back to the 1800s. There was a time when communal relations were rather harmonious and governed by informal agreements as the groups governed themselves. The sectarian division between Maronites, Druze, Sunni and Shiite, however did not come to the surface until outside powers intervened that highlighted the differences between the groups, particularly Egypt, France and the Ottoman Empire.

We could say that the tensions began when the Governor of Greater Syria (which represents present-day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Palestine and Israel), Ibrahim Basha, sought to achieve equality between all sects, which in turn required universal conscription and disarming of the population (doesn’t this sound familiar?). Some groups, like the Druze who coexisted on Mount Lebanon with the Maronites, refused to surrender their weapons and were attacked by Egyptian forces. A power struggle began to emerge, as the Maronites, took advantage of the situation and sought to expand their territory in the Mountain. The Maronites were particularly concerned with securing their commercial interests with Europe, and sought to implement changes that started to overstep on the other existing communities. The situation escalated when Europe intervened and successfully exerted pressure on the Ottoman Empire to set up a security force protecting their Maronite partners. However, the situation worsened even more after Lebanon fell under the French mandate in 1920. The Europeans’ divide and rule policy redrew the regional map, which in turn affected its demographics and thus elevated the concerns and fears of the sectarian communities. Nevertheless, the Lebanese groups managed to coexist under confessional arrangements, albeit with great caution.

By the 1950s, Lebanon grew into the optimal business and financial destination in the region, thanks to its laissez faire economic policy and bank secrecy laws. It became the “Switzerland of the Middle East”. We may have not gotten that far in history when we discussed Switzerland but that is because, unlike the Swiss cantons, the Lebanese tensions continued until the late 20th century.

I would like to highlight the democratization process that was launched by General Fouad Chehab after taking over the presidency in 1958. He was respected and trusted across the sectarian groups for his impartiality. And so, his vision to overcome sectarian divisions was to introduce political and economic reforms through centralization. By developing a loyalty to the sovereign state, he hoped this would help sectarian reconciliation and appease the groups that felt threatened. His reforms towards homogenization and secularization eventually brought him into conflict with the traditional feudal, confessional, and clan-based politicians who saw their grip on power diminishing; the Lebanese were fierce defenders of their sectarian identities and loyalty to the community prevailed over the state.

This tension continued and intensified over the years until in 1975 the civil war broke out between the different groups. Of course there are so many intricate details to the Lebanese war, however, for the purpose of this article we will highlight a few points: 1) The sectarian tension turned into war when Lebanon became involved in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, particularly after the massive residing of the Palestinian PLO in refugee camps. 2) The war was characterized with alliances and bloc formation, which involved foreign partners, including Syria and Europe. 3) The objective of the war was about political dominance and power; the historic legacy of coexistence was not conceivable until the Arab League stepped in to negotiate an agreement between the Lebanese parties. Negotiations took a confessional/sectarian tone once again as the involved groups sought to devise an agreement, which on the one hand, reflected the new demographic reality and at the same time balanced the interest so as to circumvent one group from dominating another. The end result was codified in the al-Taef agreement in 1989, which allocated government offices and other political affairs across the sectarian lines. In essence, it was a political arrangement to have a centralized system with allocated seats. This outcome is the complete opposite from the Swiss experience, which I attribute to lack of trust between the communities.

Sovereignty of the people ensures peace and stability

I certainly haven’t given this topic and its history justice in such a short article, but we see the parallels between the two experiences and their moment of diversion. We find some parallels between the Swiss and Lebanese in the economic or financial interests of the different groups. It is amazing how we find how the fear for their trade interests, in particular, were coated with cultural differences. Ultimately, it no longer was about business, instead it developed into religious-ethnic wars. Second was the foreign element, or the intervention of foreign actors, particularly regional entities in Swiss and Lebanese affairs. This intervention, in both cases, disrupted the relatively harmonious relations and coexistence of the diverse communities, and helped prolong the conflict between them.

When did the Lebanese experience deviate from the Swiss path? In my view, this happened the moment when the Lebanese communities turned inward seeking their own (business/power) interests by having one group dominating another instead of coexistence. The Lebanese identity was torn between the diverse sectarian groups. At the same time, they also turned outward by allowing external forces to intervene. Instead, the Swiss did the opposite by upholding the principles of neutrality and non-interference; it was each canton to its own. In other words, loyalty to the Swiss federal state did not abolish loyalty to the cantons. When the government imposes its own vision on the public, ignoring the fears and feelings of its people, we find in the history of both Switzerland and Lebanon, the outcome was destruction, social unrest and armed violence. We find that the Swiss have learned from their struggles to embrace their cultural identity, which has developed loyalty to the Swiss state by accommodating or asserting the respect of the citizens to their respective cantons. This unique balance was ultimately reflected in the country’s political system of direct democracy, where the voice of its citizens in a referendum can override the decision of an acting government.

We’ve seen how strong the voice of the Swiss public can be to the extent of redirecting the policy orientation of its government as recently as last year on the issue of immigration. It is my conviction that today’s problems, including self-determination, can be solved by opting for competition through radical decentralization. In essence, the decentralization of the Swiss state has valued the sovereignty of the citizen over the sovereignty of the state. And that is where Switzerland’s legacy lies. I will therefore conclude with a quote by Ludwig von Mises, who already addressed this topic of self-determination back in 1919:

“However, the right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done. This is impracticable only because of compelling technical considerations, which make it necessary that a region be governed as a single administrative unit and that the right of self-determination be restricted to the will of the majority of the inhabitants of areas large enough to count as territorial units in the administration of the country.”


© Claudio Grass, Hünenberg See, Switzerland 2019

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