The communes – the neglected foundation of federal democracy

by Dr phil. René Roca, Forschungsinstitut direkte Demokratie (

The communes form the basis of the democratic engagement of the citizens. This makes it all the more worrying that they are increasingly being controlled and restrained by the cantonal and federal levels.

I have been a non-party commual councillor in Oberrohrdorf-Staretschwil (Canton Aargau) for fifteen years and have been deputy mayor for almost six years. In my function, I am repeatedly confronted with the problem that the canton is trying to achieve standardisation at the communal level in various areas, which ultimately leads to more centralisation. Sometimes the cantonal government issues ordinances that are then enforced by the cantonal administration at the communal level (for example, Curriculum 21), sometimes the Grand Council, as the legislature, passes new laws that result in restructuring and reforms that have to be implemented and paid for at the communal level (for example, the new nursing care law). Increasingly, this results in costs that are tied up in the communal budget and leave the individual communes with less and less room for manoeuvre. In this context of the progressive dismantling of decentralised structures, the canton also promotes communal mergers. The development described weakens the communes until they are willing to agree to a merger with other communes, especially if they still receive money from the canton for this. Larger, anonymous units, led by “professional” communal executives, are good for the canton, because they make it easier for it to push through political proposals with a “top-down strategy”.
  However, this increasingly undermines federalism and also the principle of subsidiarity.1
  However, it is possible to take countermeasures: As part of my political office, I was involved as a communal councillor in the committee “For Communal Autonomy and a Solidary Aargau” against the “Communal Reform Aargau”, which would have included the possibility of forced mergers. We were able to win the cantonal votes clearly. Nevertheless, there were new proposals from the canton, with which it unfortunately continues to support communal mergers with advice and a lot of money, even though scientific findings show that such mergers bring little benefit.2 The canton must certainly continue to be defied here, because “communal freedom” is a fundamental historical building block for Swiss democracy.

The importance of communal freedom

The Swiss historian Adolf Gasser (1903–1985) emphasised more than anyone else the importance of “communal freedom” and, linked to this, the importance of the cooperative principle for Swiss history. For him, European history was strongly characterised by the opposition between two different attitudes, namely “Herrschaft” (rulership) and “Genossenschaft” (cooperative). In these phenomena, Gasser emphasised, two worlds confronted each other that followed completely different laws of development: the world of the state built from above and the world of the state built from below – in other words, the world of subordination and the world of coordination, the world of centralism and the world of federalism, the world of command administration and the world of self-administration, the world of communal unfreedom and the world of communal freedom: “The opposition between Herrschaft and Genossenschaft (rulership and cooperative) is perhaps the most important opposition known to social history. The opposition between the authoritarian state and the societal state is about fundamental things: namely, the elementary foundations of human community life”.3 In his major work “Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas” (Communal Freedom as Salvation of Europe), Gasser noted that it was the cooperative principle of order that led to a communal community ethic and thus also supported federalism, which is linked to the principle of subsidiarity: “Whereas in the authoritarian-bureaucratic state politics and morality are on fundamentally different levels, in the socially communal state they belong inseparably together. Accordingly, the cooperative principle of order, as it underlies communes built from the bottom up, will be particularly appropriately called ‘communal community ethics’.”4
  This cooperative principle has been recorded in writing for the Swiss Confederation since the High Middle Ages, for example in valley books, and was a continuous and integral part of the Confederation’s ethos. This way of thinking is expressed particularly vividly in a quote by the Swiss historian Wolfgang von Wartburg (1914–1997): “These small, natural, self-governing communes have become the school and breeding ground of Swiss freedom and democracy, and still are today.”5 With the founding of the federal state, the cantons lost the sovereignty they had in the Confederation, but with the Council of States and the cantonal majority-requirement in popular initiatives and mandatory referenda [Ständemehr], the cantons gained considerable influence at the federal level. And the communes?

A communal referendum at the federal level?

In recent years, it has become increasingly clear that the growing complexity of tasks, the legalisation and the tendency to shift competencies to the canton and the federal government make it difficult for the communes to continue to perform their tasks autonomously. According to a survey of municipal and communal administrators that has been conducted regularly since 1994, communal autonomy is steadily decreasing.
  In order to counteract this and strengthen the militia system as well as communal autonomy, the Schweizerische Gemeindeverband (Association des Communes Suiss, ACS) launched the idea of a communal referendum at the federal level in 2017. The starting point was the aforementioned considerations that the communes today are increasingly losing their scope for shaping the future. The ACS wants to prevent the communes from degenerating into a mere enforcement body of the federal government and the cantons. The association emphasises: “Communal autonomy is the bulwark against tendencies to centralise. […] When independent communes handle a significant part of public affairs, power is shared vertically. Communal autonomy puts the power of the federal government and the cantons in their place.”6 The ACS states that the specifically Swiss federalism as well as direct democracy could only be preserved if they could continue to develop their integrating effect on all three levels of government in the future. The communes must retain an independent scope of action. Only if they would have the freedom to shape their own affairs will citizens be interested in the corresponding militia duties at the communal level. How can we achieve this?
  In recent years, institutional mechanisms for the preservation of communal autonomy have indeed been developed. For example, seven cantons (Baselland, Graubünden, Jura, Lucerne, Solothurn, Ticino and Zurich) already have a “communal referendum”. This means that the communes can initiate a referendum against cantonal decrees and thus ask the people to vote on them. In the case of a communal referendum at the cantonal level, the number of communes required for a communal referendum to take place varies from canton to canton. What they all have in common is that neither a minimum number of inhabitants is stipulated nor are the population figures of the individual communes taken into account. This communal referendum strengthens the position of the communes in the canton. Decisions of the cantonal parliament that particularly affect the communes can be actively opposed by demanding a referendum.
  The ACS’s more far-reaching proposal was to introduce a communal referendum at the federal level to supplement the cantonal referendum. This would allow the people to act as arbitrators in deciding whether to approve a bill passed by the federal parliament or whether to agree with the communes. In concrete terms, the proposal was that 200 communes from at least 15 cantons should be able to submit a referendum. By means of a parliamentary initiative, CVP National Councillor Stefan Müller-Altermatt attempted in 2017 to launch the communal referendum envisioned by the ACS at the federal level. However, the National Council clearly depreciated the initiative the following year after a relatively short debate.7 In this regard, it must be asked whether, in the spirit of the subsidiarity principle and the democratic structure from the bottom up, the communal referendum should not be introduced in other cantons before it is examined at the federal level. What is certain, however, is that such debates encourage consideration of which appropriate political instruments can support the communes in Switzerland’s federal system in the future.

Republican understanding of freedom

The goal must be to strengthen the militia system and communal autonomy, so that the quality of democracy does not suffer even more and people leave the public welfare-oriented life. For it is still true that the basis of citizens’ commitment to the public good is laid in the small space of the commune. This is what makes up our republican understanding of freedom as the basis of the Swiss federalist-subsidiary system, and this should be preserved.  •

1 Roca, René. “Gemeindefusionen führen zu Demokratieverlust”. (Communl mergers lead to a loss of democracy.) In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 3 February 2021, p. 19
2 Schaltegger, Christoph A.; Studerus, Janine. “Gemeindefusionen ohne Spareffekt”. (Communal mergers without saving effect.) In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 14 March 2017, p. 9
3 Gasser, Adolf. Gemeindefreiheit als Rettung Europas. Grundlinien einer ethischen Geschichtsauffassung (Communal Freedom as Salvation for Europe. Basic lines of an ethical conception of history), Basel: Verlag Bücherfreunde, second, greatly expanded edition, 1947, p. 13
4 Gasser, Gemeindefreiheit (Communal Freedom), p. 18
5 von Wartburg, Wolfgang. Geschichte der Schweiz (History of Switzerland), München: Oldenbourg, 1951, p. 17
6 Lindegger, Reto; Müller, Andreas. “Für ein Gemeindereferendum auf Bundesebene”. (For a communal referendum at the federal level.) In: Neue Zürcher Zeitung of 12 September 2017, p. 10.

Source: First published in Schweizer Monat, May 2021 (in German),

(Translation Current Concerns)

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