Freedom in the World 2006


In 2005, Switzerland finally signed an agreement with the European Union (EU) on the free movement of labor and cooperation in justice and home affairs. Domestic politics were marked by tensions between the right-wing Swiss People's Party (SVP), in government for the first time, and other parties.

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. For this reason, membership in international institutions has long been a controversial issue in Switzerland. The country is surrounded by members of the 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 features 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 Free Democratic Party (FDP), and the center-right Christian Democratic People's Party (CVP). Traditionally, these last three parties held two seats each in the seven-member Federal Council (cabinet), with the SVP holding just one. However, the SVP's vote share increased gradually over the 1990s-in correspondence with a rightward move by the party-as it poached voters initially from small far-right parties and then increasingly from the FDP.

During the October 2003 legislative election, the SVP made blatantly xenophobic appeals, including running 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 captured the largest share of the vote, while the SP finished just behind the SVP. The CVP received just under 15 percent of the vote, barely half the total of the SVP.

With this success, the SVP leader, Christoph Blocher, called for a second Federal Council seat for his party. Blocher demanded that he and another minister be appointed to the council, with a seat being taken from the CVP. After extensive negotiations, the other parties agreed. In late 2003, Blocher joined the cabinet as head of the Federal Department of Justice and Police, and the CVP lost a cabinet seat. The inclusion of the SVP has brought new tensions into the Swiss cabinet, for example, over a tightening of asylum laws pushed by Blocher and over justice and home affairs issues.

In June 2005, a package of bilateral accords with the EU finally passed in a referendum, approved by 55 percent of Swiss voters, after years of negotiation. Switzerland joined the Schengen area-a passport-free travel zone consisting of two other non-EU countries (Norway and Iceland) and 13 of 25 EU countries. The accord will also deepen Switzerland's cooperation with the EU in handling asylum seekers, as well as issues of justice and home affairs. In September, a second referendum passed with 56 percent approval, extending the free movement of labor to the 10 countries that joined the EU in 2004 (mostly post-Communist countries from Central and Eastern Europe). Although the SVP opposed both referendums, including running xenophobic advertising campaigns, Blocher as justice minister will have no choice but to go along with the new agreements.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens of Switzerland can change their government demo-cratically. 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, with 200 members serving four-year terms.

The Federal Council (cabinet) 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 main parties are the center-left SP, the right-wing FDP, the right-wing populist SVP, and the center-right CVP.

The government is free from pervasive corruption. However, the country has traditionally drawn criticism for its banking-secrecy laws, which financial watchdogs claim enable money laundering and other crimes. In the International Monetary Fund's 2004 report on its annual consultation with Switzerland, the fund praised Switzerland for toughening laws on money laundering and terrorist financing in 2003. Switzerland was ranked 7 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Freedom of expression is guaranteed by the constitution. Switzerland has a free media environment, although 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, and most cantons support one or several churches. The country is split roughly between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism, although there are now officially more than 300,000 Muslims (and perhaps many more undocumented), forming the largest non-Christian minority in Switzerland. 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. Scientologists face other legal obstacles, such as difficulty establishing private schools. Academic freedom is respected.

Freedom of assembly and association is respected in practice, and civil society is especially active in Switzerland. The right to collective bargaining is respected, and approximately 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.

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. The Swiss constitution guarantees equal pay to men and women for work of equal value, but pay differentials remain as a result of general inequality. The national council has 52 women among its 200 members, which is above the European average.

2006 Scores



Freedom Rating

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Civil Liberties

(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Political Rights

(1 = best, 7 = worst)