The Landsgemeinde or "cantonal assembly" is one of the oldest forms of direct democracy. Formerly practiced in eight cantons of Switzerland, for practical reasons, the Landsgemeinde has been abolished in all but two cantons, where it is still the highest political institution of the canton, in Appenzell Innerrhoden and in Glarus.
The German term Landsgemeinde itself is attested from at least the 16th century, in the 1561 dictionary of Pictorius. It is a compound from Land "land, canton; rural canton" and Gemeinde "community, commune".
Eligible citizens of the canton meet on a certain day in the open air to decide on laws and expenditures by the council. Everyone can debate a question. Voting is accomplished by those in favour of a motion raising their hands. Historically, or in Appenzell until the admission of women, the only proof of citizenship necessary for men to enter the voting area was to show their ceremonial sword or Swiss military sidearm (bayonet); this gave proof that you were a freeman allowed to bear arms and to vote.
The Landsgemeinde has been the sovereign institution of the Swiss rural cantons since the later Middle Ages, while in the city-cantons such as Lucerne, Schaffhausen, or Bern, a general assembly of all citizens had never been established.
Similar assemblies in dependent territories were known under terms such as Talgemeinde (for Talschaften, used in Ursern, Hasli, Obersimmental), Teding (Engelberg), Parlamento (Leventina), Zendgemeinden (for the Zenden or districts of Valais), but also as Landsgemeinde in Toggenburg and in parts of Grisons.
The Landsgemeinde assembly is a tradition with continuity back to the later Middle Ages, first recorded in the context of the formation of the Old Swiss Confederacy. The tradition ultimately continues the Germanic thing, although not uninterruptedly, as the Alamanni had lost their independence to the Frankish Empire in the 8th century, but re-emerging in territories with imperial immediacy since the 13th century. The first Landsgemeinde proper is attested for Uri in 1231; however, these early assemblies grew as it were seamlessly out of the older institution of blood courts (assemblies with the purpose of dispensing judgement on criminal offenses, see high justice). The Middle Latin texts when recording a Landsgemeinde usually express this by making universitas "the universality", or communitas hominum "the community of men" of a certain canton the subject of a sentence (see, for example, the Federal Charter of 1291), in order to emphasize that the decision was made by the community (direct democracy) rather than by a political elite.
In the Old Swiss Confederacy, the existence of a Landsgemeinde was the defining feature of the rural cantons (Länderorte, as opposed to the city-cantons). These cantons were: Uri, Schwyz, Unterwalden (the forest-cantons), Glarus and Appenzell and Zug. Zug took an intermediate position, as it was a city-canton which due to the existence of a Landsgemeinde was also counted under the rural cantons.
With the formation of Switzerland as a federal state, the formerly sovereign cantonal assemblies became subject to federal law, and the Landsgemeinden came to be seen as anachronisms. Critics of the Landsgemeinde argued that the democratic fundamental right of anonymous voting was not ensured by this form of democracy. Schwyz and Zug abolished their assemblies in 1848, while the remaining six, those of Uri, Obwalden, Nidwalden, Glarus and both Appenzells were continued into the 20th century. Uri abolished its assembly in 1928, Obwalden, Nidwalden and Appenzell Ausserrhoden followed suit in the 1990s, so that only two Landsgemeinden survive to the present day, those of Glarus and Appenzell Innerrhoden (2013 population sizes of 36,000 and 16,000; respectively). In Appenzell Ausserrhoden, from 1877 until the abolition of the Landsgemeinde in 1997, the hymn Ode an Gott ("Ode to God") was traditionally sung at a quarter to eleven, before the beginning of the Landsgemeinde. The hymn retains the status of unofficial "national hymn" of Appenzell Ausserrhoden.
The Landsgemeinde remains a symbol of the Swiss tradition of direct democracy. A fresco in the Federal Palace of Switzerland, commissioned in 1907 and completed in 1914 by Albert Welti and Wilhelm Balmer, shows a Landsgemeinde (the foreground shows the site of the Nidwalden Landsgemeinde near Stans while the landscape in the background depicts the view from the site of the Landsgemeinde of Obwalden in Sarnen).
Notes and references
- Stadler (2008)
- last assembly of the Landgemeinde on May 6, 1928. History of Schattdorf. The Landsgemeinde of Uri took place in Bötzlingen in the commune of Schattdorf.
- Obwalden: abolished by ballot vote on November 29, 1998. Botschaft über die Gewährleistung der geänderten Verfassungen der Kantone Zürich, Obwalden, Solothurn, Waadt und Genf, Bundesblatt 1999, p. 5405. Nidwalden: abolished by ballot vote on December 1, 1996. Parlamentarische Initiative..., p. 5. See also Ruch, A.: Grundzüge der Rechtslehre, lecture notes, ETH Zürich, 2005; p. 16. Appenzell Ausserrhoden: abolished by ballot vote on September 28, 1997; Constitution of the Canton Appenzell Outer Rhodes, footnotes on p. 13. the last Landsgemeinde was on April 27, 1997. See Law No. 241.1 of the canton of Appenzell Outer Rhodes, subtitle, for the date. Also compare Bendix, J.: Brauchtum und Politik: Die Landsgemeinde in Appenzell Ausserrhoden, ISBN 3-85882-150-0.
- incipit Alles Leben strömt aus Dir "All life emanates from You", composed 1825 by Johann Heinrich Tobler to a poem by Karoline Rudolphi
- Hanspeter Strebel, «Alles Leben strömt aus Dir» seit 1877 Tagblatt Online, 26. April 2007 00:30:59
- Vincent Golay and Mix et Remix, Swiss political institutions, Éditions loisirs et pédagogie, 2008. ISBN 978-2-606-01295-3.
- Alfred Kölz: Current Cantonal Constitutions in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
- Hans Stadler: Landsgemeinde in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
- Moser-Léchot, D. V.: Die Alte Eidgenossenschaft im 18. Jahrhundert, lecture notes, University of Berne, p. 12.
- Schaub, Hans-Peter: Maximising Direct Democracy – by Popular Assemblies or by Ballot Votes?, Swiss Political Science Review (volume 18, issue 3), 2012.
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